Living a Life Bigger than Oneself: Lessons from the NAIS Conference

Each year the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) holds a national conference to share new findings, offer peer-to-peer workshops, and provide networking opportunities. This year’s conference, titled “Reimagining Independent Schools,” was held in Long Beach, which afforded several of us at Turning Point School the chance to immerse ourselves in the leading edge of education research and practice. I came away from this conference energized from the fellowship of school leaders and educators from across the country; all committed to the flourishing of children and the betterment of the world.

Each day of the conference began and ended with a keynote speech from people who are impacting the world in thoughtful and fascinating ways.  As I reflected on those remarkable keynote speeches, I noted their similarities: they all highlighted the power of stories, the interconnectedness at the heart of innovation and creativity, and the need to break down binary oppositions that hold us back from understanding a more nuanced and varied world of great possibility and richness. Each of them, in their own way, urged us to summon the courage to live a life bigger than one’s self.

Viola Davis

Award-winning actor Viola Davis urged us to heed the inner calling to adventure, to step out of comfort into the unknown. Courage, she assured us, is “fear said with prayers.” In order to pursue your individual hero’s journey, Davis says to get out of your way and accept the messiness of your fears and failure. In her words, the “messed up, perfect avatar of you gets in the way of your joy.”

Owning the whole of our stories, she asserted, allows us also to own our successes, and being who we truly are is “the privilege of a lifetime.” To fully realize ourselves, we need to rely on others, those who will help us get to the next crucial step in our journey. Like marathon volunteers who provide water to the weary runners every few miles, we need to find those people along our travels who can guide us to the next replenishing stop.

Frans Johansson

Frans Johansson, CEO of The Medici Group and author of The Medici Effect, underscored how diversity drives innovation and creativity. Intersections are at the heart of innovation which, at its root, is the ability to connect disparate things. The world is connected, but it wasn’t created that way; it took human relations to make those associations. All new ideas are combinations of existing ideas, and as the notion of expertise changes in our unpredictable world, the unexpected sets us apart. Johansson encourages us to organize our way of thinking to prepare for breakthroughs:

  • Always look for opportunities to change the rules of the game: examine the assumptions you are making about how your school prepares students for the future
  • Draw inspiration from fields and cultures other than your own
  • Create diverse teams
  • Place more bets, try more ideas
  • Try small, then double down on the ones that work

I found so much of what Frans Johansson had to share to be congruent with what we have learned this year at Turning Point with our ongoing partnership with Dr. Derrick Gay. Indeed, the idea that diversity equals excellence is a recurring theme and goal that drives our current work and leads our aspirations for the years to come.

Shiza Shahid

One of the most rousing keynote speeches reminded me of the power one person can wield to make the most of what poet Mary Oliver names “…your one wild and precious life.”

Shiza Shahid is co-founder and founding CEO of the Malala Fund (along with Nobel-Prize winner Malala Yousafzai) which advances access to education around the world, particularly for girls from underserved areas. Shahid recently launched NOW Ventures, an investment fund that empowers mission-driven startups. She has been named one of TIME’s “30 Under 30 People Changing the World” and Forbes’30 Under 30—Social Entrepreneurs.”

Shahid made me optimistic about our world’s future and the ability of all our young people to have the confidence and courage to effect global change. Born and raised in Pakistan, Shahid was inspired to help other girls secure an education. In Pakistan, when you empower a woman to earn a dollar, she invests 80-90% back into her community; in contrast, a man invests 40-50% into his community. So educating a woman does not just benefit her individually, but ripples to her community, nation, and the larger world.

Shahid shared her story along with her “audacious vision to change the world,” which prompted her to advocacy work outside the known and comfortable life she was making for herself. As a result of Shahid’s efforts, the Malala Fund has worked to provide safe, quality education for girls through secondary school, to increase the positive outcomes of their lives, in communities across Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and for displaced children in Syria, among other countries. Shahid also looked to efficient execution of these goals at the intersection of finance, technology, and entrepreneurship, and started an investment fund to support mission-driven startups. She shared the striking statistic that in the technology field, only 2% of capital funds go to women, and only .2% of capital funds go to Black women.

Shahid lives by poet Rumi’s quote: “You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in one drop,” alluding to the interconnectedness among peoples and the desire for a life more significant than one’s self. She pointed out that this generation of young people is a socially conscious cohort who want to support worthy causes that improve the world; therefore, mission-driven companies often can be a better investment than purely profit-driven companies. In a world of profound injustice but unprecedented opportunity, the binary structure of for-profit versus non-profit can evolve in pursuit of social justice. In a post-industrial economy, we want to prepare students to be entrepreneurial, keeping in mind ethical principles, kindness, and compassion.

Simon Sinek

Finally, author and organizational consultant Simon Sinek talked about the value of working toward a “just cause” in environments where we can be our true selves, where we seek to improve each year, and where we take risks as we look beyond the horizon for inspiration and guidance. As educators, we want to foster beautiful human beings who strive for the “infinite,” putting purpose before the pursuit of “finite” markers of gaining status, accumulating money, and flexing power.

The Harvard Business Review’s report, “The Business Case for Purpose,” defines purpose as “an aspirational reason for being which inspires and provides a call to action for an organization and its partners and stakeholders and provides benefit to local and global society.” The report was prompted by the “demands of a new generation of employees for meaning in their work, the declining levels of trust in companies, and a wider debate about the role business can or should play in society [which] are reshaping expectations of organizations.”

In Summary…

In light of global challenges and the desire our young people have to find meaning in their work, we want 21st-century students to use their education and agency to create organizations with purpose, to see relationships as opportunities to contribute and collaborate, and to give away knowledge and expertise freely. We want them to view success not merely as an individual race to the finish line, but as an opportunity to be part of something greater than any one person can achieve alone. We want them to leave the world in better shape than they found it.

As I hope I have conveyed with these short summaries, I left the conference inspired to continue our work in making Turning Point the best learning environment possible, not simply by conventional markers, but by our own standards of a “positive equation” – a place where students feel motivated to take action towards their goals, shaped by the need they see in the greater world around them. As I consider our programs and philosophy, our deliberate P-8 arc of learning, and the opportunities we intentionally provide for students to discover their worth and feel significant and important, I feel good about the investment we all – educators and parents alike – are making to not only our children’s future but the future of our world.


Dr. Laura Konigsberg
Head of School

A positive equation for achievement.

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