Good At Firsts


I moved nine times growing up.
Mainly throughout the midwest. Which means I got pretty good at “first days.”

First days of school.
First days of soccer practice.
First days on the playground.
First days of the new bully who thought chubby brown kids were fun to pick on.

You get the picture.

By the time college rolled around, I didn’t even care to visit the campus before I made my decision. How different could it be from all of my other moves? I packed as many things as could fit into my dad’s suv, and we left little old Nixa Missouri at 5am and headed for Chicago.

Before the semester formally kicked off, I was enrolled in a program called First Year Transition. The entire first week of my college experience was designed to help me adjust to college life — silly games, free pizza, and lots of swag. I think I still have one of those stress balls lying around somewhere. Like all institutions, my college had its quirks, but this is one thing it did well.


There’s a utilitarian word for the “first” experience. Onboarding — as in boarding a ship. The term was actually first coined for getting onto spaceships. Cool.

But today, we’re not really sending people on adventurous missions to far out galaxies. We’re bringing people onto video calls or slack groups. “First days” of school or work are much flatter than those college days — quite literally.
Still, firsts are one of the most important parts of any experience. Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, writes in his book Art of Making Memories, “First experiences stick better to our memories […] we are better at remembering the novel and the new, the extraordinary days when we did something different.”

We’re all facing a lot of firsts these days. It can be easy to just scrape by and blame our current global situation for lame first days and to view these subpar experiences as ones you never wanted. I mean, let’s face it, who really wants their first team lunch to be over Zoom? Who is excited for their first team happy hour to happen in their home office? Who wants their first robotics class to be held over a video call?

But what if we could embrace Wiking’s insight and use these times to create even more meaningful firsts? Sure, there are new constraints, but with the right mindset you can work within them.

Designing Firsts in 2020

What do your students need on the first day of school? Can you create community norms for courageous conversations? Can you help everyone connect on a deeper level beyond just the content you’re teaching?
How about the first days of a job or project? Can you bring your teammate into a project with an extra dose of kindness, support, and care?

As Wiking mentions, those firsts will be seared into memories. Thinking about them carefully will lead to better learning, better work, and better communities.

What first do you need to redesign? Maybe it’s time to start now.