My Innovative Underpants

Here’s a funny story that I bet the fellas in Radical Nation will be able to relate to:  I can STILL remember the day that I got my first pair of boxer shorts.  I was 12, and I’d just discovered that ALL the cool kids were rocking boxers in the locker room before seventh grade gym class.  Me — being half dork and all nerd — felt WAY out of place in my uncomfortably white and uncomfortably tight Fruit-of-the-Looms.

So I talked my mom into taking me to K-Mart.  Lied about needing some poster board for a project.  Made a bee-line for the boxers the minute we walked through the door.  Was completely blown away by the colors and styles and choices and designs available and BEGGED my mom to buy me a pair or two.

I walked out prouder than I probably should have been after buying underpants, but as I’d explained to my mom, this WASN’T ABOUT underpants.  It was about fitting in — and fitting in was impossible for the dorky kids wearing briefs in a boxer world.

The next day was huge.  HUGE.  I rolled out of bed, pulled on a pair of plaid boxers and headed to school feeling like a new man!  By second period, though, I discovered what MOST guys realize:  Boxers are AWFUL.  The wedgies were brutal, my butt was sweating more than I thought possible, and I was limping through the halls with badly chaffed thighs.

(Is that too much information?)

Not wanting to surrender my place among the social elite, I toughed it out in boxers for the better part of a painful decade.  I wasn’t happy about it, but tightie-whities weren’t going to win me any friends and I knew it.

My life changed in a deep and meaningful way in the early 90s, though.  That’s when I discovered Boxer Briefs.  I was in a Target store picking up some new socks when I saw them.  Literally did a double-take.  Had to look at the package a little closer than I was comfortable with just to figure out what a “boxer brief” was.  Bought a package with hope in my heart that my days in uncomfortable underpants were over.

Being a skeptic, I wouldn’t let myself believe until I got home and slipped into what HAVE GOT to be the most comfortable drawers in the world!  Who would have thought that something as simple as pairing the length of the boxer with the comfort fit of the brief could change lives?  The dude that invented them should be granted Sainthood immediately.

And the dude who invented them — let’s call him Boxer Brief Guy — knows how innovation REALLY works.

He started by identifying a VERY real challenge:  Men need to wear underpants, but tightie-whities are completely uncool and boxers are completely uncomfortable.  Instead of dreaming up an entirely new solution to an admittedly strange conundrum, however — instead of dreaming up skin-tight body suits made from the pelts of corn-fed camels raised on corporate farms in the Midwest or spray-on undergear paired with ‘freshly pressed from our can to yours’ as a marketing slogan — he embraced the strengths of the well-established solutions and hit a clothing home run.

Stew in that for a minute would you?  There’s literally NOTHING new or complicated or brilliant or amazing about boxer briefs — the core cuts and fabrics and lengths and fits were borrowed from existing designs — and yet they changed EVERYTHING.

THAT’s the lesson for school leaders:  Innovation is evolutionary, not revolutionary , y’all.  If you want to change your school, STOP thinking outside of the box and START by figuring out what you are already doing well.  Better yet, look to the organizations around you, figure out what THEY are doing well, and create a new product built from strategies and solutions that you know already resonate with parents, teachers and students.

Long and uncomfortable-in-more-ways-than-one story short: You don’t need to be a creative genius to drive meaningful improvements in your community.  You need to be the Boxer Brief Guy.


 Related Radical Reads:

Hitting Home Runs Fifty Feet at a Time

Real Progress DOESN’T Happen in Leaps and Bounds

Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy

Sustainable Change is Evolutionary, NOT Revolutionary


7 thoughts on “My Innovative Underpants

  1. Erica Speaks

    The process of first looking at what you are doing well – making sure one doesn’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater – I totally get that.

    But wouldn’t you say innovation is both evolutionary AND sometimes revolutionary? I’d assume that tightie whities would be considered pretty revolutionary by the dark ages’s underclothes standards…


    PS: Also I believe you missed your calling as an advertising exec, Bill.

  2. Chris Jakicic

    I love the story! Although I can’t relate to the specifics, the overall analogy works for me.

  3. Steve Goldberg

    Hi Bill.

    I love the story about boxer briefs, but I’m not sure I agree that all innovation is evolutionary in education — let me try to explain…

    In a recent response on your blog, talking about quirky kids, you lament that “I have a massive standardized curriculum to get through in a short period of time. That makes deviations from the ordinary challenging to handle.”

    I humbly assert, as someone who, after teaching for more than a decade, left the classroom two years ago to start a new approach to learning, that the very structure of school — the idea that you have 140 students and that you are limited in how you can deviate from the standard curriculum — is what we need to get away from. We need a far more constructivist and individualized approach, and we need to get to know our students better as people — a difficult task if you have 140 of them!

    Not to mix metaphors too much, but instead of settling for boxer briefs, someone has to call out the education emperor for not having clothes on. We started educating kids in industrial-age “schools” about 100 years ago, and we now have technology available to do things in a radically different way. There’s no reason to put kids in a room for 45-minute increments and expect them all to focus on the same things at the same time.

    I agree that many schools and many teachers *are* doing things well; and as you say, it makes sense to focus on those areas when making incremental change. But I think we’re at a point where evolutionary incremental change is not enough — we need an entirely new approach to learning — one that allows teachers the flexibility to deviate from the normal on a regular basis in service of each kid’s quirkiness and individuality.

    That’s why I am launching a new approach to middle school — — one that views students as capable, eschews the standardized stuff, and helps students discover their passions.

    If TLC Middle School were up and running already, we’d have the flexibility to focus, for instance, on what’s going on in Egypt right now. It’s a troubling and fascinating story, and if students got into it (which I think they would), it’s a wonderful way to get at all sorts of traditional topics such as balance of power and Middle East history and US Foreign Policy, etc…

    You can’t carve out time to teach much about Egypt when you are stuck with “a massive standardized curriculum to get through in a short period of time.” That curriculum ensures that your opportunities for deep-dives into areas students care about are limited. And the schedule you are stuck with — chunking the day into 45-minute periods — likewise limits what students can learn. You can — and do — make some cool stuff happen with programs like Kiva, for instance, before or after school or during lunch.

    But I think that as a regular part of the school day, we need more flexibility, more inter-disciplinary learning, and more constructivism. In short (pun intended), I think we need a new approach to education.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Steve wrote:

      If TLC Middle School were up and running already, we’d have the flexibility to focus, for instance, on what’s going on in Egypt right now. It’s a troubling and fascinating story, and if students got into it (which I think they would), it’s a wonderful way to get at all sorts of traditional topics such as balance of power and Middle East history and US Foreign Policy, etc…

      – – – – – – – – –

      Here’s the thing, Steve: There’s nothing revolutionary in this description of what you plan to do at your new middle school. This is what we’ve always called “a teachable moment” in education. I learned about them in college in the early 90s — round about the time I discovered boxer briefs.

      More importantly, moving rigid curricula and pacing guides out of the way and giving teachers more flexibility and control over what happens on a day to day basis in classrooms is an approach that has worked with great success in countries all over the world. Canada — particularly British Columbia — Australia and New Zealand all have systems in place that give teachers the flexibility to make these kinds of choices.

      So what you are describing really is evolutionary instead of revolutionary. That’s not a knock against your work — evolutionary change is the only kind of change that can be sustained and embraced by stakeholders — but it’s hard to argue that teachable moments or constructivist classrooms, which Dewey, Vygotsky and Piaget both argued for in the early to mid-1900s, are revolutionary concepts.

      Does this make sense?

  4. Leah Whitford

    Bill-I was literally laughing out loud as I read your blog -and yet- you are spot on. As educators, we need not create something from scratch. Instead, we need to be taking the best pieces to create something that is better. Thanks for the insight- and the giggles!

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