Students and Identity Building

The final of the three questions:

In your opinion, how do students build an identity?  What kind of learning experiences are necessary?  What is a school’s responsibility (or a teacher’s) in helping students develop character and identity?

“There are three ways of trying to win the young. There is persuasion. There is compulsion. There is attraction. You can preach at them; that is a hook without a worm. You can say “You must volunteer; that is the devil. And you can tell them, ‘You are needed.’ That appeal hardly ever fails.” Kurt Hahn

Parable of the Good Samaritan
Parable of the Good Samaritan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kurt Hahn’s genius was collecting together ideas surrounding helping young people be their best possible self. He was inspired by three things: A mother who implicitly believed in the innate goodness of people. The work of Plato who insisted it was more important that education build character than transmit knowledge. Finally, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Character is observable and based on behaviors. What do you do when faced with a given situation? The Good Samaritan obviously is a demonstration of impeccable character. Hahn like most teachers asked what allows someone to act in this way?

English: Simon Sinek speaking at TEDx Maastric...
English: Simon Sinek speaking at TEDx Maastricht in the Netherlands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I have enjoyed reading a book by Simon Sinek called Start with Why. Sinek suggests that there is a simple formula (the Golden Circle) that leaders can use to inspire others. He explains that while most people will tell you what they do and occasionally how they do it. Great leaders start by explaining why. They tell you of their values, the single cause or belief that serves as a unifying, driving force for them as an individual or organization. They then tell you how; the principles or actions that will bring their why to life. These are strategies and actions to be performed. Finally they tell you what. These are the results or measures which are tangible and obvious to others on completion.

English: A diagram of what Simon Sinek calls '...
English: A diagram of what Simon Sinek calls ‘The Golden Circle’. In his TEDx talk, he says ‘People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like the model because it is a simple way of looking at something quite complex. How do you make sure that people understand you? How do you help a group to achieve significance? It also is a neat way of exploring identity and its result; character. Ultimately, identity is your why. When you know your values, when you understand your beliefs then, and only then can you make things happen in a meaningful way. Without them you are paralyzed. This paralysis is Erik Erikson’s Identity Crisis, a condition which seems to be currently rampant. The how depicts your character and the what measures it. Traditionally we think of identity as being who you are. It is framed by occupation, culture, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation. My belief is that we know who we are when we know why we do things and we align with people and cultures when we see similarities in our belief systems. Traditionally belief systems have been handed down to us by parents and communities (school, religion). At a later age we choose to accept or denounce them.  Increasingly, children are faced with defining their own beliefs at an earlier age because they are exposed to so many through television and other media. As Barry Schwarz suggests, choice is supposed to bring about freedom and yet the “Paradox of Choice” is that it is overwhelming and does exactly the opposite. We know who we are only when we understand why we feel the things we feel.

“It is not easy to construct by mere scientific synthesis a foolproof system which will lead our children in a desired direction and avoid an undesirable one. Obviously, good can come only from a continuing interplay between that which we, as students, are gradually learning and that which we believe in, as people.” Erik Erickson

IMGP1295So how do we help young people build their identity and what exactly is the responsibility of the teacher in this arena? For me the most important thing we can do is ask why? In the spirit of Toyota’s manufacturing process (the Five Why’s), exploring the answer to why with another why draws out richer thinking. When you ask why five or more times then usually the topic is explored more fully and a kernel is reached. I never want to force an opinion on a young person, I do however want them to explore their own ideas.

“Without self-discovery, a person may still have self confidence, but it is a self confidence built on ignorance and it melts in the face of heavy burdens. Self discovery is the end product of a great challenge mastered, when the mind commands the body to do the seemingly impossible, when courage and strength are summoned to extraordinary limits for the sake of something outside the self–a principle, an onerous task, another human life.” Kurt Hahn

IMG_0199I also align with Hahn concerning self discovery. I have learned the most about myself when I have had to struggle. Erikson and James Marcia; who developed his work, also agree that “crises” are required to move along the continuum of developing an identity. The groups that I have joined and found identity within were often based on developing large amounts of trust because I had to. When a student is rock climbing belayed by his / her classmates he / she is faced with addressing his / her trust of the people holding their rope. When they are safely lowered to the ground it is easy to know why they can trust them. This is a good time to ask the belayers why they wanted to be trustworthy and everyone how trusting and being trusted felt.

Will095.tifRobust identity is built when a variety of identities are experimented with and then one committed to. It can also change significantly given sufficient external influence. For instance value systems and beliefs are likely to be modified following a parental divorce or a violent assault.

As a teacher I am particularly interested in three sets of identities: the identity of the individuals in the group, the identity of the group / class and the identity of the school. Anything I can do to help pupils understand why:

  • They do the things they do
  • The group is valuable to them
  • The school reflects what the individuals like about themselves

IMG_0152Is a valuable lesson. The more experiences I can shape that have them reflect on these questions either formally or otherwise will help them figure out who they are and what they are going to do to show people who they are. If I ask how they want to be known and why and then what do they need to do to be seen that way, it will help them make good choices. I have always liked Steven Covey’s activity of thinking about your 80th birthday party, you are surrounded by those you admire and love. They are saying wonderful things about you. What do you hear them say? Likewise I often ask students to provide bullet points of what they will want me to write as a reference for them. I then hold them to the behaviors that reflect what they wrote.

My experience is that outdoor activities and nature always accelerates the process of creating identity and make it more poignant. Service especially when it means hardship for the person serving provides a realistic framework for exploring values. Given less time then well designed games and activities can serve as kinesthetic metaphors which help explore these ideas in a meaningful way, especially when I have chosen them using Sinek’s Golden Circle.

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Adventure and Learning

The second question of three.

In your experience, how does adventure learning contribute to a student’s academic and personal growth? Please address both types of growth.

Expeditions can greatly contribute towards building strength of character. Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim tells us that it is necessary for a youth to experience events which ‘reveal the inner worth of the man; the edge of his temper; the fibre of his stuff; the quality of his resistance; the secret truth of his pretenses, not only to himself but others.” Kurt Hahn

IMGP0046Recently a colleague has been dealing with a lot of bad luck. Following bankruptcy he had been clawing his way back by building a branding consultancy, just as things were starting to fall into place his partner ran with the money and accounts. Why am I telling you this in regards to adventure education? Well this gentleman used to sail big yachts and seeing him peering over the precipice of depression I decided to have a chat with him about his passion. We shared stories of dealing with duress outdoors and failing in life as depicted by a modern consumerist paradigm. We talked about how being in “adventurous situations” we did not whine, we just dealt with whatever circumstances were thrown at us. We did not find people to blame, we lived as our best selves. When we are functioning well we bring the lessons that we have learned outdoors into this modern conundrum that we call living. As we talked about John the outdoorsman vs John the business man a light started to shine in his eyes. As he remembered who he is outdoors he recognized who he can be in any other situation. He left our conversation with a renewed resolve that was wonderful to watch.

B Tech 1008Kurt Hahn was particularly impelled to bring Outdoor Education into his pedagogy because he believed that society was becoming diseased and that expeditions were one of the best form of therapy for the post industrial malaise he saw growing in Nazi Germany. The Salem School; Hahn’s first opportunity to practice his thinking, set out to to train young people to have moral independence, an ability to choose between “right and wrong,” and an improvement in their physical health. It strikes me that this is just as necessary today in America as it was then in Germany.

“We discovered that expedition training and expedition tests counteracted the unhealthy effect of undeserved hero worship. Not a few specialist athletes revealed in adversity a certain flabbiness of will-power which was well hidden in their ordinary life. The expeditions were sometimes of an arduous nature – long treks in the Alps, exploratory expeditions to Iceland and on the Payenne and the Seima Lakes in Finland. Again and again the average and even clumsy athlete excelled on such expeditions…” Kurt Hahn

IMG_0688This is a large part of my motivation to teach in the outdoors in that not only am I a “clumsy athlete” I also appreciate the contemplative nature of outdoor folk. Nature shows us that we are part of something much bigger than ourself which leads to the Eastern thinking that we are all connected. Anything I do to something or someone else ultimately affects me. This fosters a desire to nurture as ultimately I will also be nurtured. I feel this is the best way to bring about social justice and heal the evident issues we face in the West as demonstrated in an Aurora movie theater last year.

626546211_MzSPU-LA number of years ago Robert Fulgham wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I feel the same way about the outdoors. Relevancy and reality are amazing motivators when it comes to learning and the outdoors caters to both. I have yet to meet a student who having been advised to bring a jacket because it will be wet and cold, shown how to cook a meal and praised for a cooperative behavior and its benefit to the group does not open to my teaching.

A shared experience outdoors inevitably develops meaning that is understood and a connection between the teacher and students involved. I still feel strong ties to all the teachers who took me outdoors.

IMGP0695The raised level of engagement and cooperation that adventure demands opens a door to explore concepts that may normally be shut out by cultural demands. The idea of “I am not a mathematician” is usually left behind when we introduce math for navigation. Understanding the current group dynamic is brought alive by history and the stories it contains, even if history is deemed useless in another arena.

Adventure though is so much more. Students have to learn to deal with feelings of uncertainty (I argue that this is the very definition of adventure) and the cognitive dissonance it creates. The vulnerability that is felt emotionally is the very same state that creates significant learning and this learning transfers to other areas of life both personal and academic. As soon as someone believes they are a learner they gain the self confidence to learn anything. In particular we focus on problem solving skills, value clarification, communication, cooperation, leadership, decision making and continuums like the distinctions between right and wrong or needs and wants. All of which define both a person and that person as a life long learner.

IMG_0001b (39)I once taught a Canyon Orientation class. In the interest of transparency I need to disclose that not only did I know very little about canyons and traveling through them I also felt completely uncomfortable in a desert ecosystem. When I thought of the arid lands of the South West I was filled with dread as everything appeared prickly, cruel, uncomfortable and full of venom. Obviously this feeling is based on my perception because I knew plenty of people who felt the polar opposite to me. The course was taught over two long weekends and as I drove the bus to Delta for the first time I was worried. What did I have to teach these people when I was a fraud?

IMG_0074We rose early the first morning and walked to the entrance of the Dominguez Canyon. Prior to entering I asked the students to sit silently for half an hour and just be. We talked about the sensations and feeling we experienced in this time and it was obvious that others had felt the same as I had. It was also evident that none of those negative emotions existed any more. Knowing nothing about the natural history, I told them the story of William Smith and the creation of the first geological map, how when he started there were no names or published ideas and yet how observing patterns he had made sense of the earth’s formation. I asked them to walk alone, then in pairs and finally in fours to observe and reflect on the patterns that they saw in the geology. We then came up with questions we wanted answered and expanded those to other areas of the natural history. That week they were all tasked with researching some of the group’s questions and preparing presentations and handouts before our return. The result was incredible.

“It is the sin of the soul to force young people into opinions – indoctrination is of the devil – but it is culpable neglect not to impel young people into experiences.” Kurt Hahn

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Self Esteem and Academic Achievement

I was recently asked to answer three questions, here is my thinking on the first.

In your teaching experience, which comes first: self-esteem or academic achievement? Explain your reasoning and how you approach these issues intentionally in your classroom.

Possunt, quia posse videntur.” Virgil

Literally: “They are able because they seem (are seen) to be able.”

TrearddurThere is a period of my life on which I look back most fondly. It is a time of real childhood where every day contributed to my growing sense of me, every day led to learning and I just knew that I was capable of what I set my mind to. During this time I was also academically successful, although I do not remember much about it. It was just part of what we did. Not long after this experience everything changed completely. “Could do better!” became a clarion call and ultimately it became my truth. I remember classes from this time because I hated them and was failing.

So what was different? Basically a change in schools. The first used Virgil’s words as it’s motto – “they can because they think they can”. Every teacher lived and breathed this simple edict and so did the pupils. The result was significant and explains why I find self fulfillment prophecy thinking so compelling.

Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968) report and discuss the Pygmalion Effect in the classroom at length. In their study, they showed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from some children, then the children did indeed show that enhancement. Six years later my teachers were anecdotally proving them right. Conversely Feldman & Prohaska (1979) sought to discover if the Pygmalion Effect could occur in reverse with the Gollum Effect. If my experiences are evidence then the teachers in the second school had beaten them to it.

4-Day Treck 1999092The last four years I spent in the UK I took the reins of a two year college course. Both year groups spent two days a week at the center where I worked and I had the great fortune of not only shaping the curriculum of this outdoor leadership class; I was also a significant presence in the student’s lives. I particularly loved watching the slope shouldered 16 year olds, beaten down by a school system that had failed them visibly straighten their posture over two years. My goal with the course was that we catered to three sets of needs. Firstly, that alums had the wherewithal to function well as novice outdoor instructors. Secondly, that we provided the skills for a successful transition to and exit from college. Finally, that they had the people and organizational skills to perform well in middle management positions. Invariably, by focusing on increasing their self-esteem and helping them to figure out who they were and where they fit in we were successful.

B Tech 1072So what did it look like? Firstly, the program started by being very structured, experiences were designed to create specific learning. In particular we helped students reflect and give each other feedback on what they were doing well and what they liked about themselves and each other. We made sure that while events were challenging they were accomplished. With these foundations in place, the students were given more autonomy and the ability to falter and then improve. We avoided words like failure and instead referred to opportunities and growth. We set up a cohort that depended on each other and consequently learned from and taught each other. In summary, the first year was scripted and culminated in a three month work experience for which they felt prepared. On their return the following year the students chose an expedition as a closure experience. We offered to staff it for up to a month and yet provided nothing else. The year was then spent planning and preparing for this expedition along with other project based work.

Untitled-17My final expedition involved sea kayaking above the arctic circle in Norway’s Lyngen Alps and mountaineering in the Romsdal region. We each contributed $150 to the venture and then the students set about organizing and collecting resources and developing the necessary skills. Witnessing students who mere months previously shrank as a they spoke to an adult, now on the phone to the CEO of a large organization telling him why he needed to donate money / resources, etc. and what he was going to receive in return was beautiful to behold. The work that these students produced was magnificent. For instance we had one project where with limited guidance / preparation and no resources students were asked to make a piece of outdoor equipment that they would use and document the process. Invariably, I was blown away, be it by a home made wood strip canoe, or waterproof bib pants that were manufactured commercially by the factory which had been approached to help create the prototype. The written work was always outstanding and the presentation of work incredible.

ROUND ANGLESEY44The Pygmalion Effect suggests that if a teacher believes in and has high expectations of a student, then that student will have belief in and have high expectations of him / herself. With this self belief magic is possible. Catching students doing things right and being successful and building on this success is the route to a culture of anything being possible.

20130419-124453.jpgWhen I watch my eight year old son ski, the thing that most affects his performance is confidence. I cannot make him confident. However, by controlling the environment (taking him on routes that alternately challenge and show him what he is capable of) and the way I talk to him we create an accelerated learning curve. If I spend time asking him what he is proud of rather then telling him “good job” or some equally empty accolade then he learns to look at himself and see what he perceives as being good. If I ask him what he is thankful for, he sees what is good in the world, when he is a good person in a good world it motivates him to be successful.

IMGP1356Tying in neatly with this is the concept of creating a vision. When I want rowdy, discombobulated kids to be triumphant I start by telling them they are going to be successful because… and list behaviors that are going to help them. They nearly always display these behaviors and come away feeling accomplished. Likewise some years ago I was a ski instructor in a small resort. One experiment I wish I had attempted was to acquire four jackets each distinctively colored. I wanted to film four colleagues ski well in four different styles while wearing one of these different colored jackets. I am convinced that following a morning on the hill if I showed the video and then asked the clients which person they wanted to ski like and then provided them with the corresponding jacket for the afternoon that I would have seen a marked improvement in their skiing and that they would have skied like the person they admired.

IMGP1266People and children in particular can do anything that they set their mind to and believe they can. I say children in particular because they have not had so many conflicting experiences. Self belief, creativity and tools for happiness are the best gifts a teacher can nurture. Everything else falls in to place when these corner stones are set properly.

“There is more in us than we know if we could be made to see it; perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.” Kurt Hahn

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Finding Your Brave

Cai and I went climbing last Friday. What interests me is that he did not really want to go; I had to work hard to encourage him. This sometimes happens, the thing is that once we find ourselves outside he loves it. Watching him move over the rock on a beautiful, sunny fall day in one of my favorite places in Colorado was pure bliss. The smile that covered his face was one of a person fully engaged in the moment and loving it. Watching my boy enjoying doing things that are special to me in places that are special to me ranks as one of the best feelings I know. Learning the tools to make them happen is therefore important.

The first thing I have to come to terms with as I learn my ways of motivating Cai is that he is often a mirror of my actions. I am known to sabotage my enjoyment because I think something else is more important. How can I expect my son to be any different from the example that he sees? So yet again it seems that teaching starts with empathy and compassion and then requires a healthy dose of making the changes I want to see in my students in myself first. I also fall foul of not allowing myself to see the pleasure that is available in the situation at hand, I almost imprison myself in a preconceived mindset. That day as I watched Cai embrace the rock and sunshine, as he allowed himself to ignore the emotions he predicted he was going to experience I realized it was he who was doing the teaching.

So I now have a big note to self. I am going to make sure that we get outside more often. The more we allow ourselves to find the fun and beauty in a moment, the more we are going to find that same fun and beauty in every situation and this is a lesson I want both of us to live.

That evening following an afternoon of climbing and watching trout swim in the shadows of the creek I had a familiar feeling; one I do not allow myself to feel enough these days. It is a warmth and satisfaction that comes from having an optimal experience; the same concept as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow. It comes from being brave enough to surrender completely to the moment. It is most easily found when doing something one is passionate about and yet it can be found in the most mundane occasions if we allow ourselves to be truly present. The topping on Cai’s and my cake was that we both slept the sleep of warriors, content and spent. Finding our brave may be one of the most beneficial things we can do. How do you find yours?


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Haka, teams and energy

Haka of the All Blacks before the match agains...
Image via Wikipedia

As a way of helping my students learn each other’s name I often use an activity I know as the Haka. Have you ever seen the New Zealand Rugby team (the All Blacks) at the beginning of a match? They perform a Maori dance that certainly makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and probably scares the living daylights out of their opponents. I usually show the students a couple of short videos to mentally prepare them for the experience, the first is a performance of a Haka, the second is of a Maori explaining the words and describing its significance. What I love about the second clip is that the Haka is explained as “a collective frenzy”, “a unified front”. As my students shout their name accompanied by an aggressive gesture their call is followed by the refrain of all their peers. We go round in a circle and an intimacy is created by sharing something that may be a little uncomfortable to some.

Last night I witnessed the same zeal; I currently work for a company that creates and harnesses this energy. The good news is that they choose to invest in their people’s development and the room was filled with more than 120 people all there on the company’s dime. For two hours we investigated our strengths and weaknesses using a framework of competencies. We were encouraged to take these findings and contemplate them in relation to where we wanted to go in the company, and we were shown and practiced how to give and receive feedback. All this was interspersed with a “collective frenzy”, clapping and hollering creating a “unified front”.

It is exciting to work / study somewhere that invests in ramping up the energy and helping their people to feel a group bonding experience. Are there times when you have felt this kind of frenzy and connection? What do you currently do to create unity?

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Life & Learning to Ski

I think Cai is lucky, he has one on one ski lessons with an experienced outdoors person and children’s ski instructor – his dad.

More to the point his progression has been wonderful. First of all we spent a little time with him between my legs, feeling the way they went from side to side, experiencing his edges biting the snow and constantly being reminded of the mantra, “across the hill s-l-o-w, down the hill FAST>>>!” 

Next step was the hula-hoop, Cai inside it with me behind. This gave us a little distance, I helped him learn about rotational turns and his speed was checked. When comfortable with that we moved onto the magic wand, a 3 1/2 foot piece of dowel wrapped in duck tape to create 2 opposing cones and then covered in hockey tape to give it grip. This is a great tool as it is multi purpose, sometimes we ski side by side and I am able to accelerate him round the turns so he feels the forces of carving. It is also also a great safety rail when the chairs are lacking them and a lurk for him to pole on the flats. Along with this are the myriad of games we can play.

Armed with the wand we are able to drop into half pipes and he knows what it feels like to jump – he loves flying. Last year he hit a period when he was a little reticent, so we spent some time on magic carpet, to begin with he wanted the wand, however, after a while I was able to engage him in chase play. By being a crocodile I was able to come up on his outside shoulder and he instinctively turned away from me. By going from side to side we forced his turns and after a while of this he asked to go back on the “flying chairs”. On the way down he stated we were going into the terrain park, I reminded him that I was not willing to use the pole on the big jumps and he told me that was ok. It required commitment to gain the park as they had done a nice job of fencing and berming it off; he skied right in, turned and contoured the hill for a while while looking at the jumps, he then just turned down hill and “pointed them”. I watched him hit the first jump and pump his legs clearing some great air before he landed it and disappeared from sight. I had to skate frantically, wondering what Kimberly was going to say if he got hurt. By the time he hit the second jump his speed was outrageous and there was some hesitation, this time the landing was not so elegant. I came in below worried as only a parent can be to see a smiling face, “its ok dad, I don’t need the rescue rangers”.

That afternoon he overturned and started skiing backwards, he looked at me for a minute to see if I was going to give him the ok before deciding he did not care what I thought because he was enjoying it. He proceeded to do lovely turns all the way into the lift line.

So why is this so great? Well normally we teach a snow plough early in the progression. The call of “pizza, pizza, french fries” is a familiar one to any skiing parent. I struggle with this because we are teaching that control has to be forced. Rather than harnessing natural power, we demonstrate fighting it and all of this has to be unlearned later. If instead we choose our environment wisely, and learn patterns and laws of nature playfully we come away both far wiser and far happier. If having gained suitable understanding we intentionally surrender ourselves to these laws that is when we have optimal experiences.

How much of what you are doing at the moment feels like fighting? Is there a way to feel like you are going with the flow?

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Moving Forward: Vision, goals & strategies

You are what your deep, driving desire is,

As your desire is, so is your will, 

As your will is, so is your deed,

As your deed is, so is your destiny.

– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.4.5

Last Friday I gave a presentation for Colorado Bar Association Leadership Training. It was a wonderful opportunity to work with twenty bright and driven individuals who will make great contributions to their communities. It was also a fantastic reminder of how fun my work is. I am the guy who makes their point through play; games serving as a metaphor to inspire deep thought and provide learning to transfer into real world examples. The theme of the day was goal setting and creating strategy and I spent some time figuring out my learning outcomes (teacher’s goals) for the session and games to play that might ensure they were met. Coming on in the latter half of the afternoon I had the pleasure of listening to others including an entertaining Troy Mumford from Colorado State University who had an engaging way of presenting his top strategy tips for leaders.

So why the big build up to a simple story? Well following listening to those that preceded me I recognized that my job was not only to promote my ideas, it was also important that I support the thoughts of those that went before me. I also knew that I needed to walk my talk and model what I was talking about.

So over lunch I frantically rejigged what I was going to do leaving out the visually stimulating powerpoint that had taken a few hours to prepare. And now to the point of all of this. The thing that allowed me to be flexible was that I was following my own advice with regards to goal setting. The process works most efficiently when there is a funneling effect. Start with a vision statement which defines purpose in terms of values, while this is probably the hardest stage it eases the rest of the process. By knowing what your values are and the purpose of what you intend to do, then setting goals is a fairly straightforward process and once you have goals figuring out strategies to make them happen seems intuitive.

With a vision in place I felt comfortable editing my goals as I heard and saw what went before me. The strategies (games) for reaching those goals were manipulated without undue stress and I was able to listen to my audience laugh as they created their learning.

Save yourself from spinning gears and living in a state of being overwhelmed, start out with a vision, move on to goals and finally figure out your strategies. Or in the words of  Max DePree and I love this bold statement.

Beliefs come before policies or standards or practices. Practice without belief is a forlorn existence. Managers who have no beliefs but only understand methodology and quantification are modern day eunuchs. They can never engender competence or confidence. They can never be truly intimate.

Max DePree from Art is Leadership

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