“It’s okay if you cry.”
That was my wife’s best attempt to console me as I read the email from the XQ, informing us late last week that our Círculos school concept wasn’t one of the competition winners.
To be honest, I was devastated. Our team had given this project nearly a year of our focus. We talked to thousands of students, connecting deeper with some of them to the extent that they joined our development team. We led design sessions with parents, teachers, administrators, & community partners. We had too many moments of magic to count – those moments where it feels like there are bigger purposes at play. Those moments when it all comes together. While in my head I recognized that the probability of winning the 10 million dollar prize was slim, in my bones I was convinced it was going to happen.
And then it didn’t.
As I started to reflect and try to make sense of it, I found myself sifting through a complex set of feelings and thoughts. I really did want to cry. I wondered if other teams had simply produced stronger ideas, or engaged in a more thoughtful design process. I considered a few conspiracy theories – how would the XQ geographically space the winners? Was there simply too much competition in California? I wondered how team identity might have influenced decisions. Did we lack diversity as a founding team? Had our status as a district-sponsored team hurt us? XQ wouldn’t be the first funder who thought a district team might not have the capacity to pull off a school like this.
And then there was the personal disappointment. I wouldn’t be entirely honest if I pretended all of my disappointment was wrapped up solely in the potential loss to the community. I felt some embarrassment. I didn’t want to have to explain over and over again that we hadn’t won. I didn’t want to have to argue, in my own mind or to others, that our investment of time and resources hadn’t been wasted. Selfishly, I was sad that we might have missed a rare chance to have a national stage to share some of the design features that I think could dramatically transform education.
Of course, none of this is to say that not winning meant our school wasn’t going to happen. Frankly, the ideas are too good, the community commitment too deep, and the potential for transformation too high for any of us to walk away. Círculos is going to happen.
No, it’s the immensity of the leadership challenge of doing this type of work that washes over you. It’s the realization that in the context of scarce resources or prevailing organizational cultures, the lift is going to be heavy. It’s the recognition that you’ll have to scratch out every dollar. It’s that feeling when your idealism and enthusiasm has to be transformed into grizzled determination.
It’s clear XQ never thought five schools and fifty million would be enough. It’s not. I don’t envy any organization whose mission is to get public education into the national consciousness. I can’t stay upset long that they didn’t choose us. We’re all on the same side pushing together.
Suffice it to say, the condolence email was humbling. Yet it was a powerful and timely reminder, that for the students, families, and communities we serve, there’s no privileged road to success. No angel investors. No lottery moment.
Success is born out of blood, sweat, and yes, tears.