I spent this past weekend in omphaloskepsis.
If you are not immediately familiar with the word, (spell check wasn’t either), it springs from working with a long ago boss who dropped it often in staff meetings. He used it with an unpleasant smile, to emphasize. “Think, dammit! Think! “Omphaloskepsis.” He had too often explained that the word comes from the Greek, and means contemplation of one’s navel. Google just confirmed for me that he was correct in its definition; omphalo (navel) plus skepsis (looking at, or examination).
That recall and internet search took only part of the weekend, so I re-buttoned my shirt and simply reflected on my own philosophy (the study of general and fundamental problems), again Google.
A specific bit of advice dislodged from my memory bank, teaching from a golf pro on his little sand green course in the Missouri Ozarks, where my new wife and I were vacationing. I was new to the game of golf and had been embarrassed too often in friendly matches with men from the office. And this pro’s rates were really good! Cheap! He watched me flail away at the ball for a short while, and said, “The ball is light. It only weighs one and five-eighths ounces. Just meet the ball and let the club do the work.” What do you know? It worked. I was never to set any course records, but had occasional drives from the tee that stayed in the fairway.
My father, had I listened, had offered me somewhat similar advice years before; but what teenage boy listens to his father. While I set out to halter break a weanling colt, Dad leaned against a door in our big red barn, tilted his straw hat back, and watched me wrestle with the colt. Back and forth across the corral, 400 pounds of horse and I took turns stomping across my straw hat being trampled in the stock pen leavings. The colt snorted and I hollered while Dad grinned and chewed on his sprig of wheat straw. He finally interrupted with, “Don’t fight him. He wants to work with you if you’ll just let him. Ease off on the pressure.” I did and the colt did.
Further learning about life occurred quite a few years later, as these lessons were reinforced. My wife and four children had entered my life by now, the children to train us both in child development. By my calculation, 54.7% of any strong conflict with our kids came when we forgot they were people and tried to force our wills on them. Their newer math might offer a higher percentage.
These continuing reflections brought up a time when our second child refused to listen to his mother reason with him. At about age one and a half, he enjoyed tossing his Pablum filled spoon on the kitchen floor, saying “Uh-oh” and watching a parent pick it up. “Let’s pick it up, son,” my wife said calmly as she got him down from his chair. After a wait, “Son, it is time to pick it up,” more firmly this time. Son bared his tooth and smiled at us.
“Let me”, I said, sensing that a firmer male hand was needed. I pulled him roughly from her and thumped his bottom on the floor beside his spoon. “Now, pick it up”, as I closed his limp little hand on the spoon. He unclosed that little hand as often as I closed the hand around the spoon. After several awkward minutes, I turned to her and said, “Maybe you’d better handle it. I should go to the office”. I had remembered the golf lesson, let the club do the work.
She bared a few of her clenched teeth at me before she turned to him. “Philip James, if you want to eat again, you must pick up that spoon”, and turned away with his food dish in hand. Without looking down at his navel, he knew Mom was serious. After a short time, his little hand closed around that little spoon, “Mommy.”
Dad’s and the colt, “Don’t fight him, he wants to work with you if you let him.” How did she know that!
I’ve worked with many good and poor managers over the years, and been a good and poor one in turn. The good ones turned loose of projects that someone else could do almost as well, and provided guidance for that someone to do them even better. Eventually, I got my turn as a manager, suffered the pangs of releasing some tasks that I enjoyed performing with long practiced skill. Soon, the realities of supervision forced me to let others be the “do’ers”. There it was again, let the club do the work.
Some months after my initial golf lesson, Dad walked his first golf course with me and watched as I played a few practice holes. After a time, he said, “Let me try that.” I carefully pegged a ball on a tee for him, handed him the club, hoping he might make contact with the ball. He was, after all, a frail seventy years old (over forty years older than I was in my then robust twenties). He asked and I pointed toward the flag at the hole, and stepped aside. He eyed the distant flag, glanced down, and swung smoothly through the ball. Maybe 125 yards out, but straight down the middle of the fairway. He smiled as he handed me the club. His first and final shot as a golfer, and he said, “I thought it would be easy.”
If I were to do life over again, would I do it differently? Probably. Make the same or different mistakes? Undoubtedly. But I’d have listened more attentively for what Dad had to teach me. And I’d play more golf. And I’d remember that most people would work with me, if I let them. And I’d swing easy, because the ball was usually lighter than I thought it would be.