Over the years, I have met a lot of good students.   I have met far fewer great students.  

Over the years, I have met a lot of good teachers.   I have met far fewer great teachers.

Occasionally, students swing by my office to ask how they can become great college students.   They feel that they are good, probably even very good.   But, they know they are not great.   At least, they are not yet great.

Occasionally, emails arrive from teachers around the country who ask about becoming great teachers.   They feel that they are good, probably even very good.   But they know they are not great.   At least, they are not yet great.  

Of course, many people are interested in how to move from good to great.   Jim Collins has managed to earn a fortune by writing fascinating books about companies that make the transition.   I am more interested in people who succeed in the crucial move from good to great.  It does happen but, from my vantage point, not often enough.  I sometimes refer to this as “stuck on good.”  

When someone asks me about going from good to great, I often relate a story that I first heard years ago.   Despite being an oldie, it does an excellent job of drawing attention to an important truth.    (With the recent ups and downs in the stock market, the punch line of this story doesn’t exactly hold true today but you should still get the point.)  

Here is the story I like to convey.   A very rich person goes to the best grad schools around the world and hires ten of the most outstanding recent MBA grads.   He brings them into his organization and reads out specific instructions.   “I’m going to allow each of you to manage and invest $500,000 in cash.   At the end of one year, I will award the person who has made the most profit with a bonus of $250,000.”   The young MBAs grow excited because they all believe they are destined to win that big pile of money as their reward.

After 15 minutes of intense thinking, each of the ten new hires rushes out of the room to go buy shares of Apple.  

The rich person looks at an assistant and whispers “Once again, I just saved $250,000.”  

Over the years, under normal conditions, buying Apple has been a very good investment strategy.   However, if you truly want to stand out as great, you have to do something that is different from the crowd.   We are all just average until we do something that is unique.  You cannot be noticed by doing things exactly like everyone else—even if the strategy is a good one.  

People want to believe they can become great by doing what everyone else around them is doing.   I have met a lot of people with that belief.  That will not work.

Inevitably, you must be willing to take a risk and do something different.   To be great, you must try something that others have not dared to do.   And, that opens you up to risk.   If you shoot for greatness, you must be willing to accept the possibility of failure.  I am not talking about ridiculous risk.   I am talking about a considered, acceptable level of risk.   You will never be great at anything—you will never stand out from any crowd—if you avoid all risk by simply blending in.

Okay, when is the last time, in your teaching, that you tried something that was truly original?   Maybe a better question is:   What are you going to try this semester?   Always be on the watch for something different to do.  What can I change?   What needs to be improved?   What would a possible improvement look like?   What positive benefits might accrue?   What are the real risks?  

What can you do this semester in your classes that will make you stand out?   You want to walk the halls of your school and overhear colleagues whispering about you:   “Did you hear what that guy tried in his class?   I hear it was amazing!!   I plan to try it myself next semester.”  That is the ultimate compliment.

There is an interesting term that you might hear occasionally in business:   fast follower.   It refers to a person (or a company) who watches others for innovations.   If those innovations seem to work, they adopt them quickly.   The idea is to accrue some of the benefit without accepting the related risk.   In other words, such leaders are fearful of their own innovative thoughts and prefer to piggy back on someone else’s success.   That’s a good way to be good.   That is no way to become great.

As I have argued previously on this blog, I think our world needs more people who truly want to shoot for being great.  “Good enough is good enough” is a very depressing motto.

If you really want to be great, you have to look around and ask “What can I do that will make the learning process better for my students and that has never really been tried before as I envision it?”  Over the next couple of weeks, step away from the crowd and do something both unexpected and awesome.   Make your push to go from good to great.

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