Steve Heisler

Teacher Author Speaker


"Every single child wants to be successful. The problem is, if they can't be successful at being successful, they'll be successful at screwing up. Our job as educators is to change the latter to the former."    

- from the The Missing Link by Steve Heisler

Simple & Effective


On the wall to my office, when I was an Assistant Principal, were two posters: How to Pass and How to Fail.  On the latter poster there were 30 or so entries of which these few are examples:

  • always arrive late, and when you arrive late be sure to be as loud and disruptive as possible;
  • never, never ever do your homework (if nothing else your teachers will admire your consistency;
  • When the teacher says ‘turn to pg. 26’ ask: ‘what page?’

 However, the poster that read How to Pass was remarkably simple:  

  • Show Up
  • Pay Attention
  • Do your Work
  • Behave.  

That’s it: four steps.  It seems such a simple prescription but ironically the shorter list is the harder list. It is harder simply because success is always harder. Failing is as easy as saying I quit, and we are always inventing new reasons and new ways to fail. But the ingredients to success, in school as in life, end up always the same.

Show up. In school it’s as easy as being there when the bell rings, even before the bell rings. Have a job: same deal. But more than being there, out in the real world, showing up means having a vision, creating a plan, managing time, organizing. But it also means being there when you need to be there. Showing up is making your 13th business lunch of the day feel like a date with the most exciting paramour your imagination can invent. That’s your job, not theirs.

Pay attention. Know where you want to go, stay focused on it. Make more high quality decisions, especially in stressful moments. Know when it’s ok to answer that gut squeezing desire to grab the closet want and when you’ve got to let it walk by while you answer the needs of that distant call of the bigger dream. It’s not in that moment that you’ll feel great, but you may feel better than great later on when you are standing exactly where you wanted to stand.

Do your work: Persist, persist, and then persist some more. Look beyond the moment. Keep the distant image near but take a distanced view of close things. A young man wanted to be an full-time developer-entrepreneur, and could have started that day. Just enough money was there, in a small savings, in retirement funds, to get started but how much sacrifice, he was asked, was he willing to make. To make such a enterprise happen, he would have to leave his apartment in the city, move back home to the suburban parents.. How much sacrifice you are willing to make to make your dreams come true?  That, my friends, is doing your work.

Behave:  “Good girls go to heaven,” said Mae West, “bad girls go everywhere!” So let’s make it clear, right away, that to behave does not necessarily mean to do what you are told. Rather it means knowing when to do what you are told to do and when you need to go your own way. It means being wise and self-regulating. Behave in the way you need to behave to get to what it is you really want rather than what you want right then.

Guess what you can do?  You can behave in a very friendly way even if you’re really pissed off at a co-worker; you can be co-operative, even if you feel a bit taken advantage of; you can be in a good humor even if you had the worst morning of your life and you cannot stand the sight of the idiots in your office for even one more day! 

Why do this? You do this only when it is in YOUR best interest to do so. This is choosing with power and authority instead of resentment. My boss may be unfair and unyielding to behavioral change (but to be clear I am not suggesting we tolerate abuse) but my plan is to deal with it the best I can while I work on my bigger plan of completing my degree to get a better job. Behaving sometimes means opening your mouth but sometimes it also means shutting the hell up. Managing your behavior, knowing when to do one and not the other is behaving, and successful people know how to behave.

And please, have a sense of humor about things! Not every offense requires a 14 megaton response! Some things, many things, you can just let go. Why? Because it is in your best interest to do this. Real power is when the only buttons that get pushed are the ones you push yourself!

Teach this to your children, to your students and to yourself. Success skills successfully applied: simple and yes, difficult, but quite possibly the only way to earn success.