Mastery is an Asymptote

One of the VP’s responsibilities at my school is updating the school’s road-side sign. When I came to the school this past August, I was excited to take this on. It has always been a beef of mine that school road-side signs are so often out of date, displaying PT Meetings and Pro D Day dates from two months ago. I took this beef to a higher level when I actually wrote a short essay about it for a masters course. The assignment was to write about something that bothers you about schools today.  It was kind of a tongue and cheek paper saying: here we have an opportunity to communicate with the public a message, beyond announcing band concerts, a chance to say what education and this school are about, what we stand for and what we believe.

As I look back on the year so far and how it’s gone with the sign, it has been both an opportunity and a pain. I can now say that I understand why messages from months ago are still there, as changing the sign moves down the priority list each day because more pressing VP duties step in front. I’m not making excuses but….ok, I’m making excuses.

It all started off great this year.  I used one side of the sign to give the dates to remember, and on the other side I put up inspirational quotes. I tried to pick quotes that reflected the ideas of our school mission statement. These were ideas about creating community, life-long learning and motivation to achieve our potential. First I used a Dewey quote:

“Education is not the preparation for life; Education is life itself.”

Then there was one from Martin H. Fischer:

“All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind.”

And finally one of my all time favorites about education from William Butler Yeats:

“Education is not filling a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

Like I said, updating the sign has become a chore in a lot of ways, one that hangs over me and smacks me in the face every time I arrive at and leave from school with an outdated message displayed. These old messages look at me as I walk by and scream change me! What are you waiting for? It’s December and the Hallowe’en Dance on Oct 28 is so long gone. But, the quotes were inspiring students and teachers, who would come up to me at random times to share that they loved the quote, to ask where it’s from, or tell me a story that relates to the quote. The quotes and their reaction have been a joy that offsets the chore of updating the sign.

So, over the winter break, I had time to catch up on a few books that I had started this fall but could never seem to find the time to finish. One book was Daniel Pink’s Drive, an excellent book about what motives us these days. Pink argues that three things are essential to motive us today; autonomy, mastery and purpose. If you can increase these factors, people’s intrinsic motivation to perform will be maximized.

On the chapter on mastery, I came across the quote:

“Mastery is an Asymptote.”

Being a math teacher at heart, this quote really “spoke to me” as it were, and it has been going through my head for weeks since I read it. Immediately, I knew I had a new inspirational quote for the road-side sign.

I shared this genius idea with my girlfriend, (who by the way just called me nerd for using the saying “as it were” in my writing) who said “that’s great, but what does that mean?”

First thought: Ah, a problem…what if people don’t get it?

Next thought: Ah, an experiment…I’ll put it up to see what the reaction is. I bet a ton of people will see the sign and come up to ask me what it means, and I can explain it to them, ask them what they think, and can they think of something in their life that they strive to master. Something they steadily work towards, always approaching but never quite touching, like a function and it’s asymptote.

You see, mastery is like an function (the blue line) approaching an asymptote line. You keep getting closer to the thing you are trying to master but there is always more to learn, you can refine, improve, reflect, change strategy, you get infinitely closer, but you never really get there.

And the realization that you cannot get there keeps you pursuing, it is so alluring…

So I changed the sign this past Monday, as “Happy Holidays” did not cut it anymore as we had already been back at school for a week.  I put “Mastery is an Asymptote” up.  I grinned like a scientist who waited for the unknown results of his experiment.  How many people would ask? I expected them to come flooding in the next day, eager to learn about the quote, and discuss motivation and mastery.

And I waited,
and waited,

and waited.

By Friday only one person had asked. Only one.

Oh well, sometimes exciting experiments do not work out like we had imagined. There could be many reasons that no one asked: most people knew what it meant, people were afraid to ask, people didn’t care enough to ask, or no one pays attention to the sign.

Whatever the reason, I will still look for the chance to communicate to the public a message from the school, about education, community, life-long learning, and motivation to achieve our potential, even if the message follows dates to remember from last month.


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