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07 January 2006

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

BraceletWhen my older daughter Emma was 5 years old, she admired the bracelet of a family friend—“I love that bracelet!” Emma told the woman excitedly one afternoon. “That’s so pretty! I love those colors!”

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

ViolinIn 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

Trade_show_1Several 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 ~*~

A_paperYou’re happier as an “A” than as a 58 – claim your A.

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.



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» Passion is the Scapegoat from I Raise My Kids
Writing, my love and passion, can ruin me for my kids, even as it serves as such an excellent example. I always want my children to know, because they see me do it, that they can go ahead and live [Read More]

» Passion is the Scapegoat from I Raise My Kids
Writing, my love and passion, can ruin me for my kids, even as it serves as such an excellent example. I always want my children to know, because they see me do it, that they can go ahead and live [Read More]


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"It isn’t the thing, the action, the situation that people respond to sometimes, is it? No, it is their own beliefs and stories—"


this post was so powerful for me...and it's teeming with synchronicities as i was just talking to someone about these very things only about 20 minutes ago...and here you've said it so seems to be a theme running through my life right now, how willing am i to believe the stories i tell myself. well, i know i have been very willing in the past...what now?

the other synchronicity was your task, about writing a new story, which is exactly what i did in my morning pages this morning.

thank you.

Beautifully written... I am moved. So glad I've discovered your blog through the AW group.

patti-- i subscribed to your blog last spring when my brother (jef davis) forwarded one of your posts to me. i was hooked--- you have a very beautiful way of expressing your view of life that really strikes a chord in me. i look forward to reading it every week. i love it! and congratulations on your anniversary. i read from a small town in ohio. keep writing!

Hello Patti,

What a coincidence. A few days ago I made a remark about how the impact of the evaluation of an appititude test to be a software programmer left on me. I was told I can do 'simple things'. Of course I did not get the job, but for years I avoided taking any apptitude tests for any reasons even if sometime it means I would not get the job. Worse still I walked around for years wondering how simple things should be so that simple me can manage.

I was 27.

Perhaps it is just me. I sense the same puzzlements (with some people) about knowledge management, knowledge workers, innovation... Terms that seems so fitting in the accademic and management worlds (the upper enchelon shall we say), but would it not possible it is damaging the confidence of many others? Including mine at many occassions?

Now I am 54.

Yes, another wonderful piece Patti. I will share a quote I picked up a while ago from another inspiring person. I use it on my signature block for my in work email.

"Our example to our children, to our families, and to the world around us is constant. The question is not whether or not anyone is watching, the question is what are they learning as they watch." Kirk Weisler

wow thats moving special, beautiful.

"More things are caught than taught."

That's a favorite quote from a favorite professor (Dr. Howard Hendricks) spoken 25 years ago. He had a knack for launching the pithy phrase that would land deep inside a student's memory.

Patti, I think you hurl a different kind of liteary hardball, but your aim is as good as the good doctor's ever was!

Wow. Wonderful post.

And just think of all the messages we send ourselves about what we can and can't do, are and aren't.

Thanks. This will give me a lot to think about today.


Last night I continued my readings on Buddhist beliefs. Specifically, Right Speech and Right Intention. We so easily forget or overlook the impact our words or actions have on others. What may be a silly joke could scar someone for life.

I loved reading your post! The words we use are so powerful, no matter what your religion, culture or belief system...

This is a wonderful post about right speech and intention, as the commenter before me said. And I think the person who told your daughter "she would only lose the bracelet," may have been insensitive in her words. "Maybe when you're a little older, I'll give it to you," would have been kinder.

But I do think that children do not have to be given whatever they ask for or admire; some of the joy of growing up is achieving a sense of stewardship for valuable things--whether they're of monetary value or simply personal value to another person.

wow. what a powerful post. frightening when i think of all the things i could have should have said differently... but empowering to think of all the comments that imprinted on my own mind -- comments which were truly just froth, and it's up to me, now, to blow them away... thank you.

I almost didn't finish reading your post because I wanted to comment with a yes, yes, yes. Wow, you so blew me away with those stories! Everything you wrote in that post is so, so, so true. I have two toddlers and I am often made a little fun of how picky I am about what they watch on television (or what we watch/listen to in their presence) I think even when a cartoon character says "stupid head" a child thinks that it is acceptable...What we say is so important and our actions need to validate what we (say) we believe. Thank you, thank you for this post!!!

This is fantastic and so much to think about. Found you via doing AW and reading associated blogs. Words are very powerful and we shouldnt waste them. Thank you for your blog.

i loved this post, too. i was confounded when i got to this, though: "These three stories are about the power we have over others." i had been thinking they were about how we get to choose what's true about us, since other people surely don't know and since systems of evaluation like grading and ranking may tend to play into our own erroneous projections.

i know i could be more careful with my words, with my power and intention, and i know i need to hear that. without arguing about the glorious power and intention of this post, however, i just want to say (because it's coming up for me) that even with the purest intention, even thoughtful and sensitive words can be twisted into whatever a listener expects or fears (you don't really mean that...are you patronizing me?...there must be something wrong with you if you think i am okay...thanks for the sarcasm...etc.). we can always be careful, but we can't determine others' reactions.

i think there's such a thing as too careful, too. i crave honesty from my dear ones - sometimes something "nice" is the last thing i want or need to hear, and i see respect reflected in others' willingness to say what's true for them and trust that i will make my own determinations.

so far, it's easier for me to see the good intentions behind others' calamitous communication then to sort through the painful ways in which i am often misread. i do acknowledge the need for more care in my communication as well, which is also painful. but however we address these challenges, i want to say that we can only be Mutually responsible for each other. being and projecting the good people we know we want to be, and that we really are, doesn't mean taking full responsibility for anyone else's feelings or experience. like in the mary oliver poem kat posted, we can only "save the only life you could save."

thank you again for these deeply inspirational and thought-provoking stories.

eliza - thanks so much for your very thoughtful note - I agree with you completely - the gap between intention and impact (how things are received) is sometimes huge - and most often (always?) we have no control over that. I also appreciate your comment about being too careful - political correctness has damaged conversations across difference more than it has helped, I believe. Interestingly, I started writing last night about "assume positive intent" so perhaps that will link into your thought process, when I finish it. Thanks for your thoughtful note - Patti

Hi...I dropped in from Best of Blogs. You're a finalist don'tchaknow. You have a wonderful blog. I'd like to chime in with a 'thank you' for the great space you've created.

I just want to say, Hi. I am a fellow finalist at BOB and I'm really happy to have found you through them!

This is brilliant and beautiful and something I needed to read today. Thank you.

Two quotes that will be added to my quote book:

We are always judging other people's outsides from our insides.

We perform gender every day.

Thank you for your writing, and your insights.

i take my time making my way through your blog. so I always turn up at old posts..
The story with Emma (the first story)is heartbreaking Patti!!
But its so true. I have a little neice and I'm always trying to tell people, family too, that children remember. They are impressionable. And so don't feed them with fears like people who are different or dark will take you away if you're naughty (they build up a fear and later and dislike, disregard for 'these' people who are also people like her and me); and don't tell her she can't draw. or sing. just let her.
But you can't protect them and its a heartbreaking process to see.
But hopefully the positivity we feed into them weighs out the harshness?
The other two move me to think and write. and that's always a good thing :) But I couldn't possibly write it all here- it could be a whole book.

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