Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
In January of 1965, after living their entire lives in soggy Western Washington, my mom and dad packed up their belongings and moved to sunny Arizona. After enjoying the dry climate for several months, Mom wrote a letter to her father inviting him to close up the “mom and pop” store that he operated thirteen-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week and come live with them in Tempe.
“We have a room set aside for you,” Mom explained. “And there’s a lovely park nearby filled with men playing checkers and chess.”
“It sounds wonderful,” Grandpa replied in a return letter. “I must admit that it’s tempting to move to a place where it doesn’t rain most of the time, but I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. You know how hard it is for a man of my age to find work.”
Grandpa was eighty-five years old at the time. He couldn’t conceive of not having a job.
My grandfather loved to work almost as much as he loved his independence. He’d always been that way. Orphaned at a young age, Grandpa had moved in with a relative who didn’t like him much and, to make that point crystal clear, beat him regularly. One day when Grandpa was ten, his school teacher began whipping a small child in his class. Grandpa could take it no longer and pummeled the cowardly teacher until he fled from the classroom. Grandpa was expelled for his efforts and while his caretakers brooded over what to do with him, he packed a change of clothing in a brown paper bag and set out from Dyersville, Iowa to live with his cousin May—the one person who had showed him love when he had met her at a family gathering a few years earlier.
For several days Grandpa trudged westward. For sustenance he drank from creeks, ate fruit from trees, and stole eggs from chicken coops.
“When we first laid eyes on Billy we were sitting on the porch drinking lemonade,” cousin May explained years later when I met her for the first time.
“At first,” May continued, “I thought it was a stray dog coming down the dirt road that passed in front of our house. I could barely make out a speck in the distance, followed by a trail of dust. But then I could see it was a person. It was a boy. The poor thing looked like he was going to collapse; he was so weak from the heat of the sun. And then as the boy drew close enough to see his face, I could tell it was Billy! Mother and I ran to greet him, took him in our arms, and smothered him with kisses.”
After days of lonely effort, Billy—at ten years of age—had walked across the entire state of Iowa to his cousin May’s house just outside Sioux City. He was finally home. For the next eight years his cousins loved and cared for Billy until he graduated from high school and set out to make a life for himself. Then, for almost two decades my grandfather worked at everything from trapping in Minnesota to playing cards on a Mississippi river boat—until he finally met my grandmother, Pricilla, and fell in love, settled down, and raised my mother.
Grandpa taught my mom to be as independent as he had been for twenty years as a bachelor. He had learned to cook and sew, and do all things domestic—not as a point of pride, but from sheer necessity. So as Grandma taught my mom how to run a household, he taught her how to swing a hammer and repair the plumbing.
By the time I was twelve, both my mom and granddad had passed the tradition to me. I’d come home from school to find Mom had torn out part of a wall with a crowbar in an effort to get a remodeling project on its feet. I’d then help her make dinner before Dad came home from work.
This independence has served me well. I love the freedom that comes from being able to do so many things on my own. However, sometimes my desire for self-sufficiency morphs from autonomy to pig-headedness and that’s when it gets me into trouble. Strengths, unguided by wisdom, often become weaknesses.
For instance, last fall when my wife Louise and I vacationed in Paris for our 40th wedding anniversary, my need for independence really pitched us a curve. Louise and I had signed up for a Segway tour by night. (I don’t know what we were thinking.) The upbeat guide taught us how to speed along on one of those motorized sticks while he pointed out the glories of the City of Lights. Unfortunately, after only a few minutes I could tell that Louise’s diminishing night vision was giving her problems and I was quite certain we needed to stop and return to the base. Trooper that she is, Louise wanted to stay the course.
But I couldn’t shake my premonition. Something bad was about to happen. I also didn’t know how to tell our guide that we needed to stop, and I most certainly didn’t want to force the entire group of tourists to return to base on our account.
So, each time my wife drove her Segway too close to a cement pillar placed to keep cars from entering the pathways, I’d shout a warning: “Not so close!” as my blood ran cold with the thought of her crashing and falling.
How could I get this band of merry tourists to do an about face? If the two of us went back on our own, how would we find the way without the help of our guide? How could I fit the blasted contrivances into a cab? How could . . .
In what felt like a slow-motion nightmare, I saw my wife’s vehicle smash into a post and throw her ten feet through the air and onto the rough cobblestones below. Louise writhed in pain as I leaped from my Segway to her side. My worst fear had been realized. She had crashed and (as I later learned at the hospital) broken her pelvis.
For the next three days, as our return flight drew closer, I nearly went crazy trying to figure out how to get Louise back home. The doctors assured us she could travel without doing herself any harm, but her pain was so great she couldn’t take a single step. Fortunately, she could stand, slowly shuffle right or left, and slip into a wheel chair. Now, if I could just get her to the airline front desk, they would wheel her onto the plane—but how?
Out of utter desperation I eventually approached the manager of the hotel we were staying at and said something I almost never say.
“I need your help,” I nervously whispered as if sharing a deep, dark secret. Then I quietly explained our predicament.
“Yes,” the manager responded, “I can see your problem. I’m not sure how to solve it, but don’t worry Mr. Patterson, we will figure it out.”
And they did.
The independence my grandfather so fiercely demonstrated—and that has generally served me so well—occasionally keeps me from asking others for their assistance, even when I need it. Had I stopped our little tour group and said to our guide: “My wife and I need to return, but I also don’t want to disrupt the tour. Do you have any ideas on how to achieve that?” I’m sure the guide would have come up with five different solutions.
But I didn’t think to ask the guide. It simply was not in my nature. It was not the kind of thing I thought a self-sufficient person would do. Of course, we paid dearly.
I know I’m not alone in my misunderstanding of independence. At work, employees routinely avoid asking for help on a project because they fear it might make them look weak. Or a newly promoted boss refuses to say “I don’t know,” because he’s the new supervisor and thinks he’s supposed to know everything. And then, of course, there’s that whole getting lost on vacation and refusing to ask for directions thing . . .
For over sixty years I’ve honed my abilities to stand on my own—as if that’s life’s one true measure of success—when in truth it’s also a wonderful thing to both give and receive help. Stopping and asking others for their assistance is not a signal that we’re weak or that our character is flawed. It’s a sign of our underlying humanity.
Here’s to being more human.