Tag Archives: failure

Where You Fly Makes a Difference

One of my more fun presentations is a series of stories beginning with one young fellow who spots a dead rainbow. Rainbows are, of course about hope and so are most of the stories. Some of the stories are sad, some are funny, but each leads to the inescapable conclusion that where we stand makes a difference. Sometimes it’s a difference to ourselves. Sometimes it’s a difference to someone else.

Two of the stories are about bullying. One is about a little guy named Rudolph who is a victim of some typical bullying. The story shows that, when it comes to bullying, where you stand (or in this case fly) can make all the difference.

The story is told in a simple song published by Montgomery Ward in 1939. While it may not have been originally intended as such, it really is a song about over-coming bullying. We didn’t call it bullying back then, but today we probably would. Fortunately, I don’t sing the song, I merely recite it as poetry with some editorial comment.

“You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
You know Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?

Here’s a little experiment for you. Close your eyes and, without singing the song or reciting the line from “Twas the Night Before Christmas” try to list Santa’s Reindeer. You’ll probably find the song irresistible, but I’m betting the eight regular sleigh-pullers aren’t all that memorable. You don’t readily recall them, but you do recall the most famous reindeer of all. That’s significant. You recall him because…

rudolphRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glows.

Rudolph stood out in a crowd because he didn’t exactly fit in with the crowd. He wasn’t like the other reindeer. While we don’t know how old he was, he’s often pictured with very small horns suggesting he’s an adolescent. We know that “fitting in” is very important during adolescence, so there’s little doubt Rudolph was not a very happy reindeer. He probably hated his nose. And it didn’t help that the other reindeer were bullies who made fun of him.

All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games.

Reindeer can be mean, can’t they!? And so can kids. It’s a complicated social dynamic, but a kid who is different—maybe wears a different style clothing or has a different physical characteristic (a red nose?)—gets ostracized and maybe worse. Simply being ignored by others can be painful. Being the last one standing when teams are selected is bad enough. But when they start to laugh and call names, the hurt and pain can seem unbearable.

I think it’s interesting that Santa apparently doesn’t take action. He could have started an anti-bullying program. Maybe created a stop bullying policy and hung up some kindness posters in the barn. In fairness to Santa, we’re not sure if he knew what the other reindeer were doing to Rudolph. He was probably busy keeping an eye on the elves and all the kids. How else could he know if they’ve been bad or good? He clearly had plenty on his plate besides the milk and cookies kids often leave him. So we can perhaps forgive him for not knowing that his reindeer were being mean to Rudolph.

We might also wonder why the SPCA didn’t respond and try to protect Rudolph, although it’s not clear whether cruelty among or between animals is covered by their mission statements. They seem a bit more focused on human cruelty against and neglect of animals.  Rudolph simply did not have much of a support system.

Let’s look at what did happen.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve,
Santa came to say,
“Rudolph, with your nose so bright,
Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

The song doesn’t record Rudolph’s answer. I suppose he could have said, “The heck with you—why should I help after what I’ve been put through by those other reindeer!?” We only know that Rudolph was finally recognized as having something to contribute. Ironically, the very thing that had separated him from the herd became the very thing that gave him status. Instead of cowering in the corner of the barn, Rudolph became the leader of the herd. And the results of that change were significant.

 Then how the reindeer loved him,
As they shouted out with glee,
“Rudolph the red-nose Reindeer
You’ll go down in history!”

Consider what didn’t change. Rudolph didn’t get nose surgery and his nose didn’t dim. The eight other reindeer didn’t attend some anti-bullying intervention and suddenly become more loving and accepting.

Circumstances changed. It became foggy. (We could rightfully wonder how all of Santa’s previous trips were on clear nights, but that would spoil the song and story.)

What ultimately happened is, I think, most important. Santa does play an important role in the outcome of the story. He’s obviously more troubled over the foggy night than he had been regarding Rudolph’s status with the herd. That reality might put a little smudge on Santa’s image, but let’s be honest. He needed a solution to the foggy night problem.

And there was Rudolph with his nose all aglow—a solution to a problem. Santa saw him differently for the first time—not as a misfit reindeer with a defective nose. So, perhaps grudgingly, Rudolph steps to the front.  He had to raise his head so the glow would light the way. And in that moment—as is so often the case with childrens’ stories—all is well! Everybody’s happy! Santa can make his deliveries. The eight bully reindeer no longer have to worry about running into things in the fog. They are shouting with glee!  In all of the picture books I’ve seen, Rudolph is smiling and his head is held high, not just to light the way but because he feels valued.

The song doesn’t record whether or not the “other” reindeer change permanently. Sure, they were shouting out with glee but that was because they were able to complete their rounds without hazard. The question that remains unanswered is whether or not they became any kinder and accepting as a result of the experience. If another reindeer came to the barn with, say, a deformed antler, would they laugh and call him names? Would they let poor Bent Antler join in any reindeer games?

I don’t know.

One thing I am fairly certain of, though. I think Rudolph began to think differently of himself. While I am sorry for his pain, I’m also glad that no one stepped in and deprived him of the opportunity to do just that—to learn and discover who he was—uniquely and individually.

What we think of ourselves goes much farther in defining who we are than what others think. A change of circumstances may trigger it, but the real change lies within ourselves. Our own self-value beats a red nose or bent antler any day. Where we stand makes a difference

I want fries with that!

StorefrontFriend and colleague Jack Falvey is now writing daily investment tips*—I’ve mentioned that before. In today’s he describes briefly the McDonald’s success story. One sentence jumped right off the page for me. “Hunger to succeed is the kind of hunger McDonald’s satisfies.” Jack was not only talking about investor success, he went on to note, “…without federal or state funds, the most successful youth training program on earth is teaching adolescents to show up on time, wash their hands, smile, make a neat appearance, and to ask with great expectation, ‘Do you want fries with that?’”

Where Jack wrote “hunger,” I saw “passion.”

Earlier this morning another colleague and I had a short but interesting conversation about an upcoming event designed to “raise awareness” of one of the many issues our society suffers. I confessed that I’m tired of programs for causes that are focused on “raising awareness.” Too often there’s little hunger and there’s no real passion. As a result we engage in activities that allow us to feel better but accomplish very little. It’s like feeling a little bit hungry and nibbling on a cracker. Or a small order of fries.

Just tell me when do we go from being “mildly interested” and aware to being passionate? Do we truly believe putting a bumper sticker on our vehicle is going make a difference? Help me understand how changing my status on Facebook for an hour is going to help.

During my years of consulting, I was never hired by an organization to “raise awareness.” In fact, those companies were usually painfully aware—perhaps not always of the root problem, but they knew there was one. I recall one organization that was having trouble “getting people to come to work.” Absenteeism and turnover was so high entire lines could not be started in the morning.

I can assure you, I did not recommend a program to increase awareness of the problem. We did not print bumper stickers for supervisors and company vehicles saying “Help stamp out absenteeism.” It took real passion and effort and sometimes drastic measures.

See, if you’re only a little bit hungry, it doesn’t take much to satisfy that hunger. A cracker might do it.

The McDonald’s story Jack tells includes some dismal failures in the early days of the company. Jack makes it fairly easy to see that success only came after a husband and wife put their last dollar into their store. “They invested their lives.”

I would say they were pretty hungry. So hungry they didn’t peruse cookbooks or debate where to eat or change their Facebook status to “I’m a little hungry.” They literally had to eat now. It became an obsession. There was no other option.

All of this reminded me that today I’ve been nibbling around the edges of the cracker. Maybe if I stopped nibbling I’d get hungry enough to remember what I’m passionate about until I feel the pangs of hunger that drive me incessantly and almost insanely to eat a big meal—to dine on the sweet success of achieving some things I care deeply about.

And not only do I want a big meal, I also want fries with it. When we care enough to want it all we know we have to go beyond raising awareness to making something happen.


*Investor Education Briefs is an online investor education program provided by the Institute for Politics at Saint Anselm College. It goes out each business day of the year at no charge. The editorial opinions of Jack Falvey, a Fellow of the Institute and a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, are provided for investor education only and are not offered as financial advice. Anyone may enter or exit the program at any time. There are no tests or academic credits involved. It is designed as a modified massive online open program which will recycle and be updated every twelve months.

The Best of 2012

top_3_pedestal_400_clr_6491Thanks to WordPress tracking, I’ve learned which were my three “most viewed” posts of 2012. In case you missed them, here’s the report and another chance to read them:

  1. Making Change and Not Making Changes  included some musings about a summer vacation to “Amish Country” and an old favorite farm stand. What makes this most popular position even more interesting is that I published quite a few reviews on TripAdvisor relative to that same vacation… My most popular/liked review was “The More Things Change…” my observations regarding our return visit after a ten year absence. Perhaps, as it has been said, “The Amish are islands of sanity it the whirlpool of change.”
  2. Giving Up Teaching…  I don’t know how much my “attention-getting” headline had to do with the ranking of this post, but it seemed important to share an important shift in my focus when I’m in the classroom. While I don’t fully subscribe to the idea of replacing the “sage on the stage” with the “guide on the side,” I do believe “The ultimate classroom management takes place when we engage the learners’ mind as well as their pencils.”
  3. Ten Commandments For Teachers truly surprised me, perhaps because they date back some sixty years. Perhaps we have more sanity in a whirlpool of change! Personally, I hope most who read this also read Back to School Rules… there were only three!

And it does occur to me that assuming it’s not too late to make a New Year’s Resolution or two, you might want to read “Making Change And Not Making Changes” first!

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2013… with the hope that your “best of” for the year is awesome!

Make That Mistake!

read_together_400_clr_3409We were nearly to her classroom door when I complimented my third grade friend. We’d just read together–actually she read to me–and I thought she’d done quite well. She impressed me with her vocabulary when she replied that she was actually much more “fluent” when she read to herself. I of course asked why.

Her reply was about being self concious and therefore “embarassed” when she made a mistake reading outloud. I confess my reply was a straight shot from the hip, “Don’t you ever be embarassed over mistakes when you are reading with me. Mistakes are an important and natural part of learning. And they actually can be fun.”

Usually these conversations are more about how the mind works faster than the mouth, but for some reason her discomfort seemed wrong. Of course we should challenge others to do well and to a healthy extent avoid errors. But the fear of failure can be paralyzing.

Later the same day I ran into my “giggler” friend. A year ago she was reading to me and when she came to the word “briefcase” she read “beer case.” For reasons I still don’t understand, her mistake struck me very funny. She and I ended up with the giggles for longer than was probably appropriate. She still remembers that day and the mistake–fortunately in a happy way that makes us both smile. I think it’s important that we laughed at the mistake; we didn’t laugh at her.

Recent studies are showing that students perform better in school and felt more confident when they were told that failure was a normal part of learning, bolstering a growing body of research that suggests much of the same. When I’m working with adults, I find that an important part of the process is to create a “safe” learning environment where mistakes can be made and judgement gets suspended. To that end, I’ve adopted the “Learner’s Bill of Rights” developed by the folks at Trainer’s Warehouse. Consider two of the ten.

IV. No unreasonable searches and seizures.

While facilitators may search for a right answer, learners have the right to make mistakes. If one is unable to answer a question correctly, the instructor will not cause embarassment.

and

VII. The right to a jury of peers.

You are entitled to a classroom of peers who will not judge or jeer, but make you feel safe and supported when faced with new challenges.

We would do well to consider creating a safe learning environment for others and ourselves. I remember once being part of a team that suffered a major mistake. The team leader said, “Well, we won’t make that mistake again.” I replied, “Nope, we’ll make some different ones.” He was not amused.

Creating a safe learning environment is about a willingness to allow mistakes that is balanced with a desire to “do well.” It’s really about avoiding mistakes, not fearing or focusing on them.

(For copies of the Learner’s Bill of Rights, please contact Trainer’s Warehouse at 800-299-3770 or www.trainerswarehouse.com.)

Those Who Can’t Do…

Most people are familiar with the maxim, “Those who can’t do, teach.” We can speculate regarding its beginnings, but it’s come to be a bit of a “slam” on teachers as it implies those who fail at doing things can always teach. I am hoping I can raise the maxim without raising the debate because I think the maxim suggests an interesting question: “What about those who can’t teach? What do they do?”

I suppose we could have a “complete the maxim contest.” Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, (fill in the blank).

See, once you dig below the implication that those who fail can always fall back on teaching, there’s an even more insidious implication that teaching doesn’t require very much skill. If you believe that, consider the experience of a recent adult student–and try to believe that the point of the story is not to brag about MY skill–it is to demonstrate the lack of logic behind thinking teaching doesn’t require skill.

She came to me for some help with a fairly specific subject. (I’m omitting lots of details to avoid embarrassing anybody.) Our initial discussion included her observation, “I really suck at this” and a high level of doubt that she would or could improve much.  So here we have a situation where not only does she think she’s not very skilled–she also doesn’t have much confidence in me as a teacher. We did have a little chat about how we unconsciously prove ourselves correct.

We didn’t have to talk long before I figured out at least one reason she didn’t have much confidence in my teaching ability or herself. The person who’d been “teaching” her apparently sucked at teaching. He is a subject matter expert without question; but that’s a big part of the problem. He keeps on teaching the material HE understands but doesn’t understand why his student “doesn’t get it.”

I can help him with that. She isn’t “getting it” in a large part because he isn’t very good at explaining (teaching) it. Let me hasten to add, I’m not saying he’s a bad person. He actually does care about this student. He also obviously cares a great deal about the subject. He just doesn’t “care” (Ben Franklin observed, “Ignorance is bliss.”) about how he teaches. In fairness, it’s not his profession. But at some level, he apparently subscribes to the idea that teaching isn’t very difficult.

So I worked with the student for a while, ultimately sending her home with a lot of stickers on her sweater. “Good job! Wow! A+! You did it!” She’s pretty sure her kids are going to think that’s both funny and cool. I’m not naive enough to claim she “got it” all and neither is she.  But she was at least wearing a smile with her stickers and feeling like she was making some learning progress.

I can’t help but wonder if she’ll tell her “teacher” that she may suck at the subject, but he really sucks at teaching. Another debate we often have in the teaching arena is whether or not the teacher has to be good at or well-educated in a particular subject or discipline to teach it. Personally, I’d like to declare that an invalid debate.

There is a proverb attributed to Buddha that almost gets it right with the claim, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” That makes it sound a bit mystical and magical when it’s actually about a simple balance. There are teaching skills and there are learning skills. Both can and should be developed. A skilled teacher and a skilled learner create that magic. Suggesting that teaching requires little or no skill isn’t fair–it makes the learner totally responsible for the learning. Suggesting that learning requires little or no skill isn’t fair either because that makes the teacher totally responsible for the teaching. Maybe we should re-write the maxim.

Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, learn.

 Among the many things that can be learned is how to teach! In the last few decades we have been discovering some exciting new ways we can teach people because we are beginning to understand how people learn. So to those who think teaching isn’t very difficult, I agree, it’s not–unless you want to do it well. And you won’t do it well until you understand that teaching is really about learning.