“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”Blaise Pascal
The Boy, the Man and the Donkey
One day, a long time ago, an old Miller and his Son were on their way to market with an Ass which they hoped to sell. They drove him very slowly, for they thought they would have a better chance to sell him if they kept him in good condition. As they walked along the highway some travelers laughed loudly at them.
“What foolishness,” cried one, “to walk when they might as well ride. The most stupid of the three is not the one you would expect it to be.”
The Miller did not like to be laughed at, so he told his son to climb up and ride.
They had gone a little farther along the road, when three merchants passed by.
“Oho, what have we here?” they cried. “Respect old age, young man! Get down, and let the old man ride.”
Though the Miller was not tired, he made the boy get down and climbed up himself to ride, just to please the Merchants.
At the next turnstile they overtook some women carrying market baskets loaded with vegetables and other things to sell.
“Look at the old fool,” exclaimed one of them. “Perched on the Ass, while that poor boy has to walk.”
The Miller felt a bit vexed, but to be agreeable he told the Boy to climb up behind him.
They had no sooner started out again than a loud shout went up from another company of people on the road.
“What a crime,” cried one, “to load up a poor dumb beast like that! They look more able to carry the poor creature, than he to carry them.”
“They must be on their way to sell the poor thing’s hide,” said another
The Miller and his Son quickly scrambled down, and a short time later, the market place was thrown into an uproar as the two came along carrying the Donkey slung from a pole. A great crowd of people ran out to get a closer look at the strange sight.
The Ass did not dislike being carried, but so many people came up to point at him and laugh and shout, that he began to kick and bray, and then, just as they were crossing a bridge, the ropes that held him gave way, and down he tumbled into the river.
The poor Miller now set out sadly for home. By trying to please everybody, he had pleased nobody, and lost his Ass besides.
Moral? If you try to please everyone, you please no-one, least of all yourself.
A Bias Towards Action – An Octopus on Rollerblades?
This Aesop fable reminds me of a phenomena I see in with client organisations and with individuals I coach. It concerns how we are constantly biased towards action, but not always in a productive way. I share in my book, “Undisruptable”, we are often like an Octopus on Rollerblades, with lots of movement but no direction. This is the case for organisations, individuals and society alike. Before taking action, it is beneficial to be clear on purpose but flexible on how to achieve that purpose.
In my coaching practice, I like to work with the client to “educe”, to “draw out” their inner self, their purpose, their raison d’être. This process irritates them, they often think, “Oh no, I chose the wrong coach, this guy is into fuzzy fuzzy, mumbo jumbo stuff.” The client goes along with it, but sometimes they pipe up and gently suggest, “You know, I was hoping you could just give me a list of things I could be working on.” or when the session ends and I check in with the client to ask how was the session, sometimes, they will utter a leading question like, “Erm, I was hoping to have some things to work on by now?” To which I reply, “You have loads to work on, you have to figure out your purpose. Why do you do what you do? What do you stand for? What are your values?” That is a mountain of work “to do”.
So, how does it play out?
Without exception, the client will say that it was the most pivotal part of the work. It was the most transformational aspect of their coaching experience.
There are many reasons why, but here is a mental model, that I find useful.
When I work with teams, one of the activities I facilitate is a team charter (We discuss this on The Innovation Show with Stefano Mastrogiacomo.) In this work, I draw a circle and in the circle the team agree on the values they want to be know for. It can be anything from “be punctual” to “be kind” to “respect your colleagues”. When we are finished, everyone signs the charter (not in a contractual sense) and they either keep that piece of paper (virtual or otherwise) or get it produced into an aesthetically pleasing poster. I recommend this because it serves as an “ideal” against which they can hold themselves accountable. It is like a straw man of the team they strive to be.
It is a very useful tool when team members occasionally “fall from grace”. When this inevitably happens, you don’t have to say much. “Hey Matt, you know you have been late to every meeting this week, if it is not some health or family issue, just a gentle reminder we all signed this charter.” It is great, it depersonalises the awkward situation for Matt, he does not perceive your statement as your personal judgement or condemnation. Thanks to the charter, it is you, as a team member, simply reminding him of the standard that he had not only agreed to, but also co-created.
By under covering your personal purpose, you do the same thing. You create an ideal version of your self, a future version of yourself, a standard you want to achieve. Then, when you “fall from grace” your future self, your straw man version of yourself holds you accountable to your future, to the purpose you defined.
To Be Lists
(Image by Jujupie: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100040334516618)
The 2008 financial downturn was a catalyst for change, as is this pandemic. During these times of crises such as these, many of us have to rethink what we stand for. This is an important step, but we often become so preoccupied with “busyness” that we neglect to define our purpose. By prioritising a “To Be List” over a “To Do List” (which is equally as important, but comes afterwards) we have a North Star to guide our decisions.
Do we acquire this company?
Does it align with our company purpose?
Do we give health care to our employees?
Do I take that role in that company?
Does the company align with my personal purpose?
Do I leave the company I work for because they are inauthentic?
Does this person I am dating have the same values as me?
It takes time and it takes a lot of cognitive energy to peel the onion to reveal one’s purpose, but it will save a lot of wasted effort and deferred pain further down the road. Understanding yourself helps you make better life decisions, find a more suited partner, be a better friend, parent, colleague and live a more fulfilling life. However, as the Greek philosopher Thales noted, “The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.”
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