“Luxury Bridges”


So, this happened …

You get 6 long ropes, 10 short ropes, and 10 log poles. There’s the river, now go build a bridge that meets this list of safety requirements, and get everyone across.

And that was it.

He walked off through the forest, and left us standing there.

I was on a management training “away week” in Switzerland with about 30 other people from around the world. From Monday to Friday we sat in a Zurich hotel conference room, listening to lectures, doing role-plays, creating strategies, working on projects. The Saturday was the final day of the program, and they’d taken us to a nearby forest. Apparently we’d be spending the day building bridges.

Six of us gathered around, while Gabrielle from Italy started reading the instructions aloud:

  1. You have to build a bridge across the river, using only the equipment you have been given,
  2. Everyone in your group needs to use the bridge to cross the river, in order to complete the task successfully,
  3. A person crossing the river needs to be able to walk comfortably across the bridge, without holding onto anything, while being attached to a safety line throughout,
  4. You have until 4pm. Good luck.

We were confident about the challenge, and excited. Instructions were brief and clear, equipment appeared to be plentiful, and the river couldn’t have been more than 20 feet across. This was doable.

So we spread the equipment out on the pine needle-covered ground, amongst the moss-mottled rocks, and starting debating which bridge design we’d go with.

Over the next half hour, our smiles faded. No matter how we theorized the structure would have to look to allow criterion #3 to be met, there just wasn’t enough equipment to achieve that.

After a while, the facilitator came back to check up on us, to see how we were progressing. In his thick Swiss accent, he expressed disappointment that we hadn’t even begun building. He hinted that the other groups, upstream and downstream from our location, were well ahead of us.

“It’s impossible!” I remember saying to him, frustrated. “There just aren’t enough poles to do what you’ve asked us to.”

“Are you sure? I mean, you aren’t the first group to do this particular team-building activity in these woods. And the others got everyone across.”

“But how?” we pushed back, absolutely clear amongst ourselves that it couldn’t be done, but somehow also nervously doubting ourselves at the same time, knowing that the others had already started building their bridges.

“So what are you saying?” he challenged us. “Are you asking me something, or telling me something?”

“We just can’t build the bridge that you’ve asked for, with this equipment.”

“Are you asking me something or telling me something?”

“We’re saying we think it can’t be done.”

“OK,” he said, “then let’s call it quits and pack everything up.”

“It’s just that we can’t do it the way you’ve described,” we defended our stance.

“Are you asking me something or telling me something?”

There was an infinitely long pause, and then I spoke up, “Is it OK if we build a bridge that gets everyone across, that uses a safety line, but that doesn’t necessarily allow people to walk across without holding onto anything?”

He looked at me for a moment, then a huge grin appeared on his face. “OK, that’s fine. Go ahead.” Then the facilitator turned around and walked off.

It took a moment for the implications of this to sink it. This had been a test! This was part of the challenge, they had specifically asked us to do something that was impossible with the given resources, and it was up to us to realize, to challenge, and to negotiate for something that was actually feasible.

For a group of young managers in our late 20s, it seems we were still living under the shadow of our school education, where we had to do what we were told, unquestioningly. We would never make a difference in the real world if we remained this compliant, if we weren’t aware of constraints, if we didn’t challenge how things should be.

Sometimes it’s OK to simply get across the river. It doesn’t have to be a luxury experience, no matter what they tell you.

Simple Definition

Luxury bridges: In moving from school to “the real world”, we need to change from unquestioningly doing exactly what we’re told, and start to challenge what we have to do, and why we have to do it. 

Discussing what it means

Obey me now!

I don’t know for sure how many times I’ve told this #hashtag-story to make a point, but it’s a lot! In big picture terms, this is a “coming of age” story, about maturing rather than simply ageing. More specifically, though, it’s about outgrowing the phase of our lives where we simply follow instructions, to one where we challenge (in a good way, of course) the ‘what’ and ‘why’.

Seth Godin (marketer, author, educator, visionary) in his well-known TED talk “Stop stealing dreams” points out to us that schools are about obedience, about following rules, about uniformity. Of course it depends on the school and on the country, but this also includes the wearing uniforms, having regulation haircuts, using 2HB pencils, and doing exactly what you are told to do because she said so.

It’s a bit like those maths problems they gave us at school: “Bob goes into a supermarket on the way home from work and buys 89 watermelons. While loading them into his car, a few slip and break as they hit the ground, so he leaves them there and drives off. When he gets home, there are only 63 left to unload. How many watermelons got destroyed in the supermarket parking lot?”

I tested this on my 9 year old and she immediately set to work doing the mental arithmetic to calculate 89-63. But when I tried it with a colleague over coffee, his comment was, “WTF did Bob want 89 watermelons for? Can he even fit that many in a car??”

That’s the difference between automatically doing what you’re told, and thinking about what you have to do.

I get that it’s convenient for parents and bosses to have children and employees who just obey. Even I have said, “Because I said so” to my 4 year old when she wants to understand (for the 12th time) why she has to use toothpaste and whether it’s ok to just brush using water.

At school you do what you’re told. As an adult, hopefully you think a bit about what is being asked of you.

For some people this takes many years to realize, and for others they never make that switch.

We will never improve our lives nor make an impact on the world, if we spend our time unthinkingly doing what we’re told. And yes, that definitely applies to you … since you’re reading this chapter now, and clearly in the process of applying the #HashtagYourLife system to your own life.

Obedience is just one form of mental programming

This #hashtag-story is specifically about unthinkingly obeying instructions, but of course there are many forms of unconscious “mental programming” that we subject ourselves to. Ramit Sethi calls these “Invisible scripts”, but here we think of them as a form of #[Putting trees in your field], of complicating your life with obstacles that don’t actually exist.

You can read about some others in #[It was never the chicken’s fault], #[The average photo you DO take] or #[Wearing a thin tie].

Fifty Shades of Obey

(You didn’t think I would write about obedience without at least one subtle reference to Grey, did you?)

Although this #hashtag-story focuses on unthinking obedience, it’s probably less ‘black & white’, and more ’shades of grey’. This isn’t just about doing what you’re told at school, and then learning to challenge the system when you start working. As we get older, we need to break through a series of barriers to progress. Of course, your barriers will depend on your background, your upbringing, your mental programming – and that will be different to anyone else.

But perhaps there are some common themes?

  • Children under the age of three or four have never been told by their parents that they can simply walk straight and people will walk around them, but since they’ve never had to walk around anyone (adults always magically walk around them), this is what they have ‘learned’. But as they get a little older, they learn the hard way (through direct impact!) that they have to take responsibility for not slamming into people, animals and poles.
  • Older children also still carry the belief the world is black and white (don’t talk to strangers, don’t hit people). But this world starts to crumble when they hear their father say that it’s OK to talk to a doctor you’ve never met before, and if any man tries to grab you in a shopping centre then Daddy will beat the crap out of him but in that case it’s OK to hit people.
  • It is said that most people parent by instinct. They do what feels right, probably based heavily on how their parents did it. But they don’t stop to think whether that makes sense, and they don’t give themselves permission to do it differently. And often being a boss is the same – we boss like we were bossed, whether we liked what we went through or not.
  • Mental programming can be about what we think is the optimal way of doing things, but it can also be about a traditional way of doing things. Cultural differences are also part of what we do on automatic. As a Westerner I was taught to eat everything on my plate, whereas it’s a more Asian culture (yes, yes, I’m generalizing) to eat until you’ve had enough, even if that means leaving a little food on your plate. Neither is right, but we eat the way we were taught.
  • You don’t have to accept the pay you are offered by your boss – remuneration most certainly can be negotiated (see #[Aren’t you glad I negotiated your non-negotiable?])
  • Most people grow up in the same religion as their parents, which actually says a lot!

And there are many more examples of living a life without questioning the principles under which you were raised, like equal opportunity, non-discrimination, freedom of choice, respect for everyone.

Making it personal

Bertrand Russell wrote over 100 years ago that it is the purpose of philosophy to free our thoughts from the “tyranny of custom”. And so – in order to free yourself – it’s time for you to get a little philosophical about your own life.

Since you’re a thinking, discerning kind of person, I don’t doubt that while you were reading this chapter, you were considering the examples that I raised along the way, and wondering to what extent you are still caught in that trap. But let’s push a little harder …

Take your #HashtagYourLife journal out. (Do you think it’s better for that to be a paper notebook, or just a text file on your phone, or a password-protected Word document?)

I would like you to think of (and down down) examples of things that you still do today, that not everyone does, that came from your school days programming (whether by your parents or your teachers or your friends).

  • The first example should be of something that, although you do it because that’s what you were programmed to do (or to think), you’ve actually thought hard about it and you know deep down inside it is the right thing to do.
  • The second example should be of something that you’re still doing or believing, that you’re not particularly strongly for or against, but you still continue because that’s what you were taught and you may as well continue.
  • The next example should be something that you still do (or believe) that, now that you think about, probably doesn’t make sense anymore. You’re still doing it, but it’s probably worth stopping at some stage. (And #[One push-up a day] might give you great clues on how to begin the change.)
  • Can you think of an example of something that you do or believe now, that you remember making a conscious effort to change from what you were taught, because it really doesn’t make sense to you anymore?
  • Similarly, can you think of an example of something else that you changed, but your change was more out of convenience (laziness?) than because you fundamentally disagreed with the principle?

And finally:

  • Think of the two to three people closest to you, and think of things they do (or beliefs they have) that they persist with because that’s what they were taught, but that you really wish they would change.
  • What one or two things do those people wish that you would change in your life?
  • And just because you want these people to change, do you really think you have the right to demand it, or even to expect it? Are you required to change simply because others expect that of you?

And now ask yourself … so what? So what if there are things about you that you think you should (or want to) change? Are you going to do it? Will you learn to let go of your old way of thinking? If you do want to make changes, which are the most important items to deal with first?

Great, now go and make that change – #HashtagYourLife is filled with tools to empower you to do just that. At least you’ve taken the first step (like we spoke about in #[If Snake-X then Antidote-Y]) of identifying the problem correctly.

Related stories

#[Red dot on the wall]

#[Putting trees in your field]

#[It was never the chicken’s fault]

#[The average photo you DO take]

#[Wearing a thin tie]

#[Aren’t you glad I negotiated your non-negotiable?]

#[One push-up a day]

#[If Snake-X then Antidote-Y]