The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.
~ William James
I came across an article about a 10-year-old musical prodigy named Ethan Loch from Bonnybridge, Scotland. Ethan had been admitted to St. Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, and to go to school, Ethan would need to board a train and cross two main roads. The commute to school would be more challenging for Ethan than for most children his age. Why? You see, Ethan is blind. Ethan would have to master echolocation in order to go to school.
Ethan’s parents asked Daniel Kish, who is also blind, to teach Ethan to “see” by clicking his tongue. Ethan’s journey was inspiring, but what caught my attention most was an incident that occurred in an early part of the journey. Daniel took Ethan out for a practice walk to Ethan’s new school. It was a difficult day. After they had left the train station, Ethan walked into a pole and veered into the road. When they finally arrived at the school, he ploughed right into the bushes.
Daniel asked him what had just happened. Ethan’s response was, “Sometimes I lose track if I hear sounds in the distance. … I want to know where these sounds are coming from, and so I keep going towards them. My ears keep wanting to hear them.”
The sounds in the distance? I thought about Ethan’s response. How could something so far away, so vague as the sounds in the distance be so powerful? They had sidetracked a determined, intelligent boy from his path, literally and figuratively, and could have caused him harm.
We, too, have heard sounds in the distance. We may not refer to them as poetically as the author of the article did, but we do hear them. Sometimes we call these distractions, “the shiny new toy.” Sometimes, we call them, “a pet project.” And sometimes, we call them, “the flavor of the month,” or worse yet, “the flavor of the week.” We hear the sounds in the distance more often than not.
Around the same time that I read Ethan’s story, I received a call from a former colleague. He was frustrated with the situation at work, and he called to vent. His organization had been undergoing leadership changes and uncertainty for a few years. Finally, the organization had brought in a new leader. My colleague had been hoping for a sense of focus, priorities and stability, but his new boss did not give him what he had been longing for. My colleague felt lost, not knowing what the goals were and what he was supposed to deliver. “My boss is all over the place,” my colleague said, and for the next several minutes, the shiny new toy, the pet project, and the flavor of the month all came flooding out from his end of the phone line.
I can relate to my former colleague. I have been in his position. We all have. I remember being frustrated with the leadership of a team, a department or an organization that was not able to clearly articulate their goals or couldn’t stay committed to working toward the goals after having communicated them!
It might be easy and tempting to say that my colleague’s boss – or other bosses who cause us frustration – are at fault, that they get sidetracked by the shiny new toy, the pet project, the flavor of the month, or the sounds in the distance. Another recent phone call reminded me why it is not easy.
This time, the caller was a former boss from one of my previous jobs, where I had been a team leader for her. She called to catch up, and given our shared experience, my old job came up. She made an observation that the team struggled to stay focused and she couldn’t figure out why. Her question might have been rhetorical, but I gave it some thought. I said to her, “Do you know what consumed most of my energy in that job? Figuring out how to say no to my stakeholders while keeping them engaged.” The organization was in the midst of change at the time. We had many problems to solve, and I could only focus on three things, maybe five at most. Yet everyone wanted to help. Everyone had ideas and opinions. Everyone saw different opportunities. I listened and evaluated. If the ideas, the opinions and the opportunities didn’t fit the priorities, I had to say no and convince everyone why saying “no” to opportunities made sense. Convincing people why their good ideas were not the right thing to do at that particular time took a lot of energy. I was physically exhausted and mentally drained. Even though I did my best to keep the organization focused, many people were not happy.
So, there are bosses out there who can’t set goals, communicate them or stick to them, and we get mad at them, and rightfully so. I can’t defend those bosses. However, there are also bosses out there who are doing their best to set goals, define priorities, communicate them (as repeatedly as they can, I might add) and commit to implementation. And some of us are still mad at them. We say that they are distracted. We say that they miss opportunities. But is it so? Is it the bosses that are distracted by the sounds in the distance? Or is it we who hear the sounds?
A children’s book helps me make sense of the power of the sounds in the distance and process the frustration that might ensue. Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, by Mac Barnett with illustrations by Jon Klassen, is a story about two boys who went outside their house one Monday and dug a hole. Here is the dialogue between the two of them at the onset:
“When should we stop digging?” asked Sam.
“We are on a mission,” said Dave.
“We won’t stop digging until we find something spectacular.”
The mission was clear and simple: dig until we find something spectacular. They did not recruit anyone to help them although their dog followed along while their cat stayed behind. When they needed a rest, they stopped, drank chocolate milk and ate animal cookies. Then, they resumed digging. They might change direction or split up to try new paths, but they stayed committed to digging. At the end, this is what Sam and Dave had to say:
“Well,” said Sam.
“Well,” said Dave.
“That was pretty spectacular.”
Mission accomplished. They went inside their house for chocolate milk and animal cookies.
The first time I read the book, I thought, “What the…!” Imagine a children’s book that made you say such a phrase, even in your head! I was agitated, and I still was after giving the book a few more chances. I later read it to my nephew and my niece. Here were their reactions, more polite than mine but equally filled with frustration:
“I don’t get it!”
“They didn’t see it?”
“How could they miss it?” my friend added to the list. I mentioned what happened to her on the phone, and she shared her daughter’s reaction with me.
What is the “it” that the children were referring to? How can it drive three children and one adult to such frustration? What is it?
It was not written but drawn. The text of Sam & Dave Dig a Hole tells only half of the story. The illustrations tell the other half. The “it” that we were reacting to was diamonds. From the beginning of the digging, there was a diamond in the ground. Initially, we might rule out the diamond as just another object underground like stones and roots of an apple tree. But, as Sam and Dave dug, the diamonds kept showing up and kept getting bigger and bigger, to the point that we, as observers, could no longer ignore them. Even if we did, the dog would remind us that the diamonds were there. The dog saw the diamonds, stared at them and, with his gaze and paws, tried to draw Sam and Dave’s attention to the shiny gems, and our attention to Sam and Dave’s missed opportunities.
Did Sam and Dave see the diamonds? The question is irrelevant. They were not looking for diamonds. They were looking for “something spectacular,” the mission which they accomplished at the end. For some reason, however, both we and the dog saw the diamonds and interpreted them as the “something spectacular” they were seeking. For Sam and Dave, the diamonds were just stones in the way. For us and the dogs, the stones were gems, too valuable to pass. They piqued our curiosity and tempted us to reach for them. The diamonds became the sounds in the distance, or the distraction, not for Sam and Dave but for us. We forgot that we were just bystanders and believed that our ideas, our opinions and the opportunities that we saw mattered. We had nothing to do with Sam and Dave’s mission, and yet we blamed our frustration on them, not on us.
Given the children’s and my own reaction to the story, I can’t help wonder if we are all wired to be curious, to spot opportunities, and to be fascinated by the sounds in the distance. A lot of times, curiosity and our opportunity-seeking nature help us innovate and move forward. But there are times when they become distraction and take us away from our goals. Having been both a frustrated follower of bosses without a focus and an exhausted boss trying my best to keep everyone focused gives me an appreciation of how difficult it is to stay committed to goals and to the process of getting there. While I will not defend bosses who can’t set goals or commit to implementation, I would like to stand up for those of us who do our best to help our team, our department, our organization stay focused. The next time we feel frustrated with our respective bosses’ lack of focus, I urge that we give them the benefit of the doubt and ask ourselves a question: am I hearing the sounds in the distance? Or are the bosses hearing them?
If the answer is the former, maybe we need to check in on the mission and our own commitment to it, and see if we can adjust our focus and be as helpful as the dog was when he found a bone, stopped staring at the diamonds and started digging.
If the answer is the latter, consider opening a dialogue to help them to refocus. Remember, bosses are human and can be tempted by shiny things. If the bosses are not capable of having a dialogue, cannot refocus or abandoned the mission, maybe it is time for you to dig yourself out of the tunnel and leave the bosses in there with their shiny new toy, their pet project and their flavor of the month. The cat chose not to participate, and you can do the same. The choice is yours.