It has been the “accidental teachers” in my life who have passed on some of the most transformative lessons. The education they’ve given me has been invaluable, not just in terms of the leadership lessons they’ve taught, but in the realization that much of our leadership comes when we play the role of accidental teachers. Since we never know when that might be, it’s wise to live as we’d like to be seen. This month I wanted to tell you the story of one of the youngest of my accidental teachers.
A few years ago I found myself completely burnt out. With my tank empty, I decided to do something I had long dreamed of: ride the train all the way across Canada and back. I figured I could escape into the tiny world of my sleeper car, and far away from the office and the internet, sever all human connections. In the world of the university it sometimes feels like it doesn’t matter what you think if you can’t quote what everyone else is thinking, so I told myself, “it would be the perfect opportunity to read a number of books and articles I had shamefully been keeping on the back burner.”
Not long after departing I moved to the lounge car at the very back of the train. It was dinner time and I was pleased to find it deserted. I settled in and began my reading.
A few minutes later a young girl of perhaps seven or eight burst in and, arms outstretched, began silently circling the car. With her bright yellow top and black pants, she resembled some type of giant, smiling bumblebee. After perhaps three tours around the space, she dipped back out through the entrance and was gone.
Ten minutes later she was back – three silent rotations around the car before disappearing once again out the door. Eventually I realized this young girl was doing “laps” of the train: running up and down the centre aisle from car to car, front to back, over and over again. Finally, after about an hour, she plopped down in the seat next to me.
“Hello!” She said brightly. “My name is Allison! What’s yours?”
“Hello Allison.” I said with only a slight glance up from my book, trying to politely convey the fact I really didn’t wish to speak to anyone. “My name is Drew.”
“What are you reading?” She asked, completely undeterred.
“Oh, just a book for work,” I replied.
Her eyes spread wide with surprise. “You get to READ for work?” She asked incredulously. “My dad has to go to an office!”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Well yes,” I said, “I guess I do get to read for work!”
“You’re really lucky,” she smiled. “I love to read. What’s the story of your book?”
“Oh,” I said, looking down half-ashamed at the dry, theory-heavy tome in my hand. “I guess this book doesn’t really HAVE a story.”
“Don’t all books have stories?” She asked quizzically.
“Well no,” I replied. “Some just have…knowledge I guess.”
She tilted her head at me.
“Aren’t stories knowledge?”
It was at this point I was reminded why I am always a little nervous talking to young children: I have a genuine fear I am going to mess them up somehow by teaching something ridiculous like “stories are not actually knowledge.”
“Oh for sure!” I sputtered, stumbling to recover. “In fact, I have a friend who likes to say the story is the basic unit of human understanding.’”
As soon as it was out of my mouth I felt like an idiot. This girl was maybe 8 years old; surely “the story is the basic unit of human understanding” was a tad too advanced a concept to be dropping on her.
Allison just looked thoughtful for a moment, however. Finally, she looked up and with a self-assured nod informed me:
“I think your friend is very smart.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. I hadn’t seen such confidence and poise in someone so young before.
“I’ll tell him that!” I said with a grin. “But can I ask you something Allison? Why have you been running up and down the train for the past hour?”
“Oh,” said Allison, seeming almost disappointed that I hadn’t asked her something more challenging. “I always run when I’m on a train. You know how trains are kind of like big long hallways?”
“Well…yes, I guess so!” I replied.
“Well, my parents have always told me that my spirit is much too big to be trapped in hallways,” explained Allison. “So whenever I’m stuck on a train, I run to remind myself that I am free.”
I’ve never really been able to adequately capture the way she said that, in the many times I’ve retold this story. It was the remarkable, matter-of-fact way she said, “I am free”, and it had a profound impact on me in that moment. When was the last time I had revelled in my freedom? Had I taken action to remind myself that ultimately I was in charge of my life? Had I embraced the fact that while I wasn’t always in charge of what I had to DO every day, I was always in charge of who I WAS?
In that moment, Allison reminded me of the man I could be at both work and play: passionate, outgoing, and full of life. More importantly, she reminded me that I wasn’t being that man anymore and that ultimately, that was my choice.
“You know what Allison?” I said with a smile. “I think my spirit is too big for hallways too!”
Allison hopped off the seat and looked at me for a moment, almost professorially to be honest. And then slowly, as if choosing her words carefully, she said, “Drew, I do not mean to be rude, but I don’t think that anyone whose spirit is too big for hallways would ever read a book without a good story.”
And with that she smiled, spread her arms wide, spun three times around the car, and was gone.
Living without a Good Story
I realized in that moment that I didn’t know the key to ensuring happiness, but that perhaps the key to ensuring unhappiness is allowing a gap to form between your conception of the person you are and how you are actually acting on an everyday basis. In those few words, Allison had made me aware of that gap. I had always thought of myself as someone who could connect with others and add value. Someone who seized every opportunity to learn and try new things; someone who would never let life just pass him by.
However, there I was on a train having booked a single sleeper car. Happy to find the lounge car deserted. Planning to actively avoid talking to other people, and hoping to get nothing more out of a trip across my beloved country than a few more pages read. Who I liked to think I was and how I was actually acting could not have been further apart. I was going to spend a month of my life not only avoiding books with a good story, I was going to live a life without a good story.
Reengage and Close the Gap
Allison made me realize if I really wanted to “recharge” on the trip, what I really needed to do was reengage with who I wanted to be – to close the gap between how I wanted to think of myself and how I was acting. And so for the rest of that trip I was “that guy” on the train. The one who sat down unannounced and asked to hear your story. The one who sat with strangers at meals, bought drinks in the lounge car, and decided to believe that everyone had a story that would teach me something. The conversations I had changed me forever, and I’ll always have Allison to thank for that.
If the story is indeed the basic unit of human understanding, how can we ever expect to understand ourselves or each other if we’re not willing to constantly hear new stories and tell our own? Yet so many of the people I meet are either unwilling or unable to tell their own stories. They believe their stories are boring, or stupid, or unimportant compared to those of others.
Tell Your Stories
I think a large part of leadership begins when you realize that your story matters, and become conscious about what it might have to teach.
For a long time, I believed that the best way to learn something was to do it. Now I’m convinced the best way to learn something is to teach it. As such, I encourage all of you not to ask, “what do I need to do to be a leader?” Rather, try asking, “what can my story teach?” I think leadership grows when that question changes.
My sincere thanks to Dr. James Maskalyk – author of the blog and book “Six Months in Sudan” (www.sixmonthsinsudan.com) for his brilliant insight “the story is the basic unit of human understanding.”
It’s Your Turn
What accidental teachers have you learned from? Take a minute and comment. Thanks!