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In Praise of Patience

Parshat Vayetze contains one of the bible's most romantic verses (Genesis 29:20):

And Jacob worked seven years for Rachel; and they seemed to him but a few days, because of his love for her.

It's a beautiful idea. But it seems to run counter to everyday experience. In general, when you are looking forward to something, time seems to pass more slowly than usual. Indeed, the more you anticipate it, the slower time seems to pass. Who among us has not sat waiting for the end of the school day, looked at the clock, and wondered when the minute hand ground to a halt?

So how did Jacob's love for Rachel make his seven years of labor pass more quickly? Why didn't it have the opposite effect, of making them feel interminable?

Perhaps the following observation helps explain: Waiting for something over which you have no control or agency is not the same as waiting for something towards which you are actively working. When you're at the mercy of someone else's schedule or impersonal objective forces, time slows down. But when you are actively working towards a goal, each moment that passes is one in which you're doing something specific to bring that goal closer. This can sometimes make it feel as if the time is passing more quickly.

Unlike the student waiting for the freedom bell to ring, Jacob's destiny is in his own hands. Each day worked is another day closer to marrying Rachel. Though the distance is great and the steps small, Jacob contributes each day, through his own labor, to bringing his goal closer.

In leadership and education, patience is an underrated virtue. Boards, parents and staff want results, and they want them now (if not yesterday)! But real change, profound learning and sustainable progress are all things that take time.

Leaders, especially educational leaders, are rarely in control of the pace with which they progress towards their goals. This is because the kinds of goals they set themselves are ones that depend at least as much on other people and complex environmental factors as they depend on their own actions.

One of the things that distinguishes successful leaders from others is their determination to do whatever they can, whenever they can, to bring their goals closer. Rather than waiting for things to happen, they use all the resources at their disposal to help make them happen. Put more succinctly, successful leaders practice, "active patience."

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