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Archive for August 6th, 2008

Learning to Follow

Ann Patchett has some interesting thoughts in a little book called “What Now?” which was originally a graduation speech she gave at Sarah Lawrence College.

Receiving an education is a little like a garden snake swallowing a chicken egg: it’s in you but it takes a while to digest.”

I always appreciate a fun metaphor, and that one made me smile. I don’t know that that actually reflects my experience with education. I found that, regardless of what I specifically remembered from college, it changed me just hearing it and considering it.  So, there is a sense in which the impact was immediate, rather than something which came to full fruition later. But, in any case, the metaphor the author gives lays a nice groundwork for what she talks about next.

She is referring to her 12 years at an all girls’ Catholic school.

At the time, I thought that mine was the most ridiculous, antiquated secondary education in the history….I learned modesty, humility and how to make a decent white sauce. The white sauce I probably could have done without, but it turns out that modesty and humility mean a lot when you’re down on your luck.

Ann Patchett ended up waitressing for a long time between her graduation and actually beginning her successful career as a writer. At college and at writer’s school, her “specialness” had been emphasized.

I’m not knocking being special, it was nice to hear, but when it was clear that I was just like everybody else, I was glad to have had some experience with anonymity to fall back on. The nuns were not much on extolling the virtues of leadership. In fact, we were taught to follow.

Taught to follow. Is that taught very often? Does it seem hideous to even think about such a thing?

In a world that is flooded with children’s leadership camps and grown-up leadership seminars and bestselling books on leadership, I count myself as fortunate to have been taught a thing or two about following. Like leading, it is a skill, and unlike leading, it’s one that you’ll actually get to use on a daily basis.

My personality bent probably leads me more towards following or at the very least cooperativeness, rather than leading. Sometimes it has looked like something is wrong with me (or I’ve felt that way) because I just didn’t care about moving ahead when moving ahead meant getting to the top or taking charge. I appreciate what the author is saying here because it presents following as something other than a character flaw to be fixed or trained away or overcome.  And really, she does have a very good point:

It is senseless to think that at every moment of our lives we should all be the team captain, the class president, the general, the CEO, and yet so often this is what we’re being prepared for. No matter how many great ideas you might have about salad preparation or the reorganization of time cards, waitressing is not a leadership position…. You learn to be helpful and you learn to ask for help.

Ah, these words feel like a drink of refreshing water to me.

It turns out that most positions in life, even the big ones, aren’t really so much about leadership. Being successful, and certainly being happy, comes from honing your skills in working with other people. For the most part we travel in groups–you’re ahead of somebody for a while, then somebody’s ahead of you, a lot of people are beside you all the way. It’s what the nuns had always taught us: sing together, eat together, pray together.

It wasn’t until I found myself relying on my fellow waitress Regina to heat up my fudge sauce for me that I knew enough to be grateful not only for the help she was giving me but for the education that had prepared me to accept it. (quotes from pages 60 to 67)

These words made my brain go in at least two different directions: thinking about the surprising and unexpected ways that education affects us, and the whole concept of learning the skill of following. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these quotes. Are you naturally a leader or a follower? Have you found yourself in positions that require the opposite of your natural bent? And, if so, what kind of things have you found helpful for training you, either in leading or following?

It was just very nice to me to think about developing the skill of following. That feels like a whole lot less pressure to me than to try to figure out how to be the leader that I’ll never naturally be. Part of it, I think, is that we equate being a leader with influence. But, I think followers can be people of great and positive influence, too.

(This is one of many books I checked out this past weekend while visiting the library with a friend. I’m going to update my “To Read” page to reflect my current reading options.)

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