Let that be a lesson to you

I’d written a blog post and filed it away, only to have the topic treated better in a newsletter article I read this weekend.

First, I offer you my blog post, then a re-post of the newsletter article.   Regardless which version gets the thought across to you, you’ll appreciate the idea if you’re driving change.

Lately I’ve had to work hard to will myself to see an opportunity amidst the rain of other people’s obstacles to change.  Here are samples of their obstacles:

  • Our people (in mass, not in specific) don’t feel a connection to our purpose.
  • The workers (in general, not in particular) are too lazy, stupid or fill-in-the-blank for change to succeed.
  • The leaders (or managers really) are too selfish, complacent or fill-in-the-blank for change to succeed.
  • The rate of change in the world is too fast and must be slowed.
  • The rate of change, locally, is too fast and must be stopped.

I could go on, but I won’t.

How can you overcome this rain of obstacles and somehow will the sun to shine on the change you’re driving?

My suggestion: Ask the person to rephrase their obstacle as some version of the statement,

The obstacle in front of me is X and here’s what I’m going to do about it.”

I would settle for:

The obstacle in front of me is X and I’d like to brainstorm with you what I’m going to do about it.”

Use their rain of obstacles as a teaching moment. Show them how to overcome their obstacles instead of inflicting the obstacles on others. This will be a lesson they remember and use often.

Now, for the borrowed article from the Van Damme Academy April 2010 Newsletter:

A well known Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Sitting in my office, I have seen the profound meaning of this quote manifested time and time again—between Mr. Steele and the students, at the copying machine.

When children come to the office to make copies, they often say things like, “Mr. Steele, I need copies,” or, “The copier is not working,” or “The copier is out of paper.” I have taken note of his clever and instructive responses.

To the assertion that the copier was out of paper, Mr. Steele would say (head down, still engaged in his work), “Ok. Go ahead and replace it.” The child would pause, surprised that he was being asked to perform this adult task and uncertain of how to go about it, and then would say, “How do I replace the paper?” Mr. Steele would then give a simple set of instructions for adding paper and allow the child to perform the task on his own (even if it meant making a mistake).

Mr. Steele had noted a common denominator in the students’ statements. In essence, their phrasing conveyed the message, “I have a problem. Fix it now.” By giving them the license to fix their own problem, he had indirectly forced them to reframe the question: “I have a problem. How do I fix it?” This is a life lesson that extends far beyond copy machines.

My favorite response to witness, a speech I have now heard a dozen times, is his response to the demand, “I need copies.” This is how it goes:

“I am going to teach you a skill that will last you a lifetime. Unless you pursue a career in professional sports or construction work, you will probably have to deal with printers and copiers.

In your life, you will come across many different kinds of copiers. Each one has a code that tells us how to use it. You see this symbol? See how the lines are on this side? That means we put it face up. See how the ‘A’ is facing this way? That is the direction the top of the page should be facing.”

In teaching the students photocopying autonomy, he is implicitly teaching them to strive for autonomy in all realms of life. He is empowering them with the conviction that problems are fixable, that there is a method for fixing those problems, and that they are competent to fix them on their own.

The students come to the office with a problem, and they leave not just with a solution to their problem, but with a glimpse of a new approach to solving all their problems. Such valuable life lessons can be learned even while making copies.

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