GI Joe with the Kung Fu grip was made most famous by Eddie Murphy in the 1983 movie Trading Places.

What You Want and When You Don’t

Why is it so hard to ask for what we want?

In my engineering leadership class, I teach a four module unit on wanting. Each lesson is preceded by a reading assignment and/or videos. Then I do a lecture. We have an in class activity. We discuss, and then there’s typically a reflective writing assignment.

I still haven’t decided if I’m going to teach this module for the fall class. The material is a bit too advanced. It’s very challenging for my students, and for most of them, the lessons are entertaining, but still go over their heads.

It might be worth it. I get emails, phone calls, and text messages from my graduates who tell me that material they didn’t understand when we went over it in class, came back to them and helped them when they were in a job interview, or a difficult situation at work, or in an important relationship. That makes it seem worthwhile. But the fraction of students that report these experiences is less than 5%, and perhaps we could spend the class time doing other things — like problem sets in personal finance.

Allow me to explain the module, share my experiences, and perhaps you’ll be inclined to share your reactions.

The first lesson is “Why is it so hard to ask for what we want?

Jason Stauffer’s article The Power of I Want is a good reading assignment, and contains several videos embedded that dramatize the anxiety of asking for what we want, and a personal story in an entrepreneurial context.

And here’s a video from Esther Perel that I’ve used before, albeit exclusively in graduate classes, in which she points out that we are all born capable of “unadulterated greed,” but as adults we’ve lost our “healthy sense of entitlement.”

Esther Perel suggests that we ask our romantic partners for what we want.

It’s in the classroom exercise that things really get interesting, because we use improvisational theater to play around with Perel’s idea of “unadulterated greed”. I learned this scene from my friend Boyd Branch, who is a Professor of Theater, and uses the scene in a graduate course on communication we teach for engineering doctoral students. The scene is this:

A parent and a child (played by student volunteers from my class of about 100) are in the toy store and the child sees a toy they want the parent to buy for them. The child starts the scene by asking for the toy. Under no circumstances may the parent agree to buy the toy.

“Go!”

Sometimes the scene is sort of humdrum, as the parent and child negotiate around what they want and don’t want. The typical scene is sort of like Caddyshack.

This classic scene from Caddyshack features Ted Knight’s rejoinder to his grandson’s expression of “unadulterated greed.”

Sometimes, the scene explodes in front of the class. Here’s a paraphrased transcript of an exchange between to two men from my class:

“Daddy, look! It’s the GI Joe with the kung fu grip! I want that! Can we buy it?”
“No! We’re not buying anything and if you can’t behave yourself, we’re getting back in the car and driving straight home!”
“But Mom would buy it for me! You never buy me anything since the divorce!

[Dad stammers, flabbergasted. The class, mouths agape, recoil in their seats.]

“Don’t you ever say that again! You’re never allowed to talk about that, ever!

At which point, I’m compelled to interrupt, “Cut!

What we discover in this scene is that parents feel emotionally connected to their children. What kids feel, parents cannot help but also feel.

So when a child experiences negative emotions (i.e., disappointment, anger, frustration, rejection), the parent experiences them, too. In an attempt to avoid feeling their own negative emotions, many parents teach their children to repress expressions of desire, or control their child’s self-expression with threats, bribes, bullying, extortion, or nagging.

Some of us still remember how, when we were little kids, and our Fathers might respond to us when we’re crying?

“Why are you crying? You’re not sad. You wanna cry? I’ll give you something to cry about!”

In this famous scene from League of Their Own, Jimmy (the Manager) gives Evelyn (the Outfielder) something to cry about.

In this scene from League of Their Own, Tom Hanks coined a phrase that is now famous throughout baseball.

As children, our parents teach us that it’s not OK to express our desire for the things we want, because if our parents cannot or will not provide for our desires, we might experience negative emotions for which we will be punished. Eventually, after repressing self expression for a decade or more, we teach ourselves that we don’t really want things. Or (sometimes worse) that other people are in charge of what we want.

Think about the scenes from your own childhood that might go something like this:

“There’s the toy I want! Can we get it?”
“Oh, you don’t want that toy. It’s (stupid, or too expensive, or not for girls/boys, or only for younger/older kids). You want this one instead.”

After an entire childhood of training, it’s no wonder we have no idea what we want or how to express it. When people do ask us what we want, we all too often respond, “I don’t know. What do you want?”

And that gets in the way of leadership.

Imagine a different kind of conversation between the parent and child that starts the same way, but elicits a different response from Dad:

“Daddy, look! It’s the GI Joe with the kung fu grip! I want that! Can we buy it?”
“Hey, you found it! Is that the one you saw in the TV commercial?”
“Yeah, Dad! That’s exactly the one!”
“Do your friends have that toy?”
“Dad, everybody has one! David, Robby, Chris… they all have GI Joe with the kung fu grip, but I only have Johnny West and he doesn’t have the grip.”
“So you want the GI Joe so you can play with your friends!”
“Yeah! Can we get it?”
“No, Son. That’s not what we came to buy today.”
“But why not? Why can’t we buy it? You can charge it to your card!”
“I like the way you’re learning how to shop, Son, and how you pay attention to the things around you… . You also need to know that it’s not your decision how I spend my money. You need your own money to buy the things you want. I’d be happy to teach you how to do that, if you like.”

So the first lesson is about why it is so hard to ask for what we want. The second lesson is about how to do it.