Dr. Seuss and Some Lessons at Lunch

I learned something at lunch today. Like most lessons, it was not what it first appeared to be, and then it was more than it appeared, and then … well … just watch this unfold and see what you think.

It was well past noon and I had a 1:00 session scheduled, so I stopped in at Subway for a quick turkey on wheat. If you live in Columbus, Indiana, you’ll find the downtown Subway is embedded in the Commons, a big, open building that has a few restaurants in it, but is mostly meeting space and a great big Dr.Seuss-inspired playground for kids. Seriously. Dr. Seuss. It’s got a huge spider-web of a jungle-gym that spans from floor to its ceiling that must be 50 feet tall. It’s got tubes and turf-covered hills and slides and … I mean, if you are eight years old, this is the place to be. The entire thing is blue and red and yellow and green. And it’s always full of kids–running, crawling, laughing kids.

I got my sandwich, and grabbed a seat around the edge of the playground that was situated so I could watch kids play. Inevitably, in these situations I think of when Brigid was that age. But after a few moments of that, I just watched the kids play. Talk about a great, rejuvenating thing to do in the middle of a day in the middle of corporate America. Kids climbed, kids screamed, kids slid, kids grinned, and a few even ran by me, grinning and saying “hi” as they went. They had a boatload of fun.

I decided then that I was going back to work with a fresh brain, that when I was frustrated with something I was going to bring up an image of a gap-toothed six-year-old girl flying around like she was an airplane. That, I thought, was the lesson this little lunch break was going to teach me. Have fun, this moment said. Life is supposed to be fun. I was wrong, of course. This was a lesson, but it was a little too pat for the tastes of the modern-day reader. We need complexity, right? We need twists.

And in that light, I happened to catch sight of a young girl, probably eight. She had two friends with her, and she was trying to climb up a big, round column that was about three-quarters of her height. She clearly intended to sit on it, but this was a big problem. She had a leg up, but couldn’t quite get herself up there. One of her friends tried to help, pushing her waist upward as she strove to get a toe up to the top of the column, but still, no luck. She could make it, though, I could tell she could if her other friend would take her other side and help guide that foot just a little. On cue, the third girl grabbed the climber’s foot, but rather than a firm guiding, the second helper yanked that foot upward, unsettling the climber and depositing her flat on her back in a rude pile.

The girl was okay, but you could see that it hurt. She got up and walked away, though, and in a moment she was running and playing and having a great time doing something else.

I thought about collaboration, then. I thought about what makes collaboration work and I thought about how us corporate wonks think collaboration is so important. And, of course, it is. Good collaboration is about (sometimes) sacrificing implementation speed for ensuring higher quality. I thought about the nuances, though. I thought about how we forget the caveats about things like the wisdom of crowds (which requires true, independent diversity of opinion…which often does not exist in corporate environments, which are filled with people who are eventually doomed to some degree of group-think). The goodness of this girl’s collaboration, for example, assumed that all three of the participants actually shared a common image of the goal. Along the way I thought about collaborations I’ve done with John Bodin, and how good and how fun they were.

I thought about all of these, again with the idea that the learning I was supposed to take away from this lunch had to do with being sensitive to how to work with people. Once again, though, I was wrong … or at least I wasn’t done. Because a few minutes later, after I had finished my sandwich and chips, and had gotten up to leave, I noticed that a young boy had approached the scene of the collaboration betrayal. He was a little shorter than the girl had been, but he eyed that column and the perch up there with deep intensity. He was by himself, this kid, but that didn’t matter. He was going to take on this obstacle on.

He started by reaching around the column and trying to scoot up it with his knees. It didn’t work. So he put his shoe against the column, and he tried to climb it. This got close, but again, he couldn’t lever himself up.

He stepped back, and swung his foot out to the side, obviously imagining his climb. And then he stepped back to the column and gave it another go. Almost. Almost. He got so close I wanted to give him a boost, but of course I didn’t and of course he slipped back down. But he tried one more time, taking two bouncy steps toward the column and swinging his leg up like an old-time vaulter. His hand and elbow got up over the ledge, and the shoe grabbed the top edge, and he hung there fighting gravity, wobbling, straining. He raised himself slowly, though. And in maybe five seconds he was sitting on the column. He was surprised at first. You could tell it. He hadn’t known what it was going to be like. But then a smile crossed his face and the corner of his lips twitched. Then he threw his two balled fists into the air and broke out into a huge grin. He had done it.

Just him. Determined. Capable. Persistent.

So, yeah. I learned something at lunch today.

I’ll leave it to you to decide what it was.

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