Sometimes in life, we come across an idea that stays in our mind for decades and which can be applied in our dealings at work, in addressing our personal problems and in interactions with friends, family and strangers.
Back in the ‘90s, when I was a first-time superintendent of schools in Wisconsin, I attended a seminar led by the futurist, Joel Barker. I left the seminar that day with a life-long lesson I continue to apply all these years later. Its genesis came from the following story he shared:
One day, a young man was driving his new red convertible on a two-lane, curvy mountain road as part of his favorite Saturday morning ritual. The crisp morning air was bracing as he drove, top-down, at a high speed along the road, staying just clear of the precipice at every turn. That day, as he careened sharply around a hairpin turn, his car narrowly avoided an oncoming sedan driven by a woman who turned and yelled “Pig!” as she passed. Red-faced, the man turned his head and screamed, “Cow!” implying an unkind reference to her appearance. It was at that same moment when his pleasant morning jaunt ended with his beloved convertible colliding with an unlucky porcine that was crossing the road.
The fable “The Pig in the Road” is a great illustration about the value of listening and reflecting before responding. After I thought about the presentation, I decided to apply it at a two-day summer workshop I was planning for the administrative staff in my new school district.
The staff wasn’t too thrilled with me when I booked a conference room at a retreat center in Madison, Wisconsin, about 20 miles away from our school district. The conference was mandatory and meant they would go back to school the next day where they’d be barraged with a full day of work on hiring new staff, responding to parental messages and fielding class schedule complaints.
The day before the workshop, I found a party shop in Madison where I purchased 100 tiny brightly colored pink plastic pigs.
I kicked off the event by telling the story “The Pig in the Road.”
Then, I challenged the group to work together to identify ten issues or events that frequently happen at their school which create problems, mistakes and misunderstandings, but don’t usually rise to the level of catastrophe or major discipline issues. In other words, I asked them to list those things that “niggle” at them when they least expect it. Things that keep them awake at night, cause mistakes or detract from good working relationships between the community and staff members.
I wanted a list of misunderstandings and staff complaints they’d learned to live with because there was simply not enough time to address them. After the staff made their lists, I collected them and moved on without referencing them.
On the second day of the workshop, I arrived early in morning, placing several pink plastic miniature pigs on the table in front of each chair. After the group herded into the conference space, socialized for a few minutes and dispensed with their coffee and pastries, participants began to chatter and whisper about the plastic pigs at their table.
Once we were all seated, I explained that, from their lists of ten issues, I wanted them to list five to seven “pigs in the road” that they believed were the most important issues for their school to address.
Next, I asked them to present their list to the group, providing a short synopsis of the issues and tentative plans for solving them. They were also to identify the people who would need to be involved in this process, as well as provide an estimate about how long resolving this might take. As they described the problems, they were to place a miniature pig in a special pile and those issues would be on their personal improvement list for the coming year.
Although the staff probably wasn’t initially happy to spend their weekend at the retreat, I think they left feeling that we had made concrete steps to improving their daily lives.
Throughout that year, we frequently discussed our “pigs in the road” and how important it was to take a breath when someone berated us or spoke rudely. We remembered the importance of not getting even and yelling the proverbial “cow” word. Instead, we promised to do the opposite and stay calm until we had the full story.
This experience has always stuck with me, and reminds me of the old saying, “When we assume, we make an a__ out of you and me”. Always trying to be aware of the proverbial “Pig in the Road” helps me step back and make sure I think about my response before I speak, so that I can avoid running into a pig or worse.
As you contemplate what’s ahead for you in 2018, in both your career and your life, think about those “pigs in the road” and how you can avoid these unnecessary collisions in your life.
© Tyra Manning 2018