About a seven years ago, I accompanied my dad on a business trip to Taiwan. It had been a long time since I had been to Asia and also spent one on one time with my dad. Taiwan, like many countries in Asia, has a very aggressive food culture and one night, we decided to take our father/daughter bonding to a night market.
We walked by stall after stall of people consuming whole meals way past dinner time. I remember my jetlag being in full force so I was attentive and eager to take in all the culture around me. My dad stopped as he noticed someone struggling to separate their disposable wooden chopsticks. He started an unsolicited story.
He recalled a time at work when they had ordered takeout and many pairs of those chopsticks had arrived with their order. Everyone was able to disassemble the utensils and dig into their food except for one guy- let’s call him James. He had never seen the chopsticks before and just couldn’t figure out what to do with them (to be fair, James was not born in the US). James could see that everyone around him had figured out how to separate them and had started on their food, but he was completely immobilized.
My dad stopped there and simply said,
Don’t get it? Well, let’s talk about the mechanics of a round log. A round log, if given a good kick, can roll for a long time before needing another boost of momentum. A square log, on the other hand, is one that would take a lot of work to move. Each kick will likely only move it a little bit and one would have to give it many kicks before it got to where it needed to go.
Get it now? The chopsticks example with James was one of the many examples my dad gave to explain to me that James was, unfortunately, a square log. In order for him to complete tasks, not only did he need a serious kick, but he needed many of them to keep on rolling.
At the time, I was pretty fresh in my career- only about 2 years in. I didn’t realize the impact that my dad’s comment would have on me and the way that I thought about myself and my coworkers.
What kind of person would you rather work with? It didn’t take long for me to realize that round logs were the best people to work with and that’s the kind of person that I decidedly wanted to become in the workplace. I wanted to be a self-sustaining, round log going down a continuous hill for as long as possible.
With this metaphor in my mind always, I attack every challenge with the thought that I’m going to take it as far as I can possibly go before asking for help. Of course one doesn’t want to be that log that rolls into a fire, so I would check in just to make sure that I wasn’t going the wrong direction, but otherwise, I would keep on going until I couldn’t.
I’ve given this advice to several people along the way in my career and I have found that not only does this type of advice make a lot of sense to most people, but I think, in a way, it’s motivating. Sometimes, people come upon a challenge that can be rationalized out of having a simple answer. This log metaphor, though, paints a pretty clear picture about what needs to be done- just keep going. Be inquisitive and investigate your path, then roll down it. Go as far as you can go until you run into an obstacle, then find a way around it.
Simple as that. Don’t make things harder than they need to be.