[Life Back West – April 2010] Spring Auction

Spring – the season, not the motion or mechanical element – signals rebirth for some as well as new starts for others. It was the latter that was on my mind as I used my “alumni card” to attend the fundraising auction this month at The Little School, my son’s former preschool in San Francisco.

Schools hold auctions to raise money, and there is nothing like a good party, people you know, and the prospect of a great bargain to get people to spend. Throw in a really good cause – in this case raising funds for financial aid for the approximately 18% of families who receive aid at the school – and the evening’s pretty complete. Add the fact that the place seems to be doing quite well in your absence now that you’ve rolled off the board thank you, and it’s a real source of pride.

Apart from having a few alums like me in the mix, this auction also had a few new families that will be incoming in the Fall that attended. Too new to understand the norms of the school, or even usually to know many people, the new folks stick out in a subtle sort of way.

In the craziness of what’s become of childhood education in San Francisco, the Little School stands out for its commitment to broad diversity, including socio-economic diversity and holding, by design, spots for kids with identified special needs. While nationally something like 10% of kids attend private or parochial schools, the number in San Francisco is three times higher at 30%. Competition for schools – particularly what folks may think is the “right school” – as if there really is such a thing – is fierce. The experience at Little School is typical: many apply, few get in.

It’s the luxury of having been lucky to have our son attend such a program that this night I can relax and see how the new entrants experience their soon-to-be surroundings. Unlike the Jim Hightower line – sometimes mistakenly credited to Ann Richards – about George H. Bush – “he was born on third base but thinks he hit a triple,” my job as a parent is to make sure my big little guy works and plays hard, learns that life is about trying, and knows that you don’t end up on third base unless you go around first and second. Oh, and that it also helps to enjoy playing the game simply for the sheer joy of it, an idea that Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has advanced.

Csikszentmihalyi believes that there are 8 elements correlated with being in a flow-state leading to heightened performance, including a lack of self conciousness and authentic enjoyment. Add the other six elements in the mix and you increase the opportunity of having those zen like experiences of performing well and being lost in the moment. It’s true in work – like my coaching with execs and teams – and it’s also true in personal life like parenting or simply play.

It’s those two elements of flow that come to mind as one of the new parents – clearly still in their “eager to impress, who’s in charge” mode chat me up when they find out I’ve been here, loved the experience, was on the board, and now am gone. Sometimes it’s a blessing not to know how hard it is to do something so you can sit back and enjoy it. In the case of this new family the drive to continue trying to impress hasn’t stopped. I was tempted to tell them they could relax, that they were in the school and no one was going to take their spot away but my hunch is it would have done little good.

DNA can be hardwired, and as a venture capitalist and a competitive one at that, this person’s hardwiring was clearly evident. Though a place like Little School is great for kids, it’s sometimes – as it might well be in this case –  be even better for what rubs off on the kid’s parents. Those two Flow elements mentioned above- a lack of self self conciousness and authentic enjoyment – will  come in handy for this parent if they are learned.

There are experiences that you have that wash off easily, and never really stick. And then there are some  that inform you for a lifetime. I got lucky too at Little School, and though the school was really good for my son and family, the experiences were richly rewarding for me.

All you have to do is let them.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.