In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m writing about missing kisses. Trust me. This will get to a typical Engine for Change point soon enough.
The classic picture book Strega Nona–written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola and published in 1975–tells the story of a beloved local witch, Strega Nona (translated as Grandma Witch) and her inattentive servant Big Anthony.
Strega Nona’s prize possession is her magic pasta pot. She sings an incantation to encourage it to make pasta. Big Anthony listens attentively, though he’s been cautioned by Strega Nona to never use the pasta pot. When they have eaten their share of pasta, Strega Nona sings a different ditty to make it stop. Big Anthony listens attentively to this second song too, then gets distracted. He misses an essential step in the process.
Strega Nona seals the end of the pasta making by blowing three kisses to the pasta pot.
The story reaches its climatic peak when Strega Nona goes on a trip leaving Big Anthony home alone with the pasta pot. He quickly ignores her warning to stay away from the pasta pot, and begins making pasta. After feeding the whole town their fill of pasta, Big Anthony sings to the pot but the pot doesn’t stop. Without its kisses, the pot remains boiling and bubbling. It quickly cooks enough pasta to drown the town.
True to the children’s book story arch we all know, at the moment the town is in true peril, Strega Nona returns. She sings to the pot and blows it three kisses. Big Anthony is dutifully punished, required to eat all the wayward pasta covering the town, and the story is complete.
I share the outline of Big Anthony’s story with you because it is a children’s version of the Cargo Cult story, illustrating the dangers of mimicking behaviors without understand the mechanism at work.
Apprenticeship schemes rely on mimicking at the start of the apprentice’s learning process, but the apprentice only mimics only under the watchful eye of the master. The master watches for gaps in knowledge (e.g., missing the kisses) and closes the gaps immediately. If Strega Nona had been Big Anthony’s mentor, she would have observed his first attempt at stopping the pot, quickly realized which step he had missed, and either told him what to do or shown him one more time.
I often observe people trying to mimic the mannerisms and sayings of someone whose outcomes they want. They dress like them. They grimace like them. They attend the same meetings. And yet, they can’t make it work. Either they can’t get the process to produce the same results or worse, as in Big Anthony’s case, they can’t make it stop.
Many times the mechanism that made it work is right there to be observed, but the student must look longer and harder then they are accustomed. Teachers, writers, bloggers cannot make everything so simple that you’ll get it merely by parroting our words. You must watch closely, ask to be watched as you try the first time, be open to feedback, and try again.
Without diligence you’re bound to miss the kisses…and who would want to do that on Valentine’s Day?