I’m going to go way back in my bank of stories for this one but that’s part of the point. In one of my high school history classes, which is getting far too long ago for my comfort, I had a teacher that would push us in all kinds of ways. He was a former member of the military and you’d better believe that you *were* going to listen and behave in class. If not, you could wind up standing with a foot in a garbage can during class, perhaps doing push-ups, or (my personal favorite) running laps around the parking lot…clockwise or counter-clockwise depending on the day of the week and you got it right or you did it again. He could be both extremely funny and brutally tough on you as well.
One day in class, he was looking for a response on the War of 1812 that he wasn’t getting. A few people threw out guesses but nobody had struck on the right approach to get the answer he wanted. Eventually, after thinking for a while, I got a bit tired of the silence and thought I’d give it whirl. The question? Who was most responsible for the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. My answer- Napoleon. Well, his response was enough to make a relatively quiet student like myself squirm more than a little bit. In a tone eerily similar to Jim Mora’s famous “Playoffs?” rant, I received “What, Napoleon is French?!?” How could he be responsible for the war?
At that point, I began mumbling my rationale and was summarily cut off with “France wasn’t even in the war. You awake over there?” The nervous teen embarrassment heartbeat began. Not sure what the pulse rate was but I’m sure it’d be the equivalent of a great workout today. My already dim dating hopes dashed, surely my academic future was now on thin ice, perhaps I’d wind up in a garbage can for such crazy thinking the rest of the hour. Some of my other classmates then tried jump in and save me, throwing out other names to move the discussion along. Each one shot down as the teacher went through the events of the war. I was hoping for the bell to ring soon, kind of like a beaten boxer just hanging on to survive.
Finally, after seemingly four hours in a 45 minute class, he came back and said “You know who was responsible for the war?” Everyone was more than ready to take our lumps and move on…”Napoleon.” He looked and smiled a bit at me. At that, a chorus of “he said that” went up to the heavens. For goodness sake, why had we all (and mostly me) been subjected to the torture and embarrassment for an extra ten minutes??
The teacher wanted us to think critically and be confident in our opinions. It was another in a long line of tests and challenges that we needed to meet. I *had* the right answer but he could tell I wasn’t entirely comfortable with my view. How was a guy not directly involved with the war responsible– well, my thinking had something to do with destabilizing a region and then encouraging the upstart U.S. with trade agreements and support. However, the most important lesson I learned that day of challenging each other and how we think is one that applies equally well today in the business world. It’s not easy, really it can be agonizingly difficult like those moments I sat sweating out my high school future and reputation as the “Napoleon idiot” from history class.
Challenges help us grow. And, in an era of shorter attention spans and more distractions than ever, spending a little more time thinking critically and challenging how we think is essential to advance the work we do each day.
P.S.- I have a story about this teacher and nearly having to wash a car too if you’re interested. ;)