10 Lessons From 10 Years: Everything Will Be OK

Welcome to lesson 10 from ALA CEO Chris Bradford’s reflections on lessons learned over the past 10 years of establishing Africa’s leading educational institution.

‘We must believe that we are capable of endless learning and growth, and recognize failures as opportunities for improvement.’

LESSON NUMBER TEN: Everything Will Be OK (as long as you keep learning and stay positive)

We’ve encountered our fair share of difficulties over the past ten years. We’ve had lots of tough days – days in which we’ve received harsh feedback or nearly run out of cash. We’ve also had our share of bad days – days in which we’ve lost members of our tight-knit Academy community. Our growth has brought inevitable and unexpected challenges of all kinds.

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One of my colleagues is fond of saying that “it takes a decade to truly accomplish anything”. Weathering a decade of entrepreneurial ups and downs requires two things: (1) a growth mindset; and (2) pathological optimism. Everything will be OK – as long as we keep learning and stay positive.

Growth Mindset

On campus, we often talk about the importance of inculcating a “growth mindset” in our students – and we seek evidence of this kind of mindset when we select our students and staffulty. We must believe that we are capable of endless learning and growth, and recognize failures as opportunities for improvement.

Our colleagues in the Entrepreneurial Leadership Department have championed this idea across the Academy as “Failing Forward”. If we see failure as an opportunity, every one of our bad days represents an opportunity to be stronger, smarter, and better in the future. One of the most wonderful things about working in an educational institution is the opportunity to embrace and model this kind of learning every day.

Learned Optimism

But how do we learn to experience crushing failure or tremendous disappointment as opportunity? This is where “Learned Optimism,” a term coined by Martin Seligman, comes into play. We must see our cup as half full, and believe that tomorrow can and will be a new and better day – even when we acknowledge that today has been pretty awful, or that we made a significant mistake.

A few years ago, we needed to hire someone into a senior role – in which we knew they would confront challenges organizing their team and embedding systems. When I called the person’s references, one thing stood out: he was described as “pathologically positive.” Shortly after he joined us, we faced a major crisis on campus. It was exactly this pathological optimism that carried us through the crisis and enabled ALA to emerge stronger.

Keep Learning and Stay Positive

As I survey our organization after ten years of ups and downs, it seems that those who have built the most joyful careers at ALA are those who model these practices. They make plenty of mistakes. They acknowledge them. They embrace learning and believe that things will be OK. Their optimism radiates joy even in chaotic moments, and they tend to make new mistakes from year to year – rather than repeating old ones.

Cynics and pessimists have struggled. When the glass always feels “half empty”, it is difficult to keep going.

As a leader, I must find ways to embed these traits in the institution. How can ALA exude a growth mindset, and demonstrate optimism about our future – and about Africa’s future? We must acknowledge failures, but not let them define us as a failure. 2018 has been our best year yet. 2019 will be even better.

What failures or challenges have you experienced recently? How did you experience them as opportunities for growth?

How do you model optimism? How do you refuel your sense of optimism in difficult times?

Who models growth mindset and learned optimism in your team? How do you celebrate these traits?

Postscript: This marks my tenth of ten lessons for institution building, but not my final blog. I have enjoyed these reflections and your feedback, and look forward to continuing to blog in 2019!

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