Twice in recent weeks, I had an opportunity to observe the way one of our kids handled and reacted to a particular challenge in life. Two different problems. Two different kids. In one case, Mark and I found ourselves later remarking on how well one kid handled a particular issue. We were impressed with the fact that we were welcomed to a discussion about it and how maturely the problem was handled. We offered up some opinions, but no advice was really needed. The problem was handled in a way that met with this kid’s comfort level. As I thought about that child’s ability to deal – with so many things – the words poise and grace came to mind. I said as much to Mark, proud that our kids have grown up so well in so many ways. He said he wondered how long it would be before this particular kid lost that positive approach and became jaded like the rest of us. I was a bit astonished at his cynicism and said I thought it might be easier to maintain such a healthy attitude without someone insisting that it was pointless.
Second scenario. Another of our young-adult children encountered a minor failure, which was clearly perceived as anything but minor. In spite of assurances that we were not disappointed, in spite of offers for a discussion in the hopes of helping to figure out how to solve this problem, this time, we were met with a person who was clearly embarrassed and wanted to shut us out. This kid wanted anything but to discuss the problem with us and hastily assured us that things could be handled without our input. They can be. But I wish my child didn’t feel the need to go it alone.
In my job, I’m offered constant opportunities to be challenged, to learn and to grow my skills. I truly enjoy the work that I do and am almost always willing to try pushing the boundaries of my knowledge and experience. It’s what makes my job so fulfilling. Today as I was wrapping up an afternoon meeting, the conference room door slowly opened and our CEO poked his head inside.
“I don’t mean to interrupt.” Pointing at me, he continued, “But when you’re done, I need your help.”
“Okay,” I said. There must have been a big question mark on my face. I don’t usually work directly with the CEO, although I have had several random chances over the years and I always know that when he comes looking for help, there’s something interesting ahead.
“I just finished writing my quarterly President’s report,” he explained. “I need someone to proofread and clean it up. You’re good with this stuff. It’ll just take you five minutes. Five minutes is all.”
“Alright. I’ll be done here soon.” I said. “Did you email it to me already?”
“Nah, I thought you could just come sit at my desk and go over it. Really. Five minutes is all you’ll need.”
Proofreading. It’s not the most fun work I can think to do. But I like our CEO. He has the ability to inspire enthusiasm and he seems to have a knack for figuring out the “thing” about his employees. One person might be his go-to design person. Another might be the one he seeks out for sports or movie or political conversation. There’s sure to be a numbers guy and a technology expert. Someone else (like me,) might be the word person, even when (like me,) that person doesn’t have a formal education focused on words, grammar, and punctuation. But it’s amazing how willing and able a person might be at a particular skill when someone else expresses utter confidence in their abilities.
I know I can hold my own in the words, grammar and punctuation department. But the funny thing is, we just hired someone whose job it is to be the communications expert. In the shadow of a word expert, I might doubt my abilities to some extent. Yet the CEO came to me. And the guy who gets paid to deal with the company’s words was busy anyway. And so I was in good humor about the whole thing.
After my meeting, I walked over to the big guy’s office and he invited me to have a seat in his chair. Four pages were waiting for my clean-up, which really might not have taken much more than five minutes, but for the fact that the CEO was feeling a bit chatty. It was hard to absorb the words and characters on the screen in front of me while still trying to pay attention to the friendly conversation directed my way.
“Do you speak Spanish?”
“Nope. Not me,” I said. “My daughter speaks it pretty well. When she was in high school, she would randomly tell me certain things in Spanish and I found I could understand a lot of it. But I can’t speak it.”
“Darn. My daughter’s in Spain for a semester and my wife and I are going to visit. I bought one of those programs that teaches you a foreign language, but I’d like to try speaking with someone else in Spanish and see if I’m getting the hang of it.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I took German in high school.”
“Ah! Sprechen sie Deutch?” he asked. (Do you speak German?)
“Nur ein bisschen,” I admitted. (Only a little.)
I found it impossible to admit that he was distracting me from the work he wanted me to do. He’s the head honcho, after all, and I didn’t want to rub him the wrong way. But I found that if I responded to his commentary a bit distractedly, he’d give me a break long enough for me to make progress on my proofreading duties. While I worked my way through his report, rectifying a complete overuse of dashes and misuse of capitalization, the CEO cleaned up piles of papers on his desk, chatting amiably as he organized. He remarked it was a nice break for him to be forced away from his computer and to have to get things under control around his office.
I asked for clarification on a couple of items. I didn’t want to “correct” something I might be misunderstanding. He assured me that he had faith that I knew what I was doing and could really just go with my instincts on everything. With the CEO having such confidence in my abilities, I really wasn’t worried that I’d drop the ball, even though this report would be making its way to a bunch of big-wigs not long after I was through with it.
In my job, I often find that a project or challenge doesn’t seem so daunting when someone else clearly has no doubt that I can manage it. When this is the case, I believe in myself so much more than I otherwise might have. It’s amazing what you can achieve when all doubt and insecurity is removed. In fact, I’m pretty certain this is why I could “fight” for weeks trying to find a few promising numbers and rarely worrying that I wouldn’t eventually find the answers I was looking for.
As I think about my kids’ ups and downs, I wonder what we sometimes did right and sometimes did wrong in teaching them to overcome challenges. When faced with a struggle, why was one of them able to manage so effortlessly and without feeling weighed down, while the other wanted only to brush the problem under the rug? Of course, at any time, the tables could turn. And another time, faced with another problem, the kid who seemed so strong this time might end up feeling at a loss. Depending on the challenge, the kid who wanted to run away from this recent problem might impress everyone with an ability to conquer. It makes me wonder if at the first sign of struggle in one of our kids, did we worry so much about that particular weakness that we failed to instill in them an ability to overcome it? Of course as a parent, you constantly try to encourage and lift up your children. But are the words sometimes not enough? Does the doubt sometimes show through, even when you’re trying to keep it at bay? When one displayed any kind of strength, were we so confident in a child that he or she could easily continue to grow and develop that strength without ever looking back?
I wish I’d known it all along, but some things only come with age and experiences. I wish I had been confident enough to believe and pass on to my kids when they were very young, that so much more is possible than you can ever imagine. Every strength and every weakness is not necessarily permanent. Sometimes all you have to do is imagine it to get off on the right foot. It helps to have someone else believe in you. It’s so much easier to believe in your own abilities when someone else sees them inside of you. But ultimately, you really just need to believe in yourself.
When I think of all the people I’ve known and encountered in my years, all of the personality types and different ways I’ve seen people deal with the world, I wonder if when things are so bad, it’s because people just lose hope and any sense of optimism. How much better things might be if everyone had someone to have faith in them.
That feels like something for me to work on. Believing in my own family, the people I love and want to succeed, is pretty easy most of the time. Not always, but more often than not. Others? It’s sometimes easier to just write ‘em off. I’ve been known to tell my sometimes cynical husband that what you expect of someone is often what they’ll give you. Might be good to keep that in mind myself.