Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
In January 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 beautiful park nearby filled with men playing checkers and chess. I’m sure you’d love it here. Please come live with us.”
“It sounds wonderful,” Grandpa replied in a return letter. “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 when he penned that response and he meant every word of it. He couldn’t conceive of not having a job and he certainly couldn’t imagine relying on others. He’d always been self-reliant. Orphaned at a young age, Grandpa was taken in by a relative who didn’t like him very much and, to remove any doubt on the matter, beat him regularly.
One day when Grandpa was ten, his schoolteacher began brutally spanking a small child in his class—there was a lot of that going on. This continued until Grandpa could take it no longer—he pummeled the teacher until the fellow fled the classroom. Needless to say, Grandpa was expelled for his efforts. While his caretakers brooded over what to do next, he packed his belongings into an old flour sack and set out from Dyersville, Iowa to live with his nine-year-old second cousin, May, and her parents—the relatives who had been kind to him when he had met them 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 laid eyes on Billy [my grandpa],” May explained to me when I first met her many years later, “my mom and I were sitting on the porch drinking lemonade. At first, 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, but then I could see it was a person: it was a boy! The poor thing looked like he was going to collapse from the heat. As he drew close enough to see his face, we realized 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—ten-year-old Billy had walked across the state of Iowa. Reaching cousin May’s house in Sioux City, he realized he was finally home. For the next eight years, Billy was loved and cared for by his cousins. When he graduated from high school, he left to make a life for himself.
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. He fell in love, settled down, and raised my mother and her sister.
Grandpa taught my mom to be as independent as he had learned to be throughout his twenty years of bachelorhood. He had learned to cook and sew, and do all things domestic—not as a point of pride, but from sheer necessity. So, along with housekeeping skills, he taught Mom 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 tearing out part of a wall with a crowbar in an effort to get a remodeling project on its feet. I’d then either help her with the project or make dinner before Dad came home to help complete the job.
This independence has served me well. I love the freedom that comes from being able to do things on my own. However, sometimes my desire for self-sufficiency morphs from autonomy to pride and pig-headedness—and that’s when it gets me into trouble. Strengths, taken to the extreme, become weaknesses.
For instance, for our 40th anniversary, my wife and I traveled to Paris where we signed up for a nighttime Segway tour of the city. From the very start, I could see that my wife’s night vision wasn’t up to the challenge of speeding along the Champs-Élysées on what was little more than an electric stick. Every few minutes, she’d zoom perilously close to a pillar or wall and I’d shout out a warning. But I didn’t dare ask to stop and return to home base because it would have ended the tour for everyone. So we continued on despite my nagging fear that something bad was about to happen.
And then it happened. Louise careened off a pillar, flew through the air, crashed to the cobblestone, and cracked her pelvis. For the next three days, I fretted and fumed over how to get her home safely. She could travel without it causing harm, but it hurt so much . . . well, I just didn’t know what to do.
After two days of fruitless worrying, and out of utter desperation, I finally approached our hotel manager and said something I almost never say.
“I need your help,” I nervously whispered. Then I 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 he did.
In my case, the independence I learned from my grandfather occasionally transmutes into “indepen-dunce” and keeps me from asking others for their assistance, even when I need it. Had I stopped our tour group and explained—”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 and other tourists would have come up with five different solutions.
I know I’m not alone in my misunderstanding of self-reliance. At work, employees routinely avoid asking for help because they fear it might make them look weak. Perhaps you’ve seen a newly promoted boss refuse to say “I don’t know” because she’s a supervisor and believes that means she’s supposed to know everything.
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. Since I learned independence at my grandfather’s knee, it’s not something I’m going to simply let go of—nor could I. Fortunately, that’s not required. I simply need to couple independence with an equal desire to both seek and give assistance. Stopping and asking others for help is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It’s a sign that we need each other. And that’s a good thing.
So, here’s to taking the dunce out of independence.