My children have been collecting acorns in spiderman buckets all weekend. My oldest wants to write messages of hope and inspiration on them and give them away with the lemonade they plan to sell at a stand next week. My three year old just wants to collect as many as he can and keep them all to himself. My one year is only interested in tormenting my three year old by threatening to steal the acorns for the explosive reaction it promises (it's all about cause and effect for him). My six year old isn't interested in either the acorns or the explosions. She's too busy putting on her cowgirl boots and soccer shorts and slinging a bow + arrow over her shoulder to be bothered with acorn matters. But she is paying close attention to the behaviors of her siblings and their triggers when it comes to them.
In the midst of a battle between brothers this morning I asked Peter, the three year old, what he was most afraid of when his little brother made a swipe for his acorns. I asked him what he was afraid would happen. He told me he was afraid Danny would take them. Take them where? I asked. He didn't know, just that he would take them. I asked him, Have you ever seen Danny going anywhere by himself, or even out of these two rooms? No, he said. He couldn't think of a time. Would he feel better knowing that I would help make sure his acorns stayed safe while Danny was playing with him? He nodded his head.
I explained to him that fears were normal but that we couldn't hold onto them, that we had to let them go just like the bubbles he loved to blow. Then Anna, my six year old, chimed in from the corner she was dancing (and overhearing) in. She very calmly and confidently pointed out, "Oh, riggggghht. The bubbles are our fears. They float around and we can't quite catch them but we can pop them by touching them and if we can't reach them, we can ask someone to help us."
Bingo. We can let them go, pop them. We can always ask someone to help us.
Sometimes I struggle in confidence because so much of my life involves observing and guiding the antics and development of four small children (probably not always well), yet I'm writing articles and delivering coaching to adults. But when exchanges like these unfold before my eyes, I see my own adult behaviors and fears in them too.
Rather than a living room, I'm usually in a board room or at a conference table. I'm thinking about the roles that team members fall into (me included)--those with the ideas, who want to bring hope and inspiration, those who point out the challenges, those who expand on the possibilities, those who are afraid of failure, others who are afraid of success, those ready to take action, those who want to hold on tightly to what is in place right now. We are not devising ways to fiercely protect acorns, but we could easily replace acorns with something else--budgets, projects, programs, lesson plans, instructional strategies, procedures.
And there is an important place for all of those roles and often we all take turns playing them. We need to challenge ideas and think through their implementation. We must anticipate problems and snags. I have rarely encountered a great idea that wasn't made even better by different perspectives. Discussion and disagreement should always be part of the disruption, improvement, or transformation process--whatever it is. But we have to be careful that the disagreements and discussions are driven by courage and growth and not by fear. The times I have seen teamwork and the possibility and excitement of it fall apart is when members have used their expertise to protect their fears.
When we enter a meeting or a discussion or a project where we want to make things better, especially for kids, the most incredible and productive experiences are the ones where we come to the table as humans and get comfortable sharing what we don't know, what we are afraid of but what we hope for. That kind of approach is a contagious one, it catches. And before you know it, you're a room full of people who know some things but together, you're learning a lot more things. You share ideas, you confess fears you've yet to name, and your colleagues are making it okay for you to pop them or helping you reach them if you can't. Suddenly there is a lot more space in your mind and in your life to explore and improve and create with others.
I was coaching someone recently who was preparing for an assignment that he thought was new to him, but wasn't really. The situation was different, the circumstances. But the people were no different than those he had helped in other ways and in different places before. I asked him what he was afraid of, what made him most nervous. He was concerned that he hadn't served in the same capacity as those he would be working with, hadn't walked in their shoes.
Even though he had, that wasn't even the point. The people needed someone who could help them to think clearly about what they were doing really well and what they could stand to improve, to understand exactly what excellence looked like and felt like to them, to develop actions and assignments that would move them all closer to behaving and performing in excellent ways. This friend knew how to do all of those things expertly. He knew how to make it okay for them to be an expert and have fears and demonstrate courage in overcoming them. He was modeling it for them now.
I told him what I tell a lot of people I work with: We are all 7th graders. We all try on and wear masks to shield the parts of us that might not be cool or right or smart. The parts that might be judged by others. The parts that make us human and great and full of hope and willing to learn. Why would we ever want to cover that up? As someone once pointed out, the irony is that when we take off those masks, we become less judgmental of ourselves and others; we make it okay for others to take off their masks too.
We are all 7th graders and we want nothing more than for our actual 7th graders to raise their hand when they have a question, to smile wide with their shiny braces, to speak up even if their voice might crack, to wear stonewashed denim if that's what they're most comfortable doing. We want them to be who they are and we want their peers to accept them and help them and encourage them.
It sounds a lot like what we all want for our colleagues and friends too. Our students. Our children. It sounds a lot like what we want for ourselves.
Call to Action (share your responses in the Comments section below)
Have you ever been afraid? Did you always know what you were afraid of or did you have to think it through? Did it prevent you from enjoying your work, building relationships, growing in your learning? How did you overcome it?
Tell us about the best teaming experience you have had. What made it the best?