June 27, 2017

Pulling Out Your Stake

First posted almost 6 years ago, it seems worthwhile bringing back for you.



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 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 with any confidence.

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 Virginia. 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?

27 comments:

  1. Oh yes. I wanted to go to art school. My parents forbade it and insisted I become a teacher. I ended up dropping out of college and look at me now! Art is my life! https://www.instagram.com/robertawa/

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    1. Oh, I love your depiction of flowers on that Instagram account. Nicely done, and a good thing you ignored those who said, "No."

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  2. Sometimes it can also be traumatic to specifically tell a child what he or she could be good at! I was excellent at math when younger, along with science, and secretly dreamed about doing space science in some way. A teacher in 8th grade, probably only because I was female, said to me one day, "Oh you are SO good at math, have you ever thought about being a bookkeeper." I remember the ambivalent feeling I had to this day. I felt praised, but also somewhat crushed or deflated. If a child is seen to be good at drawing or painting, for example, it might be best to reinforce and praise that in a general way or in a way which allows the child to be aware of multiple options for the talent or skill. Also, as most teachers today know, especially at levels like community college, many students because of constant praise and reinforcement for minimal achievement, have gross over assessments of their abilities and level of achievement--not that this can't be corrected, but achievement in many professions is a long and difficult academic road. For example, although it has changed a great deal in the past 20 years, with even some middle aged persons deciding on medical school, often that is an academic road that begins at high school, not at age 45. A delicate line exists between fostering realistic expectations in children or students and not limiting their dreams. A dream has to confront reality though.

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    1. That is an excellent point. A parent or mentor's casual comment can have unintended consequences and change someone's life. In trying to be helpful, a limiting of possibilities occurs.

      I will have a post coming along sometime in the next few weeks about the problems caused when children are told everything they do is great or exceptional, everyone gets a trophy, and no one knows how to fail and move forward. We think we are using positive reinforcement, but in reality we have either limited a person's potential or setting them up for a serious crash and burn.

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  3. As a graduate of the Univ of CO, this reminds me a a story about a famous former student in the music school in Boulder, who was told by a professor he would never amount to anything in the music world. That student was Glenn Miller; I doubt the music professor ever amounted to anything in the music world.

    Can't say I was ever told I could not do or be something except by some in the teaching profession. Unfortunately I believe that the education establishment has likely crushed more dreams and potentially significant lives than any other group in this country.

    Instead of being told I could not do something and taking it to heart, I basically tried harder when I could not succeed at first. It did not always work out; otherwise I would be in the basketball, baseball and football Halls of Fame right now as examples. But it did help me to motivate myself and not be held back by others comments. And it was a huge help that I did not have parents that consciously tried to hold me back. They weren't able to help a lot because their life experiences were vastly different, but they did not hold me back, either. For that I am very, very grateful.

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    1. The closest my parents ever came to questioning the career path I chose was when my mom asked me when I was in my early or mid 20's "when I was going to get a real job." Playing records on the radio struck her as great for a kid, but not serious work for an adult. By the way, on my college radio station I hosted a big band show on Sundays, and played.....Glenn Miller.

      Except for that one instance I can't remember my parents ever limiting my choices or overly praising middling success. Their approach was just right. Also, like you, I was highly motivated to achieve whatever I decided to do so the spark came from inside.

      Our education system is set up to promote the average. Individual teachers, though, can inspire and motivate someone.

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  4. Had the same experience as your wife. It took 40 yrs to get back to painting. I doubt I could have made a living at it, but am angry at the professor who said I had no business in art and at myself for believing him. I now know he was a bully, but words hurt

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    1. Words do have a major impact. Just ask anyone being bullied at school today. Our self assurance is at its most vulnerable when bullying is at its worst.

      Glad you and others finally saw through the hurtful words and did what you love.

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  5. Well, let's see...I had a step-father who always told me "You're nothin'!" When I graduated high school, (first in my family, how sad is that?) I had an opportunity to intern at an ad agency and I knew that would stoke my love for art, but my mother insisted I pump gas in hot pants because it suited her schedule. That is what prompted my leaving home. So many opportunities lost but, eventually fulfilling my dreams has become reality. Never give up!
    b

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    1. Your full story is worth telling...which I assume your book will. You have had quite a few stakes to pull out, and you have.

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  6. Parents, teachers and so on will make mistakes, a few wrong words or a bad day happen to us all. But life is what you make of it (which seems to be the story of those who responded here) you are free to choose.

    My parents made mistakes, in the eyes of my father I could do nothing right, for my mother I could do nothing wrong. It didn't balance things out either (which I think may have been my mother's intention) faint praise is as bad as "You did great!" when you know you didn't. I think my father was trying to teach me that it's a hard world out there so toughen up. From my perspective at the time I felt that the praise from my mother wasn't earned and for my father, well, it really wasn't worth trying - I was a demotivated kid.

    Yet when I look back, born in 1925, my father did experience a tough world, a huge economic depression that started when he was 5 years old followed by a world war. My father was in his 20s before anything approaching stability in his life occurred and I can only imagine that working-class parenting styles weren't the best in the 1920s & 30s (though he certainly never talked about it). I was born 8 years after the war ended, practically yesterday for him at the time.

    In any case I was demotivated and that lasted for quite a while (I dropped out of high school and so on) but as I moved into full adulthood eventually I sorted myself out and found my way. In the end, I finished high school at night, went to university, married (to the same wonderful woman for 34 years now), two wonderful daughters, and had I a successful career. And that's what it's about - what you make of your own life.

    We all have personal challenges, my parents weren't particularly wicked or ill intentioned (I'm not saying that never occurs, it does) but that’s life, overcoming those challenges is what makes us who we are today.

    I raised two children to adulthood and did I make mistakes? Absolutely. Different mistakes from my own parents but mistakes all the same. I can tell you that for my two what helped one child succeed did not help the other and a completely different approach was required. Either way, we all muddle through with good intentions doing the best that we can but let’s not be too hard on those that loom large as negatives in our personal story. For better or worse they helped make us who we are today and most of us made it through.

    By-the-way I have a close relationship with my adult kids who both live nearby in our town and, though not particularly close, I get along with my parents these days too (dad 92 and mom 86).

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    1. I appreciate your summary and thoughts about what happened and why. I would guess a lot of our parents' attitudes and actions were formed by the Great Depression. We can't even imagine what that must have been like but they did the best they could and what they thought was right.

      I certainly agree we all have our own set of challenges to work through and they mold us in their own way. We do the best we can and move on.

      Having a close relationship with grown children is a blessing that keeps giving everyday. One of my daughters' family just left after having dinner with us and watching a Harry Potter movie. It is so special to have then just a few minutes away and to be so involved in our grandkids' lives.

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  7. One of my favorite stories, which I've shared many times. But you are right -- sometimes a simple comment, particularly from an authority figure, can drive a stake.

    For me (like you) it was writing. A high school English teacher publicly accused me of plagiarism on a writing assignment. It was original and very good, and I was so hurt and angry I did no more serious writing in high school. But that changed eight years later when my boss complimented me on my "wicked pen" for a detailed engineering report. The stake was finally pulled.

    Pulled the stake again when critics questioned a career change from engineering into technical sales. And again when starting a consulting firm 30 years ago. BTW, Mary was not the critic -- she encouraged me and helped pull the stake each time.

    Now in MN - not missing the AZ heat. Heading to Wisconsin Dells with the grandkids. See you in the fall.

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    1. Wisconsin Dells has enough fun stuff to keep you and the grandkids very busy! Last time we were there we took the tour boat around the lake.....quite pretty and relaxing.

      Luckily, I had the opposite: a high school creative writing teacher who encouraged me. I still remember his name: Mr. Durkin.

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  8. We all grew up taking cues from the environment - home, school, community, etc. It's taken me years to change the self-deprecating tapes in my head. I still have remnants of the old dialogue in my head. I came to learn that I wasn't a "rebel" just because I challenged the status quo; I wasn't "too independent for my own good," just too independent for someone else's comfort level; I didn't need to "worry about what other people think" - what they think is none of my business; I didn't think "leaving was the answer to everything", I knew there was a better way. As ddavidson says in his reply, we all have personal challenges. What we don't transform, we will transmit.

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    1. The lesson about learning to ignore what other people think most of the time is one many of us don't learn until well into our adult years. As you note, what they think is not our business, or concern. Thanks, Mona.

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  9. This was a reflection-provoking post! I can look back at some career opportunities I shied away from because I thought I was reaching too high. Too late to go back to those now--life moved on. Looking for current stakes, I have to say I can't find any. Connecting this post to your last about the reality check of age, I think there are limitations that age or other circumstances impose, but those are different than stakes that give only the illusion of limitation, like in the circus elephant story. We make our peace with one; we pull up the other!

    Note to Betty: You have shown up that professor big time. You are one of the most artistically talented people I know. Your creativity astounds and delights all who are graced to see what you produce. I'm sure you could paint whatever you like, but I understand how the fun of something can be stolen. If you ever do pick up a paintbrush, your first painting could be for that professor--I suggest a study of a hand making a particular gesture! Meanwhile, continue to bring beauty into the world with all your other amazing creations!

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    1. I will have Betty read your comment right now. Family members agree with you, but she has to be internally motivated to take up painting again. Photography has taken its place for now and she is just as talented with that medium.

      Yes, there is a big difference between a limitation imposed by age or physical issues versus one imposed by ourselves, on ourselves, for no concrete reason.

      By the way, when this post first ran 6 years ago you were the only person who commented then who is still commenting today. That shows commitment!

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    2. Really? Did I make the same comment? Ha!

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    3. No, a different comment, but the same you!

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  10. My dad told all of us kids, if you come home from school with anything less than an A, then you haven't measured up, meaning ... you're a failure. Naturally, when I got a B, I felt like I disappointed him ... and I got plenty of Bs. Oh well, he meant well, and we all got over it, eventually.

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    1. I was surprised the first (and only) college course I received a D and my parents didn't give me any grief. The reason? It was at 8am on Mondays and I worked the 12 midnight to 6 am shift at a radio station that day. There was no way I was going to get back the the dorm and go to a class on geological politics an hour later! They understood where my heart was and what was important to me.

      I, on the other hand, was quite upset that I couldn't just read some books and get a decent grade even though I only attended a few of the classes.

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  11. Mona, I like your insight about what we don't transform, we transmit.

    I am 4 months into retirement and busy pulling up all the stakes from this culture, that you are the sum of your job. I had 4 different careers, but none of them were true to my deepest self. Going back to my roots and remembering that I am an artist and linguist, re-exploring drawing, music, new languages. Took me a long time to pull up the stake about being perfect -- I don't have to engage in the arts at a professional level of excellence to have fun! Taking up the piano after a long hiatus and am learning to play the guitar. Drawing what pleases me, reading other languages with a dictionary in hand if necessary is okay! (As you can see, I am a little giddy with delight.)

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  12. My depression-era parents were very risk averse. "Always go for the sure thing," "A bird in the hand...," etc. I grew up reluctant to move too far off the beaten path, and was very reluctant to take a risk in any of my undertakings, both personal and professional. Although things worked out for the most part, and I did gain some valuable lessons (stay out of debt), I have always wondered what "might have been." My mother has passed and my Dad is 91.... but I still hear that voice in my head sometimes.

    Rick in Oregon

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    1. hi Rick,

      I know what you mean about the voice in your head. Both my parents have passed but I still sometimes hear the old tapes (different than yours) but still powerful. After 60 years thankfully I can recognize the voices as my parents choices and make a choice to ignore them.

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  13. Bob, this post really resonated with me. I share with you the same self-imposed barrier about writing. I want to write a book, and I have started three novels and drafted outlines for several nonfiction books as well. But ultimately what stops me every time is a crisis of confidence -- fear that it won't be "good enough." I know that it is a self imposed limitation (a twelve inch stake) because I have written and published other forms of writing, mainly articles, reports, and poems. Also, I have been blogging for nine years. But when it comes to writing a book, a self-critical voice in my head talks me out of it. One of my goals in retirement is to blast through that barrier!

    Jude

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    1. Best of luck, Jude. It sounds like you have already made several positive starts. Now, stretch to the finish line.

      My problem is, frankly, laziness. Writing anything long form is a lot of work and dedication of big chunks of time. I am just not committed enough to do that.

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