That’ll never work!

Most of us have at least one teacher we’ll remember all our lives: s/he’s the one who made learning a spiritual practice (or maybe a spiritual discipline?) more than a mental one simply by the joy with which the subject matter was approached.

I’m lucky to have had a few, and one who stands head and shoulders above the rest was one of my high school math teachers, John W. Wesley, or “J Dub Dub.”

When Mr. Wesley passed away two years ago, it was clear that I am not the only one who feels this way—our high school class’s Facebook page blew up with memories of him, mostly of his often-repeated sayings:

“Mr. Wesley, what is this?”
“It’s ALLL-gebra, Miss Baker, algebra.”

“Mr. Wesley, do we have to take this test on Friday?”
“You don’t HAVE to do anything but die and pay your taxes, Miss Baker.”

“Mr. Wesley, I’ll never understand this.”
“Are you sure about that? Never is a VERY long time, Miss Baker.”

It’s amazing how to this day, any time I hear “never,” my mind immediately inserts his words in response….

negativity bias as a survival mechanism

I have thought a lot about negativity in recent years, especially as a parent.

One of the most difficult things to do as a parent—and there are many—is to allow your child to fail. Our every instinct is to discourage them from doing something that we, in our (self-perceived) superior wisdom, just know is doomed to failure.

The conversation usually runs like this:

“Mom, I’m going to X.”

“That’ll never work because A, B, C….”

It’s a testament to our survival/protection instinct that we can immediately come up with 10 reasons—mostly based on our own experience—that X is a terrible idea. As humans, we are wired for negativity—we normally default to what’s known as the negativity bias.

The dictionary might as well add “wet blanket” and “rain on the parade” as synonyms for “parent.”

And we don’t reserve this to parenting: we do it as teachers, mentors, bosses, colleagues, friends….

wait, what?

I was recently at an event where I met a number of women local nonprofit leadership. Several of them I know from a new health coaching program I’m beta testing, and as they introduced me to their colleagues, some of them mentioned that we were working together.

I was asked a lot of questions, heard a lot of interest and enthusiasm, and was asked to stay in touch about the program’s future. As I prepare to pitch the program for seed funding this month, it was definitely an affirming warm-and-fuzzy moment.

And then I met that woman, or as I call her, that Board member, someone I’d heard a lot about in recent years: she’s known to be somewhat of a power player in the field.

“You want to provide health coaching to women in nonprofits? These women serve clients all day long—people whose situations are so dire that anyone who is in regular contact with them can’t help but to take on their burdens and carry them around in her own body until she retires or dies. She’s stressed, she’s overwhelmed, she doesn’t make time to take care of herself. [Wait for it…] That’ll never work.

hide and watch

I was definitely taken aback—and then I almost laughed.

Ten years ago, I would have been really upset. I probably would have just given up the whole idea. Here is someone who knows telling me I can’t do it. It won’t work. It’s a terrible idea.

And knowing what I know now, I realized the irony of what she had said.

It’s a good thing I was raised to respect my elders, or I might have snarked, “Thank you for making my point. What’s yours?”

Instead, I made a mental note that I had assembled the Board, everyone had given input, and the vote had been tallied: “Thanks so much for your input, we know you’re concerned that this might not work, and we’ve decided not to take your advice.”

When I related this story to a friend later, she gave me a much briefer response to use in these situations (out loud if you dare): “Hide and watch.”

consider the cost of failure

As a person in a position of power, especially as a parent, it’s worth considering the cost of failure before declaring that X is a terrible idea.

Will doing X actually endanger the doer or the organization or the community?

If yes, then exercise your authority (and recognize that your subordinate might do it anyway—in which case learn to pray).

If no, then remember: we learn lessons much better when we learn them on our own.

For parents of teens: studies on the teenage brain have shown that it simply doesn’t form the necessary connections by being told something is a bad idea: the body has to go through an experience for the brain to learn from it. (Again, giving it up to a higher power can be helpful for the one in charge!)

make the connection

As a parent (and in some other situations as well), I’ve mostly learned to bite my tongue when “That’s a terrible idea!” wants to leap out of my mouth.

Ultimately, I’m working toward “I think that’s a great idea! Before you try it, you might want to consider….”

For now, I’ve occasionally been successful in saying a more neutral “I think that’s an interesting idea—try it out.”

(If you’re a podcast listener, check out Call Your Girlfriend’s take on the Midwestern use of “interesting”—I now cringe every time I say that word.)

Leave me a comment and let me know, what’s a more positive alternative to “That’ll never work?”