“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” James Clear – Success
How do we create systems so that individuals can be successful?
Success comes from a confluence of forces. Sometimes, it is the sheer will of the individual who, when faced with difficulty and challenge, rises to meet the moment. Riding alongside individual will is the system in which that individual operates, but no individual effort can overcome a dysfunctional system. The challenge here is to build healthy systems where the individual finds guaranteed success.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts – founders of Teach Different and twin brothers with over 50 years of teaching experience – along with TaRael Kee, Assistant Principal at Collinsville High School and the Past-President of the Illinois School Counselor Association, for a compelling conversation about success, enriched by the Teach Different Method.
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Image source: James Clear Website
Dan Fouts 00:01
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here from Teach Different. We’re veteran teachers from the United States bringing educators together from around the world to learn a simple conversation method, which we model on this podcast for you. If you’re a teacher, administrator, homeschooler, or parent who wants to use the power of conversations to build stronger relationships and fight polarization, stay tuned to hear the impact our method can have on your discussions, then join our community of educators at teachdifferent.com for additional resources, and to participate in lively conversations among teachers and faculty. Free for 30 days!
Dan Fouts 00:43
Good evening, everybody. Welcome to the Teach Different podcast. We have a brand new author today, James Clear, an American author and entrepreneur, who has a very interesting quote that I’ll read in a moment. We will also be hearing from our very interesting guest tonight at TaRael Kee, who will be introducing himself once he weighs in on the claim. Just to remind everybody of how the system works here, we’ll start with a quote, then we’ll interpret the quote. What does the quote mean to us and maybe share some personal experiences. Try to think of how the kids might take to this or, if you’re an administrator, then how your faculty might engage with this. Then, we’ll move to the counterclaim, push against the quote to get that critical thinking going. We’ll share stories, perspectives, and our own unique way of looking at the world. The key with the counterclaim is that you have to believe it. You’re going to want to believe the claim, but you’re going to want to also believe the counterclaim. That tension is the wellspring of a great conversation. That’s what we always have to keep in mind. We’ll end with a question that we hopefully generate during our conversation. We’re modeling for all of you who use this in the classroom or with faculty, that when you get a great conversation going it will often motivate inquiry. You have to be ready for some really good questions from your audience. We’ll try to model that for everybody. So, with that introduction, here we go. James Clear, American author and entrepreneur. I’m going to read his quote. His quote is adapted from another quote. James’s quote, “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” He actually tweaked this from a Greek poet, Archilochus, who said something similar. “We don’t rise the level of our expectations, we follow the level of our training.” It’s very similar. The one we’re going to use is by James Clear. I’ll read it one more time, “you do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” TaRael, welcome to the Teach Different podcast. Tell us a little bit about yourself, your connection to education, and have at it with the claim.
TaRael Kee 03:29 – Claim
Gotcha. All right. My name is TaRael Kee, and I’m currently an assistant principal, board member for the Illinois School Counselor association, and national trainer for the American School Counseling Association. I am the former President of the Illinois School Counseling Association. I do a bunch of other things. I’m also a YouTuber. I have a YouTube channel called the Key to Success. I chose this quote today because it really speaks to the story of my life. There have been times when I had a lot of ambition and dreams and things, but I realized over and over again, that without systems in place, you always end up doing the thing that seems simplest. For example, if you’re an administrator, a school counselor, or a teacher, and don’t have a tight calendar with reminders, you could tend to forget things. So, I set multiple reminders to make it easier for me to follow the schedule and get the things done that I need to do. [In the quote] When I switch out [the word] systems with training I think about my time as an athlete. I’ve been on good teams, and I’ve been on bad teams. The bad teams happen haphazardly. You might have a good game, you might be high, you might be low from day to day, but with the good teams we consistently were good because we had a system in place that was so clear that we knew exactly what to do. Practice pretty much ran itself for our high school track coach. He had a heart attack, and the athletes were able to run practice the way that he would, because he had a system in place that we believed in and fully understood. Whether he was there or not didn’t matter. We always rose to the occasion, because the system was already set in place for us to succeed. The way I coach is the way I try to do everything. Now, I’m striving to become a superintendent and do all of these different things. I have to build new systems that are going to make it easy for me. Maybe not easy, that might be a stretch, but it makes it easier for me to do the right thing. It’s easier for me to be successful than for me to fall off the mark.
Steve Fouts 05:46
So basically, having that system in place is what is going to matter the most in the end for success. I’m thinking of the claim. You can have all the goals you want, you can set your standards high, you can have grit and perseverance, but if you’re in a system that’s toxic, that’s not rewarding good behavior or motivating people, then the system is going to win. That’s what I’m feeling from this quote. I don’t want to say it’s a negative quote, it’s more like a realistic quote. I love your example of the coach not being there, but since the system was in place, the athletes could have their goals, and know what they needed to do because of the system. If there wasn’t a system, they might still be motivated to try to win, and want to do what they needed to do, but they wouldn’t know how to do it, and they probably wouldn’t have been successful. That’s what I’m reading.
Dan Fouts 07:03
I like that. I like your analogy, TaRael. I would bring in another analogy about a substitute teacher. I’ve been a substitute, and within five seconds you know whether that class has an effective system, just by how the kids are reacting. They know what the expectations are, because they’ve been clearly communicated. They have self control. That’s another indication supporting this claim, I think.
TaRael Kee 07:47
Think about Charlotte Danielson, some of them are in a charter now. You get the high score. End of class is when the classroom is student led, when the students are functioning and working, but how do you get there? The only way to get there is to have a solid system in place. I hate to use a sports analogy again, but think about the Patriots, and the Patriot way. Think about Alabama. It’s the same thing in education. If you have a solid system, a well thought out system, you teach the behaviors it takes in order to perform in that system. That’s why a lot of teachers in the first two weeks focus on procedures and relationships and how to actually live up to the expectations of the classroom. I think this is really important at the elementary levels. Even when we’re talking about PBIS or MTSS we’re teaching behaviors, we’re teaching a system. We’re building a systematic approach to education. We’re indexing our supports, and finding ways to create a game plan for meeting all of the different student needs. We’re building a system. If we didn’t have this system in place, then it is easier to have a kid who slips through the cracks. When you have a tier one intervention that’s catching 80% of the students, a tier two that is catching 15%, and tier three 5% a year, you might not catch every kid, but you are more likely to catch as many kids as possible with that system in place. Without that system, you’re just throwing out a bunch of interventions without checking.
Steve Fouts 09:30
That’s great. Go ahead, Dan.
Dan Fouts 09:33
I was going to make an analogy with this conversation method. You can have goals, have kids talk in class and support one another to create a positive learning environment, but unless you have a system for how to communicate and support one another consistently and predictably, it’s not going to work. This three part protocol is an embodiment of what this mode is saying with the claim. You have to have a system for how to interact. When I did this in class, this is next level stuff, but my students were so used to this method, I had kids leading the discussion. They would come into class and they knew the drill. We go to the claim, then the counterclaim. We know how to interact, and I was literally a participant.
TaRael Kee 10:25
Yeah, it’s the same thing when you’re a school counselor, or a therapist, running a group. Eventually, the group should run itself, because you have the system in place. That is what is necessary for it to thrive, and work on its own without you, even being there. In the book, Atomic Habits, he is literally talking about small habits. It’s the little things that lead to success. If you want to be a neat person, then put that pan back in the pan holder, every single time. Build those little habits, that’s what ultimately leads to success.
Steve Fouts 11:10
Read the quote one more time, Dan. I had one thing to add.
Dan Fouts 11:13
“You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” James Clear writes about this in his book, Atomic Habits. He’s building off of Greek poet Archilochus’ quote.
Steve Fouts 11:33
TaRael, you gave some examples within education and Dan, you brought up the protocol. There are systems in place to make people successful. When some of these kids go home, depending on where they’re going, they could be in situations where they have ambition and goals. They can have the right mindset, grit, and perseverance, and all those qualities that we want kids to have to overcome difficult circumstances, but the bottom line is they’re in a situation that is systematic, that is often not geared for their success. They have to either leave it, struggle in it, or thrive in it some other way. You can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. Your environment, that system, determines whether or not you’re going to be successful as much as anything you can want individually. So, I was thinking of it outside of school as well.
TaRael Kee 13:09
Yeah, you could think about the hood, or some of these rural areas. They’re like a casino where the house always wins. You might be the one person that gets out, but the system is going to ultimately win. I think that’s why it’s so rare for people to make it out, because there’s a system. The cycle of poverty, or parents who didn’t have a parent so they don’t know how to parent, the system becomes cyclical. Sort of like a casino where things circle around and the house always wins.
Steve Fouts 13:49
That’s a great example.
Dan Fouts 13:50
I love that analogy.
Steve Fouts 13:54
Well, I don’t want to get depressed though.
Dan Fouts 13:57
Just when we started agreeing with it, it’s fine to disagree.
Steve Fouts 14:03
I’ve got some ideas, but I want to hear from somebody else first. Read the quote again, Dan, and we’ll try for a counterclaim. TaRael, if you want to hop in first.
Dan Fouts 14:14
“You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.”
TaRael Kee 14:22 – Counterclaim
I saw another quote, and it’s been true in my life, too. “You have to do things that you aren’t often prepared to do.” As an administration or teacher, you might have a great lesson plan that you spent hours preparing, but you might have to pivot. As an administrator, you might have the perfect day and the perfect system planned out, but you might have to pivot. You might have to step up into a leadership role that you weren’t prepared for. That happens throughout history. There have been so many unlikely leaders and heroes in time who did not have systems in place, but who rose to the occasion. You probably want to build a system around it, but you might not, in many cases, have a system in place before you’re forced to be great.
Dan Fouts 15:15
I love it. It’s really good. In certain situations, people are successful, despite the system. There is an overcoming of a toxic, debilitating system that individuals by their free will choose to be something better. Not to get too philosophical here, but that’s where I think the counterclaim lives. The counterclaim is that people’s free will is the most powerful force in the world. It’s not about determination or about the system’s determining our behavior. It’s about our own free will determining our reality. In certain cases, like you said, TaRael, people overcome bad systems. So, there’s a lot of evidence out there for it, depending on where you look.
TaRael Kee 16:11
I just think that’s the exception, when people play by different rules. Jordan played by different rules. There are different rules for different people. While this system might generally apply to a lot of people, those exceptional people have to be great. They have to make the shot when the moment calls for it.
Steve Fouts 16:35
TaRael, I know you can appreciate this, because you already mentioned Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I’m thinking of this cave, and for listeners who aren’t familiar with it, it’s basically a story that the Greek philosopher Plato tells. He asks us to imagine that we’re all born chained to a chair inside a cave, and we’re staring at a wall that has a bunch of shadows on it, because there’s a fire behind us, and there are some puppets. This is what we grow up into, this is what we think is real, the wall, and the shadows on the wall. We don’t realize that there’s a fire and puppets behind us. We don’t realize that we’re in a cave, and that there is an outside world that we’re not even aware of. So, think of the cave as the system. That’s what we’re born into. That’s what limits us. That’s what helps us determine what we should be thinking about and forming opinions about. But, for whatever reason, and Plato says this, he says, some people forcibly get dragged out of the cave. They actually experience this outside world; whereas, most people don’t. For whatever reason, some people make it out. This is hopefully the connection here, that some people can make it out of a system. Once you make it out of a system, you hope that you’ll go back and try to help some other people make it out. Although that’s dicey, because when you come back to the cave, nobody wants to leave. They don’t believe what you’re saying, because all they know is the inside of the cave. The point is that it’s possible. You can break from a system as an individual, and you can achieve enlightenment.
TaRael Kee 18:56
Yeah, I totally agree with that. There are exceptional people. You could win the Mega Millions lottery.
Steve Fouts 19:14
The lottery is going to win over time, but you might win. You might win.
TaRael Kee 19:21
The lottery is not hurting. There is more where that came from.
Steve Fouts 19:27
Half of that is taxes.
Dan Fouts 19:29
A more dramatic analogy is with a cult. You think of a cult as a very destructive system. There are individuals who, for whatever reason, are able to break free. Your Allegory of the Cave metaphor made me think of that, Steve. Some people can break from that by figuring out that they’re being manipulated and move forward.
TaRael Kee 19:52
Yeah, that’s actually a very popular thing right now. I watch a lot of YouTube and people are calling it red pill or something like that. They’re basically saying that they broke away from the system and believe their own things. It’s just interesting how The Matrix always comes up over and over again. Isn’t it also kind of interesting how it really comes from Descartes too. You know what I mean? “Cogito, ergo sum.” I think, therefore I am. Remove everything. Strip everything away from the system. I think, therefore I am. That’s more about free will. I have thought; therefore, I have power. I have agency. I can break away from the system.
Steve Fouts 20:35
That’s inspiring in a way. Yeah, that’s good. That’s Decartes. You’re bringing me back. We were both philosophy majors, TaRael.
TaRael Kee 20:45
I took a few philosophy classes.
Steve Fouts 20:47
Yeah, it’s good. Go ahead.
Dan Fouts 20:51
I had an observation. As we’re going through this really interesting conversation, I think in schools, we tend to lean on this idea that kids can achieve anything, that it’s up to their own individual free will. They’re in the world alone and they should achieve things individually. When you read this quote, maybe we should be teaching kids to be more aware that being a part of a larger, healthy system is a more healthy way to run your life. It’s not just about your individual talents and abilities. I don’t know, I think sometimes we might be teaching the wrong values.
TaRael Kee 21:37
Yeah, I think we value success more than we value the grind, building up a system and learning how to learn. I think learning is a skill. It’s not necessarily something that everyone is innately born with. In a lot of great families they teach their kids how to learn. We teach my son how to learn, how to read, and how to do different things. These are skills that he’s being taught, so when he goes to school, it’s not like he has to struggle.
Steve Fouts 22:12
Yeah, interesting. I was thinking about it from the eyes of a student. How do they understand the word “system.” TaRael, sometimes we talk about doing this. When you throw the quote up in front of the kids, and they first see it, it’s not a bad idea to circle a couple of words at the outset. In this quote, you could circle the word system, and ask people to hone in on what a system is. What does it mean? What’s an environment? Maybe the kids would make connections between peer groups, pecking orders with friends, and classrooms. When you start doing that, then you can get into issues like peer pressure. What happens when you want to do something different than this group that is doing something wrong? You see that the system is toxic. You see the problem, but how do you act? Can you get out of that situation on your own, or do you have to find a new friend group, a new system? I’m not clear on what a good prompt would be, but getting the kids to think about it in that way.
TaRael Kee 23:43
Yeah. James Clear’s answer would be that you’re going to do whatever’s easiest unless you create a system of your own to work your way out of the peer pressure. Maybe that’s taking a different route or whatever. In his book, he literally talks about how you have to make the best choice, the easiest choice, over and over again, or ultimately, you’re going to go with the easiest one.
Steve Fouts 24:10
Human nature. I agree with that.
TaRael Kee 24:14
That was another philosopher. I can’t remember exactly who it was, but he was talking about free will. He was saying that there really aren’t many options. For example, if I offered you an orange or offered you $100, which one would you choose? Life is just a collection of those different things. If it’s not the easiest, the most rewarding thing for you to do, then ultimately, you’re going to veer in the path of whatever’s easiest.
Steve Fouts 24:44
It might be hard at first when you make the switch, but you better figure out how to make it fun for yourself and see the value in it, because you’re not going to keep doing the hard thing.
TaRael Kee 25:01
No, it’s not going to work that well.
Dan Fouts 25:04
I think that our society doesn’t appreciate systems as much as it appreciates individual success. Maybe it’s harder to see the value of systems, than it is to see an individual who succeeds in a certain way. I don’t know, I’m just looking at this in different ways,
TaRael Kee 25:27
I think the family structure is a system. The two parent family structure is a system. Our kids ultimately make it without it. I’m one of them. Ultimately, that system is going to be more likely to consistently develop the healthiest, safest, most academically inclined student. Maybe not every time, but more consistently. When I bought my first house, they asked me if I could ask a parent for a $40,000 down payment. I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have that system in place. Hopefully, my son will be able to do that one day, and I will be able to invest in him and invest in his family. We have a system in place that’s working right now.
Dan Fouts 26:28
Does anybody have a question that’s come to mind during this conversation? TaRael, anything?
TaRael Kee 26:36 – Essential Question
I’m just really thinking about the outcomes. How do we create systems that make it easier for children to continuously come out and be successful in districts that have a high rate of poverty, or a higher rate of mobility, or a lower rate of married households?
Dan Fouts 27:00
TaRael Kee 27:00
How do we create systems? What do they look like? Is there a formula?
Dan Fouts 27:20
If the system is healthy for human beings, then there’s more of an allowance for imperfection of the human beings, if the system itself is healthy.
Steve Fouts 27:32
I’m going to toot the horn of Teach Different and say, from a school perspective, if you’re challenging students to participate in authentic conversations where they have a voice, where they’re learning how to think critically and they’re getting multiple perspectives, where they’re expressing themselves, and they’re hearing other people do that as well, that system will increase the likelihood of success for individuals. When individuals leave school and get into bad systems, having that experience already under their belt will help them be the change agents. If you’ve never experienced that healthy environment, then it’s hard to change systems that aren’t good. You’ll go through your life thinking this is how it is. I’ll just throw that out as something that I think schools can do.
TaRael Kee 28:53
Yeah, I would say in society today, a lot of us could probably use the method because people get so attached to an idea or perspective that might even be forced on them by the news or the media or whatever. We’re almost incapable of seeing or humanizing the other perspective, removing the anger towards the perspective and actually arguing the point. I heard someone say, if you’re not capable of arguing the opposite point vigorously, then you have not earned an opinion yet.
Steve Fouts 29:38
Attorneys would love that. That’s what they do. People who are arguing cases have to argue the opposite in order to be effective. You have to believe in it. Yeah, I love that. You haven’t earned your opinion yet, if you can’t disagree with it.
Dan Fouts 29:57
I really think that once you develop critical thinking skills, and the ability to see the world from another perspective, you can’t go back. You will never go back to siloed thinking. We are in a society, as you just said, TaRael, where we’re struggling with thinking in these broad, multi-perspective ways. It’s having an impact on our politics, our schools, and everything. This is a system of conversation. That is why it’s so darn important to have something like this in place.
TaRael Kee 30:40
Yeah, I don’t even think we can have discussions anymore. I can’t say I remember, because I wasn’t born yet, but I remember watching videos from people in the 60s. They would have these intense, respectful discussions with totally opposite viewpoints, and the audience walked away with a general level of understanding of both sides. Today, it seems like there’s just a lot of yelling. I think part of it is due to the 24 hour news cycle, where they’re constantly pumping a viewpoint at you all day long. People are so sure of what they believe in without even doing any research, or giving any thought to the counterclaims.
Steve Fouts 31:27
That’s the shadows on the wall. They’re just loving the shadows, because there isn’t anything else. They don’t want to even think of it, because that is uncertainty. That is potential failure. I agree with you, Dan, that once you change, and you see more, once you leave the cave, there is no going back. You’re never going to go back and be a prisoner. You could go back and try to bring some people out, and get frustrated with all the opinions that people have, but you’ll never go back.
Dan Fouts 32:15
Yeah, well said. I liked your question, TaRael. How do we create systems to increase the likelihood of people succeeding? I just butchered it, but we have it on recording. We’ll write it down, or if you remember, you can email it to me.
Dan Fouts 32:35
Well, this has been really good. I think we touched on some really important issues here beyond just James Clears’ quote. I think we’re getting into some much larger issues of our society that are pretty darn important. I’m going to read the quote, again, just to leave it with us. “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” Well, TaRael, thank you so much for being here. Your insights were great, and we really appreciate your input into this method, into our community and into all of the listeners who are going to be beneficiaries of your thinking. It has to start somewhere, right? We’re modeling it for everybody else, and the more we do it, the better. So, thank you so much for being here.
TaRael Kee 33:32
No problem. Thank you for having me.
Steve Fouts 33:33
Dan Fouts 33:36
Thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and have a sense of confidence that you too can master the art and science of conversations to make a lasting impact. We at Teach Different are dedicated to supporting you along that journey. Please visit teachdifferent.com to join the community of educators for additional resources and engaging discussion among fellow teachers and administrators, free for 30 days. We’ll see you there, and next time from the Teach Different podcasts. Take care.