Claim your A
“More grows in the garden than the gardener knows he has sown.” -Spanish Proverb
Three stories circling one theme:
The first story
Emma was ecstatic about the sparkly piece of jewelry in that unabashed way kids have, a bundle of sheer happy enthusiasm and joy at seeing the beautiful object.
“Well,” I heard the woman say to Emma in an off-handed way, “I’d give it to you, but you’d just lose it.”
I could hardly believe what I had heard. But it was a fast moment in time, squeezed in between many other moments for Emma; racing through her young days with abandon, she moved on. And after a while I forgot it, chalking the sentence up to an unintentional insensitivity—I was sure the woman meant nothing by it. And she didn’t, not really.
Over a year later, Emma noticed a turquoise beaded bracelet I was wearing—I had owned it for a while, but hadn’t worn it recently—“wow,” she said, “that’s so beautiful! I love that, Mama!”
“Here, Peanut,” I said, taking it off. “I’ll give it to you. You can keep it in your little jewelry box with the dancing ballerina and look at it every night and wear it when you’d like.”
“No,” she said quietly, “I would just lose it.”
That 10-word phrase, “I’d give it to you, but you’d just lose it,” had imprinted itself on Emma’s little brain. She hadn’t shown a reaction at the time it was uttered, but there it was—in pure and clear terms, coming out of her own mouth. She had internalized and owned the message—whether right or wrong, it had become part of her definition of Self: she was someone who loses things.
The second story
In The Art of Possibility, Benjamin Zander writes the story of his teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music. His students were brilliant musicians, yet they weren’t working at their full potential. Instead, they had focused their energy on competing against one another.
Frustrated, he eliminated the grading part of the educational process by giving each of them an “A” at the beginning of the semester, requiring them only to write him a letter during the first week of the class but dated at the end of the semester, a letter outlining what they had done all those weeks to deserve their “A.”
In such a way, Zander had the students create aspirational stories—not “here’s what I will do,” or “here’s what I might do if other things don’t get in the way and if everything goes according to plan and I’m not distracted in any way and the planets are in alignment,” but “here’s what I did.”
The students were surprised, but wrote their letters. Several weeks into the experiment, Zander asked the class how it was going for them, what it felt like to have earned their A already, to be freed from the expectations of grading. To Zander’s surprise, a young, quiet Korean student raised his hand. The young man explained that he had at first been confused by the process—in Korea, he explained, he was number 58 out of 100 violinists, but yet here he was an “A.” So, he explained, I have been confused these past few weeks: am I a 58 or am I am A? Am I a 58 or am I an A?
“Then,” he explained, “I realized that I'm happier being an ‘A’ than being a 58. So I’ve decided to be an ‘A.’”
The third story
Several years ago, my husband set up a booth for his antiquarian bookshop at a conference with a gargantuan trade show, one of those exhibit halls so big that you fear for finding your way back out. In the midst of all the fancy, glitzy, expensive, state-of-the-art booths was John’s little booth looking for all the world like a small European bookshop. People loved it and flocked to it.
One day, for some reason that I can’t recall—perhaps I was traveling and got delayed—John had to take Emma with him to the booth for the day. We tried to find babysitters in the city where the conference was being held, to no avail, so he packed up food and toys and off they went to the trade show.
“How adorable!” everyone cooed as they saw John with Emma in the booth. “What a wonderful father! Here, let me help!” they all said. He was the darling of the show, not only for his booth but also for his amazing parental involvement in the life of a young girl. Everyone was so taken with this father and child combo in the booth. How marvelous!
I found myself in a similar situation a year or so later for just a few hours, not a whole day. Did I receive the same warm welcome? “How irresponsible! How dare she bring a young child into this environment! Well I hope that child doesn’t scream all day!”
These stories were each an occasion for learning for me. About what?
Neither of us wanted to make Emma spend time in a trade show booth, but having no choice, I pondered the difference in reaction. It isn’t the thing, the action, the situation that people respond to sometimes, is it? No, it is their own beliefs and stories—about what mothers are and what fathers are, about what women do and men do, what men wear, what women wear (we perform gender every day, don’t we?)—and a lifetime of other beliefs that we project onto the situation facing us. We all do it.
These three stories are about the power we have over others. About how words matter, about how we define things (and people). About how intention is important. About how large a gap there is between intention and impact sometimes. About how we unconsciously believe what others tell us about ourselves, even if what they are telling us is more about them, about how they see and move and interact in the world. We are always judging other people’s outsides from our insides.
And how willing we are to believe the stories that others tell about us: she’s messy, she’s smart, she’s pretty, she’s overwhelmed, she’s not trustworthy, she’s sickly, she’s scatterbrained, she’s odd, she’s irresponsible or mean or boring or arrogant or whatever words we hear, not always consciously but under the water surface, like being in a lake with your ears halfway under the water and halfway above, those bubble sounds like words seeping into you unknowingly like so much algae.
And these three stories are also about how willing we are to believe the stories we tell ourselves: I’m not as smart as people think I am, I’m an imposter, I’m afraid of bats, I’m not good with money, I’m disorganized, I’m fat, I’m a lousy cook, I’m an overachiever—we all tell ourselves stories about Self, some that we’ve told ourselves for years, don’t we?
~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~
Choose your words, each of them—the words to others and to yourself. They have power and intention, even when you don’t. Use your magic wisely, pay attention, measure the gap between intention and impact.
Create a new story for yourself, an aspirational one—one that counteracts history and destiny and all those others words ending in “y” that you believe have predetermined who you are.
Give the bracelet. It will come back to you.