Since we’re all so enamored of our own opinion, it’s sometimes hard to imagine why anyone would do something we see no sense in. So it’s easy to dismiss a decision we don’t understand as being foolish, which means we think the person who made that decision is foolish. And it’s certainly possible she is. But that assumption turns out to be wrong more often than it’s correct. Thaler Pekar helped a good friend learn that lesson with just a little walk around a lake.
A few years ago, a good friend of Thaler’s came to visit her. As the two were out for a walk around a lake near her home, her friend noticed a small Japanese maple tree in the front yard of one of the local residents. But unlike any of the other countless trees in the neighborhood, this one had a small fence around it. Thaler’s friend remarked incredulously, “Who would put a tree in their front yard that needed a fence around it? That’s so stupid! Why would anyone bother to do that?” Admittedly, it probably did look a bit out of place.
Even though it was certainly a rhetorical question, Thaler answered it flatly. “Well, if your daughter dies in her thirties, and your neighbors give you a tree to commemorate her life, that’s what you do.”
Her friend stood in a stunned silence, shocked at the answer and embarrassed at her own insensitivity.
Thaler went on to explain that the young woman had died of ovarian cancer. “And her parents who live in that house are Japanese,” she said, which explained the choice of the Japanese maple tree. Lastly, she explained that with the high population of deer around the lake, “the fence was the only way to keep the deer from eating the tree while it was still young.”
Many of us, especially when we’re young, are quick to conclude how silly some things in life are. But most of the time, it turns out there’s a good reason for them. We just don’t know what it is yet. We owe ourselves and our neighbors the benefit of the doubt and a dose of humility.
Even at the age of 49, I find myself in situations regularly where I need to practice that self-doubt and humility. Here’s a recent case in point. This is an actual phone conversation I had on a recent Saturday with our phone and internet provider.
“Hi. My wife was digging in the flowerbed in our back yard and accidentally cut the fiber optic line for our phone and internet. Can you have someone come out and fix it?”
“So, I understand you’re having trouble with your phone and internet.”
“Well, yes, of course.”
“Okay, sir. Can you check the internet modem and tell me which lights are on.”
“Sure. . . the first three lights are on. The rest are off.”
“So, the one that says ‘internet’ is off.”
“That’s right. We cut the cable, remember?”
“Yes. So, do you have a dial tone on your phone?”
“No. I’m calling you from my cell phone.”
“Okay. I’ll need to run a few tests to see what the problem is. Stay on the line. This will just take a few minutes.”
“Well, okay. But I already told you what the problem was. The line is cut.”
5 minutes later. . .
“Sir, I’m not able to get a connection to your modem or phone to test it. Let me try one other test.”
“Yeah, I’m just not sure what it’s going to take for you to catch up with me. I’m standing in my back yard right now. I’m looking at your fiber optic line sticking out of the ground and it’s been severed into two pieces, with my wife’s guilt-ridden shovel sitting 6 inches away. Would you like me to send you a picture of it?”
“This will just take a minute, sir.”
1 minute later. . .
“Okay, sir. Thank you for your patience. Apparently there is something wrong with the fiber optic cable. I’ll have to schedule someone to come to your house and fix that. Would that be okay?”
“Yes. That would be lovely.”
And yes, I’m certain this was a real human I was talking to. Although, I think the problem was while I was talking to a human, my conversation was actually with a computer program that was in control of everything, and the human being was just a conduit, repeating everything that his screen told him to say.
At that point, it would be easy for me to think (or say), “That was so stupid! What’s wrong with that guy? Why did he ask me all those unnecessary questions when we already knew what the problem was?” But, I’m practicing that self-doubt and humility and trying to see things from multiple points of view.
From one point of view (mine), this seems like a ridiculous example of an unintelligent individual following their training without thinking or considering the necessity of these multiple tests.
From another point of view (probably his), he was just following the protocol he was hired to follow, believing (perhaps rightly so) that if he doesn’t he could lose his job. And therefore, the real bozo in this scenario is his management who put him in a position without any authority to make decisions or think for himself.
From another perspective (perhaps that of the management of his company) they’ve found that they waste a lot of money sending expensive technicians out to people’s houses to fix things that could have been fixed over the phone more quickly and easily — even in cases like this. How do they know that the cable that was cut in our flowerbed was the internet/phone cable? There are probably lots of lines coming into our house. Perhaps our service went out for another reason, and it happened to coincide with my wife cutting that line.
Or maybe that line was cut years ago and she just happened to unearth it about the time the phone went out. Following their protocol to the letter might be the smartest thing to do, even in this instance. If so, in this case, the real bozo is me, and my snarky “how long will it take you to catch up with me” was both unnecessary and rude.
The older I get, the more I realize that just because something looks silly or stupid from my perspective, doesn’t mean it is. It might just mean that I don’t have access to all the information or to what things look like from another perspective.
But the older I get, I also see how things could be handled or explained better, so that these situations don’t seem so silly or stupid to the customer. A few simple sentences like, “I know, sir. But if I don’t follow this protocol, I won’t be allowed to schedule a technician to come to your house, please be patient,” or “I know it seems obvious, but that line might turn out not to be your phone and internet cables. I just need to make sure,” could go a long way to explaining the seemingly unnecessary steps.
As with all of these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- How do you think Thaler’s friend felt when she found out the tree was a tribute to someone’s daughter who died of cancer?
- Instead of saying, “That’s stupid!” what might have been better for Thaler’s friend to say when she saw the fence around the tree that she thought was odd?
- What was the last thing that made you say, “That’s dumb” or “That’s stupid!” Now think of two good reasons it could be the way it was, even if those reasons aren’t true.
- What’s an example of a situation where it’s okay to conclude that something you see is wrong or silly or foolish?
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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