How did we get to a point where school starts 5 weeks before Labor Day, and what should that tell you about how to reach your goals?
Recently I was having a conversation with a friend, who made a comment that struck me: They told me that that they don’t believe that small changes ever amounted to anything. This friend believes that a person achieves their goals only by making big, important changes.
This conversation reminded me of an experience that took place during my high school years (in the late ’90s). An English teacher by the name of Mr. Brown told all of the students in my class that there was an idea floating around about swapping over to a year-round school calendar. Naturally, my fellow students and I rolled our eyes and groaned at mere thought of going to school all year long. He explained that this idea is based on the concept that, by starting the school year earlier and scheduling more breaks during the academic year, kids would learn more and do better in school. Being in high school, we all thought the idea of year-round school was nuts. Why would anybody in their right mind want to go to school year-round? Surely we did enough school already. More than enough. Mr. Brown patiently explained to us that we wouldn’t be required to go to school for more than the 180 days that we were currently suffering through, but that those 180 would just be spread out over a longer period of time. This logical explanation fell on deaf ears.
Well, in the 15 years since that heated discussion in English class, the school calendar has indeed changed. Once upon a time, the first day of school took place on the earliest Friday before Labor Day (the popular philosophy at that time was that the upcoming three-day weekend would allow students to gird themselves for an actual week of class while shopping for the supplies they would need for the year after receiving specific lists from their teachers). That first day of school, however, has slowly started working its way backwards to take place earlier in the year.
At first, that “Friday before Labor Day” became “the Monday before Labor Day”. Then it became the “Friday before the Monday of Labor Day”. Bit by bit, year by year, that starting date came just a little bit earlier. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving break (which was originally a three-day week) turned into a 5-day Fall Break. Then a winter break appeared in February. Staff development days (which allowed students to stay home on a Monday four or five times through the year) became week-long breaks. Students in my day looked forward to three major events to break up the monotony of the school year: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break. Kids today, on the other hand, enjoy a week-long break every other month.
Over the course of about 15 years, we can see the ending result of this calendar shift. School starts now on August 1st and practically goes year-round, with approximately an eight-week break in the middle. The change didn’t happen from the end of one school year to the next; rather, it happened gradually, allowing parents, teachers, and students time to adjust and even grow to appreciate the new calendar. That is the power of incremental change.
Of course, that’s also the power of not calling it year-round school. Instead of using that inflammatory phrase that had the power to turn my English class upside down in a hot debate, school officials just quietly started shifting the year a little bit earlier… and a little bit earlier… and a little bit earlier. As people went through the system, they didn’t know any better. For example, if you were a freshman in high school when this process started, it didn’t really feel like there was any big change. If you’re going into school now, you probably don’t realize that it used to be different.
If you think about it, this is the way every major change in America has happened. For example, the history-making event of a woman becoming the Presidential nominee of a major political party didn’t just occur spontaneously. Before that, women ran for the vice presidency. Before that, women fought for the right to remain in the workplace and seek educational opportunities when their men returned from fighting overseas. And before that, women organized to fight for their right just to vote in elections.
Marriage equality in America didn’t just happen all of a sudden. Rather, it came about after a 30-year conversation about homosexuality actually being a “thing” in America. That conversation moved through various twists and turns all the way to a Supreme Court decision allowing homosexual couples to experience the same rights as heterosexual couples.
Incremental change is the only thing that makes lasting difference. There’s that old joke that asks, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer: “One bite at a time.” As a leader of an organization, group, or of your own family or personal life, you must look at the big things that need to change and try to identify smaller, incremental, everyday changes that you can make to reach the end result you have in mind. In the end, those small changes will have made a lasting impact on your journey to achieve your goals.