“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” – A. Einstein
I love this quote and the funny picture of Einstein riding his bike that comes with the quote (thanks to whoever posted this on Facebook). Yeah, yeah, yeah- I know it is cliché to quote Einstein, but when you read the quote and let it marinate for a minute, I think you’ll understand why I enjoy it so much.
As I look back over the last year of my life it continues to amaze me how I struggle to so plainly see the mistakes I repeat and even more disturbing is recognizing that I might be the fish who is being asked (and judged) by my ability to climb a tree. Here is a journal entry fromMay 2, 2011:
When people ask me what I do for a living, I struggle to answer. What I’d like to say is…I’m a guy who works to make the world a more balanced place. I give structure to fathers who lack it and enable more families to spend time together. I write, speak and coach about topics that other fathers use to “decompress” and awaken to the fact that we aren’t here solely for work. Although we may have been conditioned to be ‘absent’ in order to focus on earning money for our families, we are being trapped into believing that work is the benchmark for defining our lives and if we aren’t careful, we’ll expect our children to mimic our lives and define themselves by the job they have, the hours they’ve worked and the W-2 they produce.
I don’t think this feeling is foreign to the majority of people who would read this article and I’m confident that we’ve all struggled with feeling like the “fish out of water” with respect to some aspect of life; work, a new relationship, a new school, a new job and the list could go on and on. For the last 16 years I have been working in a business that requires a strong knowledge of human behaviour and a business that demands a knack for anticipating how people will react during stressful and anxiety filled times. Suffice it to say, I feel very comfortable with identifying other people’s problems, am getting better at identifying my own, and am still well below average when it comes to learning from the struggles I live every day and finding ways to apply them to the management of my own life.
So back to Einstein’s “fish” quote…I’m married to a teacher, am the son of a teacher, have a brother who is a teacher and both of my sisters-in-law are teachers, so I have the opportunity to listen to each of them talk through their educational styles and we openly discuss how challenging it can be to educate in a “one style fits all” methodology. It doesn’t take heavy research to recognize that we have a systemic challenge when it comes to educating and some of this challenge fosters people feeling “stupid” when in fact they are truly geniuses (fish) being asked to climb the proverbial tree. Think about how we begin our formal education. We meander through elementary and middle school, get more focused in high school and then we get the first real “tests” that help define us (SAT & ACT). We take those test scores, compare and contrast them with that funny thing called a GPA and this becomes the first major indicator of our initial genius factor, right? In short, we begin to sort the masses into one of two piles; the “going to make it” pile or the “might not be that bright” pile.
Yes, I know that we aren’t quite that cold as a society, but it isn’t that far off. I have friends who were told they weren’t going to cut it, maybe they shouldn’t pursue college and the assembly line was going to be a good spot for the remainder of their working days (all because of 1 or 2 learning measures) and conversely, I had friends who were labelled the “bright ones”, the kids who really knew how to learn and the ones who were going to be our nation’s next generation of leaders (again, all because of 1 or 2 learning measures). I’m sure it wouldn’t shock you to know that plenty of these kids who were told to “hit the assembly line” now successfully run profitable businesses and manage organizations in the Fortune 500 and there were kids who were defined as “the bright ones” who are now leading from a bar stool wondering where life went.
In both scenarios, did these young men and women get judged by how well they could “climb a tree” when their real gift might have been swimming like a fish? As we migrate into our work lives, the same archaic talent management process repeats itself. There are certain people who just “get it” when it comes to new challenges, new projects and new responsibilities. These people seem to have a natural gift for managing the ebb and flow of the business world and their counterparts are the people who need to have their hands held a bit. They need some more pointed coaching, education and if this is afforded, they’ll perform (sometimes outperform) the folks who ‘naturally’ learn. I think we, as business leaders, tend to forget how critical it is to recognize how people learn (auditory, experiential, visual…) and how to align their natural skills to the organization, projects or tasks they might be asked to support.
Einstein’s quote, when applied to how we interact and educate each other through life, could help reduce anxiety and should significantly elevate the engagement of people relative to their personal and professional lives. I look back on the times I’ve been the most engaged, the most energized and the most productive and it’s when I’m using my natural talents. This helps foster drive and passion and I’m sure Einstein knew that there were areas even he wasn’t meant to spend time on. Each one of us can find our natural talents if we have the self awareness to define our strengths and the courage to teach and the humility to ask for help and the willingness to learn from those around us.
We all have genius inside us, so don’t let one task define who you are or how well you can perform in life.