“I want to help!”
My kids loved helping in the kitchen, especially on Sunday mornings when we had our big, special family breakfast each week. I’d already cracked the eggs, whipped them for our scramble, and had just poured them into the pan.
“I’d love your help! First, though, take this bowl of scraps out to the compost for me then you can help with the eggs.”
“But that’ll take too long,” my seven-year-old son said, drooping with disappointment. “The eggs will be cooked by then.”
My daughter glanced at her brother, glanced at the eggs, shouted, “Okay!” and became a whirlwind. Three years younger than her brother, her small, petite frame mustered every ounce of determination to heave open the sliding glass door, then she grabbed the bowl and took off. She was back in about 30 seconds, dragged a chair across the kitchen, and hopped up beside me with a toothy grin.
“Wash your hands first!” I reminded her.
“What about me?” my son asked. Still standing in the exact same spot, his watchful brown eyes morphed into a puppy dog’s beg.
“There’s a bit more that needs to go out,” I extended the bowl toward him.
Having witnessed his little sister’s success, and not wanting to be outdone, he grabbed it and took off. Upon his return, he washed his hands and pulled up a chair on the other side of me.
On the surface, it often appeared as if my daughter’s, “I can do it!” attitude would take her further, faster. But, as my kids got older and faced more of life’s challenges, I began to see that neither approach was better than the other, they were just different. Water was the equalizer that made it obvious.
From birth, my son would scream like he was being murdered if water got on his face. It made bathing him challenging. We decided swimming lessons would be wise when he was old enough, to ensure he didn’t panic if he ever fell into a river or lake.
My daughter, of course, so opposite in every way, couldn’t get enough of the water! Getting her out of her baths was the challenge with her. We got her into swimming lessons as well to encourage her joy.
Their natural tendencies were amplified in their lessons. My son was tentative, the last to try a new skill, and needed more coaxing and support to overcome his fears while my daughter needed more guidance to focus her excitement and energy, often jumping in to learn by the “sink or swim” method—literally.
Ironically though, there was a year when they were both held back. My son’s instructor felt he needed more time to get stronger so that he could develop the self-trust to overcome his fears. My daughter’s instructor felt she needed to get stronger so that her skills could keep up with her enthusiasm. In the water, both fear and overconfidence were dangerous.
My kids taught me that neither mindset was better or worse—they were just different. Over the long-term, each of them learned that they could accomplish anything they set their minds to. The road might look different, and they might hit the bumps and setbacks and different stages, but they could still get there being exactly who they already were.
Believing in ourselves doesn’t have to look like a great big, enthusiastic, “Yes!” all the time. There’s a lot of value in the cautionary approach as well. Yet, our culture has become so prone to “always think positively” that we often dismiss the naysayers, devil’s advocates, and critical thinkers as “party poopers” and “underminers.”
As a natural devil’s advocate myself, I can count the number of times in my life I’ve heard, “You’re so negative!” My response to a new idea is often interpreted as tearing it apart, when in my mind, what I’m doing is strengthening it by pointing out the “what-ifs” so we can do some contingency planning upfront to create greater success!
I’ve often found myself wishing I could be one of those super enthusiastic, go-with-the-flow, spontaneous types. Instead, I’ve partnered with one. Yes, we drive each other utterly crazy! But, we’ve also learned that we enhance each other when we can embrace, instead of berate, each other’s natural tendencies.
We need those who see the possibilities and can take quick action to get things started. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious and can help get everyone on board and moving in the same direction. They can also be great in a crisis, pivoting in the moment to do what needs done. Yet, let’s face it: they also have a tendency to struggle with the details and follow-through. They love the high of the next “bright shiny object” and fresh, new idea more than the day-to-day boring drudgery of getting the last one completed.
We need those who see what could go wrong as well. They usually see the details better. We need them to help us point out the dangers so that we can prepare and plan. We need them to point out the flaws and the cracks so that we can strengthen the design. We need them to challenge our thinking so that we can learn to take smarter action. They may take longer to get started, but they’re often more likely to follow all the way through because they’re more committed when they finally get started. And because they like the slower pace, they’re more inclined to enjoy the day-to-day required for completion. Just don’t ask them to lead in a crisis. They may not pivot quickly enough unless they’ve been trained to handle it already.
My son made an excellent lifeguard one summer because he loved helping people and had years of swimming lessons behind him. My daughter had the same skills and love of helping people but got bored too easily to sit and watch others for long stretches.
We all have strengths and weaknesses. Knowing what to do with each is a life-long journey that boils down to two general choices:
1. Be held back until we can overcome our own weaknesses. This can be great personal development and teach us much-needed skills, but can take years, and even then, still not be enough to achieve the success we want. All the while, we lose precious time and energy that could go into developing our strengths.
2. Or, work with others whose natural traits and abilities balance our own. This allows each of us to further develop our strengths but does require being able to embrace what we often find most difficult—views, opinions, and approaches that don’t match ours and may even seem completely “wrong” to us.
Which option is the right and the best choice depends on the situation. We don’t ever have to do things like others do. That’s not the point. But developing a culture that embraces the uniqueness of each individual, allowing us to feel like we belong and are valued, can only strengthen the whole.
I invite you to start within: what parts of yourself have you been taught to reject because the world didn’t understand its real value? What might you do for yourself to begin to embrace and love that part of you again?
Then look at the world around you and ask: what parts of the other person am I rejecting, judging, or deeming wrong because they’re different from me? How might I learn more about that difference and begin to see its value—even if I never fully agree with it?
We may not all become the best of friends, but we might just find some ways to build bridges across the divides, develop deeper compassion for life experiences we’ve never lived, and learn to forgive—both ourselves and others—for being who we are instead of who we’ve been taught to believe we should be.