All posts by Kerry Patterson

Kerrying On

A New Gratitude

Norman Chadwick didn’t mind walking to high school even though it was nine blocks away. He did mind the fact that most of the students who shared his route made fun of his shoes.

“Hey, Clodhopper,” the boys would shout as they passed by Norman. “Do you think your shoes are big enough?” Or, if they were feeling especially clever: “Hey Clod, Sasquatch called and he wants his shoes back.”

This particular Monday, Norman (big shoes and all) walked into the community’s cream colored, 1930s, WPA high school building and quietly pressed his way through a tangle of students rummaging through their lockers. Buck Forester, the school’s star linebacker, saw Norman coming and shouted: “Hey Clod, how’s ‘bout an Elvis song!”

Norman enjoyed performing Presley numbers in the hallway. A throng of students would gather and laugh and clap as he climbed onto a bench, strummed on his imaginary guitar, and launched into his best imitation of “The King.” But not without repercussions. As much as Norman enjoyed performing, no one on the faculty approved of his spontaneous shows—especially Mr. Hunter, the football coach.

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” Norman bellowed to a group of kids gathering near Buck’s locker, “cryin’ all the time.”

“Go for it!” Buck shouted, “Rock out!”

The crowd grew as Norman’s tortured gyrations and off-pitch caterwauling reached new heights of awkwardness.

“You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”

And then, as the crowd’s derisive hoots and hollers reached their zenith, Buck yelled: “Go Clod! Work your guitar, swing those hips, and . . .”

Bang! Buck’s locker exploded as Coach Hunter grabbed Buck by the collar and lifted him off his feet. The once-grinning linebacker was now pinned to his locker—grimacing in pain while his feet frantically banged out a call for help.

“Shame on you!” Mr. Hunter barked to the crowd as he lowered Buck to the floor. “Go straight to your classes! You all know better than this!”

The moment Buck regained his footing, he scurried off to his upcoming class while complaining to anyone within earshot that the coach had attacked him even though he had just been “kidding around.” Coach Hunter took several deep breaths, shook his head in disgust, and escorted Norman to the special-education classroom.

For the next few days, students talked about what had taken place. Some focused on the coach’s violent outburst, while others discussed how cruel Buck had been in the first place. After all, Buck and his friends had egged on a special-needs tenth-grader who thought he was being applauded for his Elvis act, when he was actually being ridiculed. It was disgraceful. And yet, nobody tried to intervene. A few kids wanted to shut down the spectacle, but they didn’t know what to say or do.

Decades have passed since that shameful episode and the question still remains: “What’s the best way for an individual to express his or her disapproval when others start to behave inappropriately? Equally important, how does one respond without mirroring Coach Hunter’s regrettable reaction?

To find an example of how to deal effectively with a breach of civility (from minor acts of disrespect to full-fledged episodes of bullying or harassment) we need not travel any farther than a few paces down the hall from the spot where Coach Hunter demonstrated how not to deal with Buck, the errant linebacker. This time, I was privy to the incident in question. Actually, I was part of the incident. To be totally honest, I was the incident. It took place on the first day of my tenth-grade geometry class. Miss Grace, the school’s aging geometer, had been lecturing at the chalkboard when I made a wisecrack to a classmate across the room. Miss Grace turned to face me and said, “Why, Kerry, you talked while I was talking!”

My first thought was, “Of course! That’s how things work around here. It’s how students make school tolerable.” Only, on this day, when Miss Grace said that I had talked while she was talking, her look of utter shock and deep disappointment was something you’d expect to accompany an outcry such as: “Why, Kerry, you robbed an orphanage!”

The impact of Miss Grace’s startled reaction and look of total disappointment was immediate. Classmates who usually laughed at my tomfoolery were now chastising me. “What were you thinking?” asked Susan LaMont (the girl seated next to me). “Miss Grace was talking. You can’t talk while Miss Grace is talking.”

So powerful had been our geometry teacher’s reaction, it wasn’t long until everyone in her class adhered to her rules of comportment. Weighing in at about 90 pounds and with less than a year until she retired, Miss Grace’s wide-eyed look of astonishment and disapproval carried with it a force that Mr. Hunter had been unable to generate with a choke hold. The coach was correct in recognizing that what Buck and his friends had been doing was shameful, but when he allowed his disappointment to grow into a violent reaction, he created a whole new set of problems.

So, what should a person do in order to follow Miss Grace’s positive example while avoiding Mr. Hunter’s egregious reaction?

When people around you begin to grossly misbehave, it’s important that you do something. Fleeing the scene or clamming up only makes matters worse. For instance, turning a blind eye to a racist comment, or shrugging off a harassing remark, suggests that you’re giving tacit approval to dreadful behavior. Not good. It’s also unwise to verbally attack the original offenders for their disrespectful actions and then strut around triumphantly as if your own brand of abuse just saved the day. Instead, it’s best to replace silence and anger with surprise and disappointment. Acting surprised may not eliminate dreadful behavior in a single stroke, but it helps set a clear standard. Showing disappointment provides a proper sense of magnitude without being abusive on its own.

And now, returning to the hallway kids . . . one might predict that recent advances in the social sciences have led to improvements in how humans treat one another. Even members of that rowdy hallway bunch may have picked up a few social skills along the way. Then again, the explosive arguments and debates that are repeatedly aired on TV are so crammed full of vile tirades and personal attacks that it makes one question the viability of one’s own species. Maybe we aren’t getting any better. Maybe we’re getting worse.

Fortunately (according to former classmates who are in the know) most members of Buck’s hallway gang have emotionally and tactically matured—replacing cheap shots and verbal attacks with acts of respect and benevolence. Equally encouraging, many of the individuals who had once been voiceless dissenters have learned to step out of the shadows and tactfully, yet firmly, deal with inappropriate behavior. And as far as Norman is concerned, I’m told that he’s treated with the kindness and respect he deserves—as a matter of course.

And for this . . . I’m truly grateful.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Confessions of a Professional Trick-or-Treater

One crisp October day as I walked home from school with Rick Eherenfield (my grade-school best friend), he asked me a rather naïve question: “Would you like to go trick-or-treating with me next week?” What a rube! Didn’t he know anything about the finer art of extracting candy from strangers? First of all, it’s a huge mistake to go door-to-door with friends. When you travel with friends, you slow down as you talk.

Trick-or-treat rule number one: Don’t slow down for anything. During the precious few hours of the one night of the year when candy is free for the asking, chatting with a friend could cost you a chocolate candy bar—which, by the way, just happens to be your only reason for going out in the first place. (It’s all about the chocolate.) One Halloween, I sprinted by a house that was on fire and didn’t break stride. You think I’m going to go trick-or-treating with a friend?

Here’s another time-related hint. Today’s kids typically tote plastic pumpkins and similar store-bought containers for holding their goodies. I carried, and I’m not making this up, a burlap bag that had once contained a hundred pounds of potatoes. I didn’t have time to be swapping out tiny totes in the middle of the evening—ergo, the massive potato sack. Of course, the bag came at a cost. By the end of the evening it weighed just as much as I did and looked positively gluttonous. “Look at that thing!” adults would shout as I held open a bag large enough to schlep a yak. “It’s disgusting!”

Rule number two: Run from door to door. When you only have a four-hour window to get free candy, you run between houses. You don’t walk, you don’t jog, and you don’t even trot. You run. You also need to take advantage of the entire evening. I was always the first and last kid on the street. Every year my Halloween adventure started with someone shouting: “It’s not time yet you moron! I’m still doing the lunch dishes!” and ended with: “You woke me out of a dead sleep!”

Rule number three: Put the trick back in trick-or-treat. The candy companies of the fifties didn’t produce the pathetic miniature bars they now make in such abundance, so when someone gave you a candy bar back in my day (and I firmly believe this qualified them for sainthood), you got a full-sized one. This didn’t happen very often, but when it did, you scored big.

So, here was the trick. I’d carry several masks. I didn’t normally don a mask because it would limit my vision and slow me down. But if someone gave me, say, a Hershey bar (most people gave out penny candy) I’d hit a couple of nearby doors, put on one of my masks, and return to the place that was giving out the mother lode. I would repeat this stunt with a different mask until I got caught. “Say, haven’t you been here before?” Using the mask trick, you could score as many as a half dozen full-sized candy bars at a single house.

Rule number four: Beware of baked goods. I was raised at a time when a handful of elderly homemakers still made pumpkin-shaped cupcakes frosted with an inch of gooey chocolate icing. They’d beam with pride when they opened their front door. “Here you go, sonny,” they’d say as they held out a tray full of their sticky creations while eyeing my burlap bag suspiciously. Now, what was I supposed to do with a gooey cupcake? Consuming it was out of the question. That violated the fifth rule of trick-or-treating: Never eat on the job.

One year, I made the grievous error of letting a well-intended grandmother drop a cupcake into the center of my burlap bag. I swear the chocolate-covered treat had its own gravitational field—sucking every decent piece of candy into its icing atmosphere until, by the end of the evening, it had grown to the size of a basketball. I learned to take cupcakes gingerly in my hand and then use them to mulch the neighbors’ flower beds.

Now for today’s broader (and less Halloween-y) lesson. Before chronicling my trick-or-treating habits for this column, I had never shared my Halloween techniques with my own children. As helpful as the information might have been for them, I kept my goofy methods a secret for fear of revealing that at one time I was greedy, weird, and (dare I say it) a bit of a nerd. I wanted my kids to think I was cool. Is that asking so much? This reluctance to share an unflattering side of our personality comes at a tremendous cost. When we eagerly share our accomplishments but not our embarrassing moments, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, we’re less human. We’re hard to connect to. We’re not particularly interesting to hang out with.

This desire to keep up an impeccable image also plays a big role at work. I’m confident in assuming that almost everyone in corporate America has a file full of stories similar to my Halloween tale that they’d rather keep locked away rather than air them in front of their friends and coworkers. To ensure our rosy reputations and bolster our own self-esteem, we primarily share lists of accomplishments, notable experiences, and tales that make us out to be a hero.

Ironically, sharing a steady stream of accomplishments can create more fragmentation than unity. Perfection is tiring. It feeds jealousy. It’s hard to relate to. At a time when organizations expect employees to coalesce into high-performance teams, it becomes just that much more difficult for employees to bond with others when all that coworkers know about each other is what can be found on their hyperbolic, sanitized resumes.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Unity finds a foothold in any environment where individuals willingly share a more balanced picture of themselves than is currently the rage. By occasionally sharing fears, missteps, and trick-or-treating oddities we become unthreatening, relatable, and likable. We become someone who makes a good friend or teammate.

So, let’s strip away our masks this Halloween season and dare to be the normal (quirky) people that we are. Consider sharing a more complete image of yourself, not one that’s hidden behind masks of solemnity, perfection, and accomplishments; rather, share with friends, family, and coworkers glimpses of the more interesting you—the childlike you—the oddball you. For instance, did you dunk for apples as a teenager until you choked and spit up on your date? Did you make your own costume for a neighborhood competition only to have critical parts of it fall off during the awards ceremony? Or, as related earlier, did you aggressively knock doors on Halloween night until someone finally shouted: “Hey kid, it’s time for you to haul your potato sack home!”

Sharing stuff like that binds people together.

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.

Kerrying On

The Perfect Inheritance

In September of 1951, when I headed to grade school for the very first time, my mother made an important decision. Since I was now old enough to travel the bogs, trails, and back alleys of Bellingham, Washington (all in an effort to learn the three Rs of elementary school), I was certainly old enough to learn what my mother called “The three Ws of 25th Street.” Which happened to be: work, work, and work.

My mom was a big believer in teaching her boys how to sing for their supper. Unlike many parents who were satisfied once they had taught their kids how to make their beds, my mother wanted me to master a more arduous, less prissy task. In her view, it was high time I learned how to clean the toilet.

Transforming our toilet from a repugnant bathroom fixture into a shining porcelain trophy, wasn’t going to be easy. Not if it was done properly. And you can bet your can of Bon Ami that Mom was going to have it done properly. After all, our toilet was the one household accessary that separated our family from a hillbilly life. We may have lived in a tiny house perched on the edge of a swamp, but by golly when nature called, we would sit on a throne fit for royalty—that is, if I learned how to clean it properly.

My journey into the world of the custodial arts began with a lesson on germ theory, complete with hand-drawn pictures of bacteria and the role they play in causing pandemics. After delivering the microbiology lecture, Mother (always ahead of her time) implemented what social scientists now refer to as “deliberate practice.” She divided the toilet-cleaning job into separate tasks, set clear standards for each one, demonstrated the first task, and then had me copy her movements. After I attempted each component, Mom eyeballed my work from several angles until she found something wrong, at which point she showed me the proper remediation technique and had me replicate what she had just done.

It took me a long time to clean our toilet that day. At first, I thought Mom was unreasonably picky, but I soon learned that there was more to the story—much more. Later that Saturday morning, when three of Mom’s colleagues from work showed up with a deck of cards in hand, Mom immediately ushered them to the bathroom and told them to take a close look at the toilet I had just cleaned—which I might point out was now shining gloriously. You didn’t HAVE to wear sun glasses to stare directly at my sparkling masterpiece, but it helped.

Learning that a mere kindergartener had produced the lustrous toilet now on display in the Patterson’s bathroom jolted Mom’s friends into some sort of genetically triggered admiration response. They couldn’t say enough good about me and my work. The praise that they gushed was the kind that is normally reserved for cakes adorned with fondant kittens chasing pastel butterflies. It certainly wasn’t the reaction you’d expect from three ladies peering into a toilet. But peer they did. Then came a long chorus of oohs and aahs.

This was the reaction my mother was seeking. Lydia had a son who was sure to be a rocket scientist, Elenore was raising a surgeon, Marge’s daughter was a shoo-in at the Seattle Symphony, and Mom—not to be outdone—had a son who . . . well, she wasn’t sure what I would achieve; nevertheless, the glow radiating from our bathroom suggested that I was headed for some sort of acclaim. And now her friends knew it as well.

Finally, as the foursome settled into their card game, Lydia offered the ultimate accolade: “Did any of you get a glimpse of the toilet’s chrome-plated handle?” she asked. “You can see your reflection in the chrome-plated handle!”

Why someone wanted to look at a toilet and see her own reflection staring back at her was beyond me, but even my five-your-old brain understood that doing a repugnant job, and doing it well, garnered a great deal of admiration from the 25th Street crowd.

I was reminded of this incident last week when I met with a group of sixteen-year-old Sunday school students to share tips for succeeding in their summer jobs. At least, that’s the topic our Sunday school president had assigned me to cover, but none of the youth actually had a summer job. They were taking summer lessons—a lot of sports and music lessons. Plus, they would be enjoying extended family vacations. Some were going to Europe.

Granted, participating in these particular summer activities would certainly be beneficial, but they left no time for tasks such as flipping burgers, tending toddlers, or mowing lawns. And unlike my friends and I at the age of sixteen, none of the kids would be picking strawberries, raspberries, and beans—in the blazing sun—and getting paid by the pound.

This is not to suggest that you can’t develop respectable work habits without doing filthy, painful, and strenuous jobs. Surely, practicing the violin for hours every day teaches how short-term sacrifice can lead to long-term gains. Lifting weights while being spurred on by a personal trainer teaches what it feels like to work until it hurts. Receiving detailed instruction from a piano teacher reveals the importance of meticulously practicing techniques. Putting in long hours, pushing yourself, staying focused, mastering methods—all help create a strong work ethic. Right? Then again, I can’t help but think that when it comes to developing healthy work habits—dirt should be involved in some way. I just can’t shake the idea.

In truth, I actually don’t know what to think. It’s not as if we want our progeny to end up in a career that requires a lifetime of back-breaking, filthy work. We encourage the next generation to study hard so that one day they’ll be able to wear cashmere sweaters to “the office” where they’ll sit in sumptuous leather chairs and make important decisions. Nevertheless, I still see the value of teenagers performing jobs that involve muck, sweat, and at least a few disgusting components—executed at a rate that demands an all-out-effort.

At this point you might argue that I’m just an old codger clinging to old ways. Could be. But then I’m reminded of my daughter Rebecca who, at a very young age, learned (from me) the same toilet-cleaning techniques I had learned from my mother. Only in Rebecca’s case, as she practiced scrubbing and polishing, I explained that I wasn’t paying her a cent for the job. Instead, I was giving her the best reward possible: I was imbuing her with an unflagging commitment to working hard. There’s no inheritance greater than that. Nothing you can bequeath your children can serve them better than the willingness and ability to tackle tough jobs. How you go about passing on such a work ethic doesn’t really matter. It just matters that you do.

I fear that all this hard-labor talk sounds suspiciously old-fashioned, but it seems to have served my children well. For example, the other day as our family cleaned a friend’s cabin we had borrowed for a three-day weekend, I caught a glimpse of Rebecca as she feverishly and meticulously cleaned a toilet. It brought a smile to my face. I know it brought a smile because I could see my reflection in the chrome-plated handle.

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.