A Tale For All Seasons

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coal-mouse asked a wild dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coal-mouse said.

“I sat on the branch of a fir tree, close to its trunk, when it began to snow—not heavily, not dramatically — no, just like in a dream, snowing without a sound and without violence. Since I did not have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the 3,741,953rd dropped onto the branch – nothing more than nothing, as you say – snap, the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the coal-mouse then flew away.

The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for awhile, and finally said to herself, “Perhaps there is only one more person’s voice lacking for peace to finally come to the world.”

(Kurt Kauter)

The Maddening Discipline of Learning How to Let Go

Here is a wonderful story told by Richard Bookstaber:

In Southeast Asia, monkey trappers stake a small wooden box to the ground with a hole just large enough for the monkey to slide in its hand. Inside the box is placed a lychee nut. The trappers wait in hiding until a monkey comes by and reaches in for the prized nut. As the trappers emerge from their hiding place, net in hand, the monkey howls and screeches, and tries to pull the nut out of the box and escape. All the monkey has to do to free its hand is let go of the nut, because the hole is too small for the monkey’s hand if it is clenched around it. The monkey, too focused on the reward and ignoring the danger, refuses to give up the prize, while the trappers descend with their nets.

When was the last time you got so carried away with achieving an outcome that you eventually lost sight of what you were actually surrendering in return ? Whether it is a promotion, winning over the competition, looking to maximise return or what have you, the heat of the pursuit can at times make us overlook the actual value of what we fight so hard to get, in relation to how much it actually is costing us to get it. Beyond a certain point, by holding on so frantically to the nut of victory, we may well put ourselves in jeopardy with something else (dignity, reputation, financial risk etc.)

When All Is Said And Done

A few years ago, I was visiting a dying friend in hospital. He knew his days were counted, what with all those tubes and wires coming out of him. But he had that tranquil, peaceful and serene look of someone who appeared at peace with himself, ready to shuffle off his mortal coil and slip back to the other side.

We were having a nice chat together, when eventually I came around to putting the question I wanted to put to him:

– “Can I ask you something, from someone standing by the bed to someone lying in it ?”

– “What your really mean is from a living person to a dying person?” he chuckled. “Please do so”.

– “Thank you. I am curious about something. From where you are right now, looking back on your life, do you have any regrets about anything?”

The question seemed to make him withdraw. He turned his head away and remained silent for a long while, with his eyes closed. He eventually turned his head back, and said with a clear voice:

– “If I have one regret, it is about not doing what I always wanted to do in life. And that was to live in the mountains and become a guide. I let my father talk me out of it”.
He paused, then added:

– “Well that is not quite true. My father was against, yes that’s true. But that was not the reason for my not doing it. I did not follow the difficult and winding path up to the mountains, because I did not have the guts to do it. Not because my father prevented me from doing it.
Now that I am about to take my leave from this blessed life, and looking back on things, my only regret was not following my gut instinct. Don’t get me wrong. I consider I had a good life. I got married to someone I loved all my life, we raised a family, we lived a comfortable life. But I always wondered how different it would have been if I had followed my dream. Throughout my life, I always felt this frustration in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes even anger. Anger at others for getting in the way, but actually anger at myself for not having had the guts to follow my dream. I never really experienced fulfilment, deep seated fulfilment, as I once saw in a shepherd I came across when hiking in the mountains one summer.
Want some advice ? Well even if you don’t, here it is anyway: don’t make the same mistake! If you have a dream, regardless of circumstances and what not, just bloody well follow that dream. It will lead you to where so few are willing to venture: enjoying life for what you made of it and to hell with the rest!”

He died a couple of weeks later. However his exclamation still resonates with me today.

It seems as if dying people, if asked, very seldom regret what they did do and could have done differently. Rather if they have any regret, it’s rather about what they did not do but always wanted to do.

So why wait for the final curtain call to regret not playing out our best hand ?

The Three Folded Fingers

Let’s face it: today’s leadership skills require collaboration and influence, rather than the old authoritarian approach of command and control. The days when the top viewed itself as cause and the rest of the world as merely effect are rapidly going. Throwing your weight around might work for a while, but in the end you just undermine and eventually forfeit your real authority. Hubris is but a hair’s breadth from self assurance, and nemesis stands right behind it.

I often come across senior managers who vent their deep frustration towards a subordinate for not complying with their demand to do something differently or to change their ways ? This may, at times, lead to irritation or even anger.

Let’s take the example of a CEO, discussing with his CFO the idea of changing the company’s accounting practice, ahead of publishing their next results. The CEO believes this would appropriately reflect how they now sell a certain product, following a change in market circumstances. The CFO, on the other hand, questions the advisability of such a move, suggesting they wait and see if the change is a lasting one or just a passing fad. Of course he can see how the change would benefit the bottom line. But he feels something of this nature should be announced to the markets in advance, to avoid surprising the analysts and being suspected of acting in an opportunistic way to flatter the company’s results.

What started out as a perfectly calm exchange of views, gradually takes a turn for the worst, with both sides quickly digging in their heels. The tone rises and soon the CEO is pointing his finger at his CFO, starting to feel angry at him for appearing to resist what seems to him a perfectly legitimate move.

What happened ? Well if you were a fly on the wall, you would notice that at a certain point in the conversation, one side started doubting the intentions of the other. Rather than trying to figure out what the CFO’s true concerns were and how best to address these, the CEO started ‘interpreting’ his intentions, suspecting malicious intent on his part.

When you sense the discussion is getting out of control, there is a way to regain your senses, to find a way back into the conversation. And it is this. Every time we catch ourselves pointing a finger, like a cocked pistol, at someone, as if threatening them for not yielding to our argument, we should always look at the three silently folded fingers pointing back at us, seemingly asking: “And how is my action contributing to finding a way forward ? What could I do differently to achieve my objective ?”