Last week I attended a religious event after umpteen invitations by a friend. The session was very enlightening and I met many interesting people. At the end of the event I had the opportunity to introduce the Pocket Learner – our educational programme which empowers parents and carers of children with cognitive disabilities. To my surprise 90% of those in attendance expressed an interest in the project – whether as end users or as distributors. For several months I had found excuses to avoid attending the meeting – it’s too cold, too far, it lasts too long, finishes too late, the list goes on. Now that I had taken the time to attend I realised the value in making the effort, even when I could not see the benefit.
As I focused on this experience I realised that there was a similarity with the attitude to life that many of us sustain. We all have gifts and talents which we fail to explore or enrich, effectively sitting down on them. Talents exist to be nurtured and grown; we should add value to them and use them to our benefit and that of others with whom we encounter. In many cases our inaction is driven by fear; we dread the possibility of catastrophic failure or the fact that we could be ridiculed by others. We are scared of slipping and falling so we sit down in our comfort zones, or cower in corners and watch from the side-lines. We fail to realise that we do not grow when in a relaxed mode, we need to step outside our comfort zones if we are going to make an impact. Jamaicans say: “Mongoose says that a man who can’t take risks is not a man”, i.e. taking risks is a life skill.
If we want change we have to propel that change
It is not unusual for those who venture out to lose their way but generally they rediscover their path and are stronger for the experience. Indeed every person who is successful has experienced failure. Falling is acceptable provided we pick ourselves up and finish our race. In life’s amusement park it is those who dare to venture who enjoy the best rides. If we settle in perpetual comfort we will not grow; there are mountains to climb if we want to see the other side and often that climb is extremely tiring. Recently there was a fire in London and as I watched in awe I thought about the loss of life of so many young people who will never get a chance to continue their race. Life is for living now; tomorrow is not promised! There is an English proverb: “Procrastination is the thief of time”. We should therefore choose to start our walk today, not sit and “wait and see what happens”. If we want change we have to manufacture that change, become a catalyst, a stimulus for that change.
Last Christmas I made a conscious effort to visit neighbours and friends who are housebound. On every occasion my life was enriched. In some cases I received physical gifts and in others I benefited from the wealth of knowledge shared by my more elderly hosts. I still recall and relish moments I spent with them; it really was better to walk than to sit. When we give of ourselves to others we also receive. Giving, whether tangible or intangible – a listening ear, a short visit, a kind word, encouragement, funding… enable us not only to reach out to others but also to reach within ourselves. Being a blessing to others brings joy and other intrinsic outcomes that money cannot buy. There is no greater feeling than the opportunity to observe personal and professional growth engendered by our efforts. Sometimes that small gift is all an individual needs in order to propel them to the next level. Jamaicans explain it in this way: “If you back monkey it will fight tiger” i.e. support and encouragement boost people’s confidence enabling them to embrace bigger, more rewarding challenges. Do your bit for mankind!
If you walk today, chances are you'll run tomorrow
The act of giving does not mean that we encourage dependency; it simply means that we should be good neighbours and in the process impact positively on the life others. Too often we choose to be judgmental, focusing on other people’s circumstances. If you find yourself judging the other person it is better not to give, for that giving would not have come from the heart.
Opportunities are lurking in every corner, if only we would stop focusing on the negativity around. Don’t dwell on the past mistakes of yourself or others – what’s done is done. See today as a good day and get up and walk! If you walk today, chances are tomorrow you could run. You will fall sometimes; that’s acceptable. Get up, learn your lessons, recognise your humanity and try again.
Businesses too, need to walk and not just sit
As business owners we too have to recognise the importance of walking and not merely sitting. Those who perpetually operate at the same level - continuously sitting and not walking - will not grow. We have to introduce new ways of working and encourage the creativity of our colleagues and employees. We cannot afford do adopt a “if it’s not broke don’t fix it” attitude. If we invite and encourage complacency we’ll be overtaken and soon enough taken away by the undertaker. Ten years ago many of us did not do business online; nowadays we have to consider and explore how we can add value via this medium. There is a Spanish proverb:Camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente- The shrimp that falls asleep is swept away by the current i.e: You snooze, you lose.
How many of our small organisations sustain a corporate social responsibility budget? More important still how many actively seek to support vulnerable people or contribute to charitable causes? The same principles of giving as an individual obtain in the case of organisations, large and small. It is not accidental that Bill Gates is one of the richest men in the world. Here’s a quote from him: “Money has no utility to me beyond a certain point. Its utility is entirely in building an organisation and getting the resources out to the poorest in the world.”
Have a heart
It is not good enough to say the company's profit margins are slim so there isn’t enough available to give. Small contributions will have very little impact on your organisation but may bring significant benefit to others. My organisation sends items to disabled children and their families in different developing countries every year; it is such a joy to see the difference it makes to recipients. We have now developed The Pocket Learner and we are keen to find partners and well-wishers to enable us to distribute the resource to vulnerable and disabled children living in deprived areas or disadvantaged situations.
Let us make a commitment to start walking while we still can. Let us, in our walk, remember those who are most vulnerable and open our hands and hearts. Clenched fists can’t give and certainly they cannot receive.
Today I dropped my little girl at school and on exiting the compound I saw a group of parents at the gate which appeared locked. On approaching the area one of the individuals told me that the gate was locked and that they were waiting for someone from the school office to release it. I approached the gate and saw that the padlock was indeed locked but not holding the gate. I pushed the gate and voilà, it opened! The others were surprised; we laughed as we all went our separate ways.
The above scenario made me think - Why didn’t one of them try to open the gate? Who had set the pace? What would have been the breaking point and when would it have come? Although this was a simple scenario, I saw it as herd mentality showing how people are influenced by others and therefore adopting different behaviours.
Be your own man!
In life we often allow others to order our steps instead of charting our own paths. It is more comfortable to behave “normally” rather than run the risk of ruffling feathers or being laughed at. But what is normal? My definition of normal changed when my little girl was born with a disability and I realised that “normal” is, like “beauty” – in the eyes of the beholder. (Being able to appreciate her beauty instead of her shortcomings led to the development of the Pocket Learner which beautifies the lives of others as they raise aspirations by learning to read.) It may be normal for me to walk two miles to work whereas someone else may view that as crazy! Yet, for another person it is normal to walk 5 miles or more on a daily basis. We should not allow ourselves to be bullied by those who “shout the loudest”. We should not allow others to describe our “Normal”!
When I had pushed the gate, I was taking a risk of being ridiculed. That was a chance I was willing to take for I am not bothered by the potential actions of others. By letting other people determine our steps we ignore opportunities to exploit our talents and creativity. We miss out on our potential for success because we are too afraid to trust our instincts. There is a French proverb that says - “A vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire” (To win without risk is a triumph without glory). By pushing the gate I was swimming against the tide at the risk of being judged by people I would see every day. "You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs" is another proverb that is relevant. If we remain behind the gates we will never know what could have been… which floodgates we could have opened, whose life we could impact, how we could change the world. We should not worry about other people’s concerns, for our dreams are not theirs to see; it is for us to realise.
What’s the worst that can happen? One fails. But that’s not the end of the world so we must get up and get going again. We remain focused but not so focused that we fail to live and to love along the way. Life has a way of humbling one, if one is not humble. What is important is how we recover from failure, the lessons we learn, whom we teach, the laughter, the tears – in effect the full repertoire of a life well lived. Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the USA said: “In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years”. How true!
Take the padlock off you!
Sometimes the padlock on the gate seems locked but in reality it’s the padlock in our minds and hearts that needs unlocking. It’s your innate creativity that is waiting to be released into the stratosphere propelling you to the next level. “The only thing we have to fear is...fear itself…”(Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President, USA). It is the goodness in our hearts that craves to be unleased on the world but nothing will happen until you do something. The more uncomfortable it is, the more interesting the ride and the more life-changing it can be. There is a Spanish proverb that puts it like this: A mas honor, mas dolor (The more the danger, the greater the honour). Running around on the ground with chickens, scratching here and there eking out a living can never produce the joy of soaring to higher heights like eagles. They don’t settle on lowly pastures, rather, they rise above the storm riding on its winds; at rest while those below are tossed about.
Those of us who take our chances despite the fear we feel often face criticisms and abandonment from those who fail to understand our actions. Whether they act out of love, fear, envy or hatred, the impact is the same – frustration of our efforts. Many of those who love us, out of their own fears and inhibitions seek to protect us from the daggers in society, perceived or real. I heard a prominent African pastor relate how his parents both died when he was a teenager and their death, though it brought pain in the short term, turned out to be the stimulus which propelled him into the stratosphere. He was able to take risks which he could never have taken had his mother been alive. Today he is a very successful man with a mega church; he founded a university, sits on various boards and travels the world preaching and teaching. Had he focused on and internalised popular ideas about black people being unable to achieve, the perceived lack of opportunity, his poverty-stricken environment, and the bankruptcy mentality of many in his milieu he would have padlocked himself into a box, thus creating a barrier to the extensive personal and professional growth he achieved. We should never entertain the idea of inferiority for no one is better than the other - we all have the same needs and we all do the same things to survive.
It can be a lonely road
We all want the same things in life but only a few of us are willing to take the necessary steps to achieve them. While embarking on actions to bring about change we often find that we are alone, with no one willing to show their hand but once we achieve our goal we find many partakers, indeed some who claim to have shared our struggle. That shouldn’t stop us from pursuing our goals and breaking moulds. Life is not a popularity contest; those who succeed are those who, despite the challenges, loneliness and pain continue to strive, falling over but getting up and getting going again. We are all partakers of the success of efforts of those who have gone before; many of whom never lived to see the fruits of their labour. It is our responsibility to build on their work so that future generations can benefit from our efforts too. To whom much is given, much is expected (St. Luke 12). It is our duty to keep going, even when it’s a lonely road.
Words alone don’t change anything, unless you are God
There are many people from all walks of life who have ideas that could carpet the world several times over. Some are very good ideas, some need work. Yet they have never lifted a finger to come into their purpose, they fail to build character and create impact. Indeed many good ideas lay in the burial ground never to be explored and we the people are no richer for it. There is a thin line between planting and burying; we have to ensure we chose the correct one. We should bury the past and plant the future.
For those of us who have faith we should also realise that prayer alone does not bring change. “Faith without works is dead” (The Bible: James 2) so there is no point praying and hoping that someone else will “be the change you want to see in the world” - Mahatma Gandhi. If we want to experience change in our lives it has to start with us. It takes a paradigm shift in the mind with the acknowledgement that we are responsible for our own destiny, irrespective of any external or environmental factor. We can’t keep blaming others or the system or other phenomenon for our lack of growth. We have to look into our lives and see the opportunities available or the ones we can create. When I looked at my little girl with her disability and saw how enthusiastic she was to learn it was clear to me that this was an opportunity to impact many lives, so with her help we created The Pocket Learner, an innovative educational tool that opens the door for many who struggle to learn. Life without learning is not living; we must continue to learn and put our learning into action. Words alone do not change anything.
Becoming agents of change
As managers/owners of organisations we should consider:
- Are we swimming against the tide and allowing our people to chart their own paths?
- Do we foster a culture of creativity or do we install padlocks in our workplaces?
- Do we encourage a herd mentality - the dreaded “groupthink” in order to achieve a “comfortable” existence?
- Are we afraid of challenge and so stifle novel ideas before they emerge?
- What is the legacy of our businesses – are we in it for the money only or are we impacting lives.
- Do we have a corporate social responsibility budget and what do we use that budget for?
We cannot allow others to push us into a position where we are concerned only about our competitiveness and neglect our duty of care for stakeholders and the wider society. We must operate ethically and protect our integrity. We have to be aware of the tide but not be unduly influenced by the tide. It is said that everybody is somebody’s fool but we would do well to avoid the company of negative people because one fool makes many!