April 10, 2011

The 12" stake

There is a story you may have heard about a giant circus elephant and how it was controlled. The animal was huge and very powerful. It could knock over a brick wall with it's trunk. But, in between performances all the massive beast had to keep it secure was a simple chain around its foot connected to a 12" wooden post hammered into the ground.


Certainly the elephant could have torn the stake from the ground with one tug, but it never did. As a baby it was chained to the same post. Being small, no matter how hard it pulled the youngster could not free itself from the restraint. Obviously, as it grew in strength and size it could have yanked the chain free in an instant. But, the elephant had convinced itself the chain and post were unbreakable so it simply gave up trying.


We all go through life being taught things that can limit our growth. We all are told something that makes us doubt our potential or our abilities. Sometimes it is true. I was never going to be a major league baseball player. The coach that suggested I find another outlet was just being honest. I liked playing the clarinet but it was clear my musical skills were not going to get me first chair with the Boston Pops. That was not one of my gifts. I enjoy playing the guitar (poorly) now for relaxation, but Paul McCartney has nothing to fear.

What we must fight against are those limitations we are taught to believe are true when they are not. Sometimes it is a parent who tells us we aren't good enough to accomplish something. (if you are a parent, please never tell your kids or grandchildren that!). It might be a teacher or a coach. I had a drill instructor in the army who convinced me I was a danger to the entire U.S. military. Even though I actually became the honor graduate from basic training, he was right. I wasn't cut out to be a career soldier.


My wife loved painting when she was young. She would spend hours with a canvas and paints and her amazing imagination creating something that pleased her. But, at some point in college a teacher told her she wasn't good enough to continue. In fact, he suggested she was better suited to be a housewife. It has been 35 years and she still hesitates to pick up a brush.

As we raised our two daughters, Betty and I were very aware of limitations imposed on children by well-meaning but shortsighted parents. We were very careful to teach our girls they could do absolutely anything they set their minds to do. We gave them the freedom and support to become experienced world travelers before many kids their age had left their hometown. It is gratifying to see our grandchildren being given the same support and excelling in just about everything.

In Betty's case, she pulled out her stake by finding another outlet for her artistic impulses. The painting dream had been seriously damaged by that thoughtless professor back in West Virgina. Even though those around her believe she has the talent, the barrier is still too high to overcome. So, she immersed herself in taking ordinary photographs and turning into works of art. Some samples were posted a few months back. If you missed seeing them click here to see what she can do with a simple camera and Photo Shop.

In my case my self-imposed barrier was writing. I had been told all my life that I wrote well. So, I tried over and over to write something of substance. I have started at least half a dozen different books, both fiction and non-fiction. I have been part of a few different writers' groups for brief periods of time. But, each time my 12" stake convinced me whatever I was writing wasn't good enough. I couldn't convince myself to put in the hard work required to learn the craft well enough to develop whatever ability I had. I would write a chapter and stall, then stop.

When I discovered blogging I discovered the way to beat my personal restriction: short form writing. I can churn out several hundred words with few problems. Give me a topic and I'll fill a page. I don't have to worry about dialog, character development, extensive research, or all the other parts of long form writing. My self-imposed limitation was gone and I could write to my heart's content.

So, what about you? Did you have certain limitations imposed on you as you grew? Are they still restricting what you believe you can accomplish? Have you been chained to a 12" stake that has kept you moving in a tight circle all your life when what you really want to do is break free and roam?  Is that restriction self-imposed or based on something that is not true? Isn't it time you pulled hard enough to pop that stake out of the ground?

What stake are you ready to pull against?

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13 comments:

  1. The first thing you learn when you set off on your life journey is to believe in yourself and your talents. If you shrink and stop what you are intent on doing just because somebody said you had no talent, then the odds are very good you wouldn't have become a success in that field anyway.
    If you can't stand up to simple criticism, then you truly don't have any talent. If Barbra Steisand had listened to her mentors: "You're too ugly. You're nose is too big" she wouldn't be a star today. Same with Frank Sinatra (uneducated, jersey punk kid) Bruce Springstein, Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln (too poor to amount to anything.)

    You're wrong in advising people NOT to criticize. That's how talent makes it to the top. By being criticized and told they can't do it. How else could Steve Jobs have made the Apple Computer king of the world if not for the experiments he did in his parent's garage? Up until 1999 Wall Street said Apple was dead. Look at them now? Or Walt Disney, an adopted, haunted child who created the greatest empire dedicated to children. And their parents.
    The problem with kids today is that there are no winners or losers anymore. Everybody in class gets a prize. Where is the drive? The ambition? The longing to succeed and prove the masses wrong?

    If you really had the talent to play a mean guitar, you'd be standing right next to Paul McCartney. Billy Joel is. A punk kid from Long Island NY felt he was just as good as the Beatles. And he is!

    Just because you (plural) are lame enough to believe you have no talent just because somebody said so is the reason why anyone would fail.

    I told my kids to find out what they are best in and follow that pursuit. That way, they didn't set themselves up for failure. By the time my youngest was 23 years old, she was earning a six-figure salary. She makes more in one bonus than I or my husband ever did in one year combined!

    That's how you become a success in life and that's what you should be teaching your children.

    However, this is my own experience in life. Everyone else is different.

    Why are shows like American Idol or America's Got Talent or You Think You Can Dance such hot commodities? Because you have a leader who listens to you and says 'NO' when you have no talent. You compete fair and square and only the creme rises to the top. That's what it is all about.

    I'm sure you will edit my response just like you do all the others.

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  2. PS: Regarding the judges on American Idol:Jennifer Hudson didn't take no for an answer. She lost on Idol but believed in herself and went on to win the Academy Award beating out such top notch celebs such as Beyonce'. If you have talent, the word 'no' means absolutely nothing.
    BTW: you're a great writer. Glad you kept at it, because you're good. Very good. See what I mean? The talent will always shine through.

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  3. Morrison,

    No editing on my part. Unless a comment includes a personal attack on someone or something I figure part of what blogging is all about is to let different opinions be expressed.

    I want to emphasize that I don't believe a parent should ever tell a child he or she isn't good enough at something. A parent's vote of no confidence can hurt a child forever. Helping a child find a direction better suited to his skills is part of parenting; tearing down a child is not.

    Criticism from others (non-parents) is part of life. If someone can't stand being criticized (either constructively or destructively) they aren't going to get very far. Is the criticism coming from jealousy or dislike or an actual desire to help the other person? That determination goes a long way toward determining whether the "suggestions" will prove useful to that person.

    Thank you for the comment about my writing. The only person who ever told me I can't write well enough has been me.

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  4. This one hit home and I bet it hit home with a lot of people - some of those 12" stakes are self imposed - and those seem to be the hardest to overcome. This blog applies to everyone, not just the "older crowd" - so I have sent it on to my kids and friends who probably have their own 12" stakes to pull out of the ground. Thanks for the reminder.

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  5. Hi Pat,

    Thanks for the supportive comment and passing along the post. Yes, I think the 12" stake is something virtually everyone of us has holding us back. Isn't it amazing the strength of such a limitation?

    As you note it applies to all ages. Even children can have a limit imposed by teachers or peers or parents. We all could do so much good for others if we would just think before we tell someone something that my hurt them in this way.

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  6. Bob,
    My limitation was probably self induced. I don't remember people telling me that I wasn't a people person but I quickly decided that I didn't know how to talk to people and then proved it over a lifetime.
    It was crap, of course, but you only know what you know- even when what you know is wrong. I finally discovered that people skills are learned and that I actually like people when I stop seeing them as a threat.
    It's bad to learn lessons late but far worse never to learn.

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  7. Hey Ralph,

    I spent the majority of my life believing I had little empathy for others and was too clinical in my approach. That probably came from too many years as a consultant. But, I have learned all my empathy wasn't removed at birth, it was just buried rather deeply.

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  8. Hi Bob, What a lively discussion we have going here.
    First, I do think Betty has talent with her photography and the creativity she puts into making an abstract piece of art. It reminds me of what I've seen in modern art museums in Paris and Brussels.
    Second, your analogy was perfect. I could tell your story was "constructed" in such a careful and clever way.
    Third, When I wrote about critique groups a while back, I remember saying something about "it's not about criticizing, it's about critiquing. There is a big difference.
    Fourth, As a 13-year-old in an English/International school in Paris, I was chosen to make a speech in front of my class. I had no time to prepare, and I was not popular. I got up and pretended I was the school cafeteria cook, because I liked food, and we had to pick someone we thought was important. You can imagine how awful I felt when everyone laughed at me, plus I was the youngest in my class. From that day on, I've been scared to speak, until I took some public speaking classes at a local college in my 40's. Now for some reason, I don't mind, and I actually seek out the challenge. So at a conference I attended last Saturday, there was a film guy interviewing people about their experience at the conference. I volunteered to be interviewed on camera. I guess I'm an elephant letting go of that chain, despite still wondering if I did OK.

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  9. Bob,great post. How interesting that I just read that elephant training story somewhere else just recently. When a story comes across my path several times in a short period, I figure that is life telling me to pay attention!!

    Also, I love your wife's art. I remember when you posted her art several months ago. I was so captivated by it. She has clearly yanked up her stake!

    Like you, I find blogging a great way to write. I would like to turn it into a book, I think, but I get quickly intimidated and overwhelmed. Maybe that is my stake.

    Thanks for a great post. And thanks for adding me to your blogroll. I'm honored.

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  10. Good morning, Sonia,

    What a great comment! Firstly, Betty thanks you for your very nice compliment of her photography. In fact, she just threw down a challenge: when I start selling the 2nd edition of the Retirement book she'll start selling her photographs.

    Your story about public speaking reminds me of all of the famous people who began life with serious stuttering problems but went on to become great orators, leaders or entertainers. Even the voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones, had a serious fear of public speaking for quite a long time. For you to actively overcome your fear of speaking in public is a perfect example of stake pulling.

    By the way, did you know that for most people the fear of public speaking is greater than the fear of death?

    Again, thanks for the supportive comments. Betty, especially, needs to be reinforced to pull that stake.

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  11. Hi Galen,

    I don't know what made me think of the elephant story but maybe I saw it somewhere and it marinated for awhile before springing forward.

    I have always envied song writers who could suddenly have a tune or lyrics spring from their brain and become a piece of music. Maybe writing is the same thing: who knows where our inspirations come from sometimes!

    You are very welcome to be added to my blog roll. You write very well. I encourage any of my readers to sample you whenever they can.

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  12. Hi Bob, I quit writing my blog several months ago to focus on a novel. I found I missed it for reasons similar to the ones you mention. So I'm back blogging again, hoping I can do both. I like the shortness in length of the blog, the constantly evolving topics and most of all the awareness and interest it brings to my life and daily activities. We all seem to have a part of ourselves that feels less than. As a writer it can all be grist for the artistic mill.Happy blogging. Mike

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  13. Hi Michael,

    I wondered where you were! Welcome back to the world of blogging.

    Let us know how your book is coming while we follow the blog.

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