Ballroom Dancing and Google Mail

This morning I’d like to talk about the challenge of ballroom dancing, my struggles with Google Mail, and what Bill Clinton can teach us about reading the situation and seizing the moment – 20 years after the fact.

But first, like a lot of the adults in Laidlaw Hall this morning, I spent a chunk of my life in graduate school, reviewing research, and of all of the studies I came across, the one that has had the most impact on me, the one that changed how I looked at myself as well as the way I thought about success, was done by Haverford College professor, Doug Heath.

Heath interviewed individuals at 21, 31, 41, and 51 in an attempt to answer this question: What are the qualities or characteristics that students possess in their youth that actually correlate with success in later life?

What makes Heath’s work interesting is that he didn’t just define success narrowly in terms of money earned or professional status. He looked broadly at whole array of factors, variables such as marital happiness, civic engagement, and relationships with the extended family and the wider community.

Heath discovered that there is a significant difference when it comes to gender. It turns out that, according to his study, successful women have a high degree of autonomy and a strong sense of self. That may not be all that surprising. (An aside: Almost all girls’ schools tap into the theme of empowerment. A local girls school has “Girls can do anything” as their motto, and I believe them. By contrast, I tend to think that, as a male, “We can do some things, some times, with a little help.”)

Heath’s research on men, though, might surprise you. He discovered that the most successful men were those with a high degree of compassion and strong social skills. In other words, if you are looking for archetypes, it’s not “Jason Bourne” or the “Lone Ranger” so much as it is Bill Clinton who is actually successful in today’s world. It’s people blessed with empathy and social skills whom we want as teammates, partners, and leaders.

I’ll come back to this this in a minute, but first a quick story about ballroom dancing. My friend, Dan told me the following:

“My wife and I have been taking ballroom lessons at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio for a while; she goes 4 times a week and knows a lot of people there and dances with them all.

I do not like large groups of people. (An aside: I have to tell you that Dan is the head of a boys’ school that has over 1,000 students!) and being fundamentally introverted and self-conscious about my lack of skills, I do not go to the group classes where I would be further exposed.

Also, the man has to lead in ballroom dancing, and so my many weaknesses, of which I am extremely conscious, are on full display. I try hard but I am just not very good. I don’t “feel” the music, and so I often have to be “back led” to start. This is where the woman starts the first movement, so we won’t stand there frozen to the floor.

There are so many things to remember: posture, frame, timing, foot position, the steps themselves, arm position and styling, head tilt, line of dance, and then all the sub steps and variations, not to mention the specialty steps for traveling or stationery dances, moving on a crowded, empty, or even the oddly shaped floor.

Again, the male always leads, so even a terrific dancer like my wife is trapped on occasions by the limits of someone like me. I am conscious of the fact that, despite my best efforts, I hold back the class. And as if all of this weren’t enough, like some left-handed people, I have a difficult time telling my left from my right. Long-time car passengers with me give directions by fixed landmarks or positions such as ‘turn towards the Exon sign’.”

When I asked Dan why he put himself through all of this, he initially admitted that he did it all to please his wife. But then he added, “You might find this odd, but I need to know what it feels like for so many of my students when school – or at least some subjects in school – do not reward them for their efforts. How do they feel sometimes with the endless list of skills to master? And there are so many different skills for each class. Just think about the sheer amount of content boys are required to absorb for every discipline, including the ones in which they may have only a negligible interest.”

Last year I had a brief taste of what Dan endures on the dance floor when the ever so patient Mr. Archer tried to teach me and a class of UCC adults the wonders of Google Mail. Let me begin by admitting that I made a terrible mistake; I sat next to a “keener” – you know the type – someone with a natural interest in and aptitude for the intricacies of technology.

As Mr. Archer moved faster and faster, and as the topics became more and more esoteric and almost dizzying in their complexity, the normally mild-mannered Mr. Kawasoe was practically singing with delight, as he immediately and intuitively grasped each and every new intricacy and permutation. He had this fiery look in his eyes, and he kept shouting, “Wow!” On several occasions, he threw his hands in the air in a state of near evangelical ecstacy!

Much to my relief, Mr. Kawasoe managed, just barely, to refrain from raising his hand with the right answer to each and every question. But I could tell he wanted to. And if Mr. Archer had offered extra credit or if he had created a “higher level” section of Google Mail class, I know of one colleague who would have immediately signed up.

As I sat there, squirming in my chair, trying to avoid eye contact with Mr. Archer, it was suddenly 1975 again, and Mr. Cunningham was trying to teach me and a class of 30 boys the wonders of Trigonometry. I think I got lost somewhere between sign and co-sign.

Which brings me back to Doug Heath’s research. If success is, in part, about empathy, how do we learn this virtue? I think we start to understand the emotional state of another person by first being conscious of our own feelings and experiences. Dan “Happy Feet” Murphy is a fabulous principal, in part because he connects with students in general and in particular, with students who struggle. In those painful ballroom dance lessons, Dan is reminding himself of what it’s like to be the guy who holds the class back.

Let me end this morning with an observation about Bill Clinton, whose second most famous line may be, “I feel your pain.” Since this is the season of presidential debates, I remember a town hall debate Clinton had with the then President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992. A woman in the audience had asked each of the candidates how the recession had effected him personally, and President Bush had responded rather defensively. Bill Clinton, though, took a different approach; he began by asking the woman how the downturn in the economy had affected her.

She gave an emotional response about her hardships, and immediately afterwards, Clinton, who had evidently been moved by what she had said, went over and embraced her. Clinton, who had been raised in poverty by a single mother himself, seemed to understand the woman, her situation, and perhaps more importantly, the moment itself.

I don’t need to tell you who won that debate or that election. Some cynics may see this as Machiavellian manipulation, but I believe Bill Clinton, for all his many personal flaws, did have the capacity to access someone else’s emotional state and connect with him or her on that level, and I’m convinced that your future success, in whatever field you choose, may rest upon that same ability, the ability to connect with others in a meaningful way.

No matter what university you attend, no what major you study, no matter what professional career path you follow, you will need to engage with people from different backgrounds, ideologies, languages, and cultures, and your connection with them will have to be more than just an “ears up” ears up experience.

Like my friend Dan, we have to remember that we all need to be “back led” from time to time. And that memory of our own weakness, our own vulnerability can help us with others, as we collectively stumble around the crowded, uneven, and the unusually shaped dance floors of the future.

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2 Responses to “Ballroom Dancing and Google Mail”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Simply stated-your best post yet and as per ’empathy’, it’s no surprise why you’ve done so well.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Bill Clinton? Really?

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