I have been privileged with being an Ambassador for John O’Leary’s new book, In Awe, which will be released in May. I have received my advance copy, and have started reading. I am not very far in the book. I related to his description about curiosity. As we grow older, we tend not to ask all the questions we did as a youngster. Think about that. Have you noticed how much your toddler child or grandchild asks questions after questions. I had a niece who when she was small, would follow my older (school age) boys around and ask them “Why?” Almost continually about whatever they were doing or talking about. They called her the “why” cousin. She was curious, and she was not afraid to ask why.
As we get older that behavior slows down. I don’t think it is because we got the answers, because we never always have the answers. In my household, as a child, if I asked the question, “Why?,” my parents’ answer was a simple “Because I said so.” I understand that answer, because as a parent, there are just some things we have to put our foot down about, and no matter how many “why’s” we are asked or how many times we might explain the reasoning, a parent gets to make the rules.
My brain is a questioning brain. I tend to question most everything in my life. In the business world, I always looked for a better way to do things—why are we doing it this way? Is there a better way? I had a “bad” habit of looking past the decision to try to understand how it would affect the workflow or the employees. In one of the recommendations given on LinkedIn, my former boss wrote, “Andrea had a knack for anticipating questions that someone may have had on a topic of discussion…to the point that before anyone could think of a question, Andrea would address all facets of the topic to give her audience a full scope of what to expect.”
Interestingly enough, what this former manager wrote about me also got me in trouble in the past. It was a few years prior to working for the above mentioned manager. I was working for a company who had been recently acquired. We were getting ready to roll out our first year’s bonus program to the employees. There were approximately 1,400 employees at our location. About 1,000 of them had been acquired in the sale. The remainder of the employees where hired new into the company that year, me being among the latter group.
The employees who were part of the sale had been with our “new” company for a year (short one week), but were being considered employees for a full year. I don’t remember the details any longer, but it was something like 2 weeks pay for their year of service. That was good, but it didn’t address those hired within that year. Those employees (including me) were going to get a prorated bonus based on the number of weeks employed the first year. If an employee was hired July 1, they would receive 1/2 of the annual bonus.
There was a meeting of all of us in human resources along with those from accounting and payroll, to discuss the rollout of the bonus. The director of our department passed out a letter to each of us to review. The formula in the letter was very clear, What was not clear was the fact that employees hired new into the company would get the prorated bonus.
In the meeting, I pointed this out. I said the letter needs to be changed to give the 400 employees hired that year the information on their prorated bonus. The director of the department turned directly to me and stated, “Never question me again!” Embarrassed, I was silenced. This should not have been a big deal to the director, except that he already had the CEO sign and the letters were ready for distribution. He wasn’t about to go back and say that something was missed and the CEO would have to sign a new letter.
I couldn’t believe that all the details were not in the letter, but as a subordinate, I remained silent. My ability to see forward and question had been squelched. The employees received their letters and looked forward to the bonus check to be distributed a couple weeks later. Exactly, as I had anticipated, the day of the bonus checks, employees flooded our office saying their bonus was incorrect. These were all employees who had been hired that year and received only a prorated portion of the bonus. Upon receiving the letter of how the bonus was calculated, one employee purchased cruise tickets, and another employee purchased new furniture, both to find out that their bonus would not completely cover their purchases. They were livid. Who could blame them?
Whenever we discussed any new roll out at work, my brain would take me to all the “what if” questions that could come up. How do we anticipate employees’ reactions to what we are rolling out. How are we prepared to answer, to encourage, and continue to motivate them? Although I was publicly embarrassed in front of my colleagues, I am not sorry I questioned the letter. I am just sorry that others didn’t have the curiosity to think past the piece of paper.
In John’s book, In Awe, he quotes Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and University of Pennsylvania professor, from his book, Originals, “Kids are inherently creative. If you take to a five- or six-year old, they have all sorts of interesting, unusual questions. And I think we either beat that out of them or they end up unlearning it at some point when they realize that the way you succeed, in at least Western society, is you follow the rules. You try and get good grades, you respect your elders, you go out of you way to fit in as opposed to stand out, and that’s a great way to forget how to think differently.”
Isn’t that the truth? We teach children to be quiet and regurgitate what they have learned. When I was in the 6th grade, we studied the Aztec Indians. I was so fascinated by them. I came home from school and told my mom all about them. Today I do not remember what those fascinating things were, but I do remember that, to my surprise, I made a “D” on the test about them. I didn’t regurgitate what the teacher wanted us to know, but I was curious and fascinated by their history. I wish I knew what it was that I found so intriguing about them. My curiosity about them did not match the facts that my teacher wanted me to know.
Over the years, my curiosity got silenced. It was still there, but I didn’t express it for fear of being embarrassed in public, or being curious about the things that others might not find important. After hearing John O’Leary speak in 2010, I signed up for coaching sessions though John’s connections, and because of the experience, became a certified coach myself. I learned to let my curiosity out. I learned my life was not over as I approached retirement. I am more fascinated by life than I was ever before. I am willing to try new things that I had never done, like running a 5k, making quilts, and planning large events like class reunions. This was all done in my 60’s. I felt free to be the curious leader again.
Here some photos when I attended John’s book release for On Fire, four years ago.
I have followed John O’Leary since the first time I heard him speak to about 30 people. Today he speaks before thousands. Four years ago, he published his first book, On Fire. It is the story of his life, a 9 year old boy playing with fire and gasoline, that did not turn out well. He was burned 99% of his body, was given less than a 1% chance to live through the night, lost all his fingers from this fire, and today still plays the piano, and tells us, “The best is yet to come.”
You can find John’s book on his website, by clicking on this sentence. You can also find his books on Amazon and at your local book stores.
Thank you, John, for your friendship, for sharing your life with us, and now for reminding us that as adults we can still be in awe of life.
Why on earth did your boss pass out a letter to everyone in the HR department if he wasn’t willing to make changes to it? Apparently he wanted validation rather than suggestions, but that’s totally childish. “Hey, everybody, look how well I can write!” Dumb!
Incidentally, I envy you your curiosity. I wish I’d retained mine.
I think he thought he wrote a good letter and passed it out to us so we would be aware of what was going out to everyone. I don’t think he was looking for validation, but I also don’t think he was open to suggestions, which granted, should have come BEFORE the letter was given to the CEO to sign. Oh well . . . everyone’s life went on . . . no one died from it! 😊