I’m fond of the “starfish analogy.” You know, the one where a man is walking down a beach and stumbles upon a little boy is frantically running up and down a beach tossing starfish that washed ashore back into the surf. The man asks the boy what he’s doing, and he responds “I’m saving their lives.’ The man chuckles, “But there are thousands washed upon the beach. You can’t possibly save them all.” The boy looks down at the gasping starfish in his hands. “But mister, I can save THIS one.”
This analogy perfectly describes the experience of teaching. Trying to save each kid is impossible, which is a painful lesson most teachers learn in their first year behind the desk. Once you recognize you can’t save each and every student, you focus on saving the students in your hand. You don’t stop trying to save as many as possible just because you can’t save them all.
I had a bit of an epiphany today. I started a discussion with the members of The Podiatry Arena forum. Specifically, I had an exchange with Dr. Kevin Kirby. Among the many points discussed, Kirby mentioned the perception that podiatrists do what they do (prescribe orthotics, etc.) simply to make money. Someone comes to them with an injury; they prescribe a treatment that assures the individual doesn’t actually get better.
That specific comment struck a chord as I was reading Anne Lamott’s excellent book ‘Bird by Bird.” It’s a book about writing… part of my efforts to become a better writer. Anyway, Lamott discussed the universal need to end the suffering of others. I immediately thought of the starfish analogy and Kirby’s comments.
All of us want the same thing. We want to ease the suffering of those around us. Each one of us are on our own individual quest to toss starfish back to the sea.
The problem arises when we see other people milling about on the beach. It may look like they’re also rescuing startfish, but their methods are far different than our own. We react to the unfamiliarity with cynicism. Worse, we waste time arguing with them over their methodology. Meanwhile, starfish are dying.
My Progression of Thought
When I was a teacher, it took several years to learn that other teachers could help some students better than I could. This was a difficult pill to swallow, especially when I disagreed with the other teachers’ methods. Eventually I learned to accept that we were all working toward a common good. I could be far more effective if I stopped questioning the methods of others and simply embraced our differences as a means of reaching more kids.
When I started barefoot running, I was convinced shoes were roughly analogous to medieval torture devices.This changed when I started running in conditions that required shoes. Eventually I came to see some shoes as good; some as bad, which has evolved into the idea that all shoe qualities have tradeoffs. Raised heels, cushioning, width, sole thickness, rock plates, tread, materials, style, flexibility, ventilation… even motion control- all serve a purpose in some conditions. The key is to figure out which qualities you need and which qualities are extraneous.
Even though I accepted some shoes, I was still convinced shoe companies were evil, faceless corporations plotting to destroy our feet while bilking us out of as much cash as possible. This changed when I started working with shoe companies. I came to realize shoe design relied more on fashion than science and the designers and marketers really were trying to make products that would make their customers happy.
When I started helping people learn to run better, I had my own specific methodology. Of course, I thought my methods were the best. After all, I was able to help quite a few runners learn to run with better form. I did come across a few people I couldn’t help. I found these people could learn to run better, just not with my methods. I started recommending other methods that would get them to the same end result, such as Pose, ChiRunning, and the methods of my fellow barefoot running teachers like Ken Bob and Sandler.
The next big revelation came when I started holding clinics at running stores. Prior to this, I assumed most running stores were run by idiots that mindlessly “fit” people for shoes with little or no actual thought. As it turns out, running store personnel are almost always experienced runners with a wealth of knowledge.
The latest revelation derived from Kirby’s comments. Even though my opinions of the medical community have softened considerably over the years, I was still convinced we needed to change their minds. We needed to convince the medical community that we were right and they were wrong. We took our anecdotal evidence or a handful of studies that are impossible to generalize to a wider population and made a case that the medical community needed to change the way they did business. Of course, I was wrong; we are wrong. The medical community, probably more than any one of these groups, is in the business of ending human suffering.
I had a lot of preconceived notions about each of these groups… until I took the time and opened lines of dialogue. I lowered my guard and focused on learning, not arguing. I started listening more than I spoke. This strategy resulted in a far greater depth of understanding. The real bonus- this strategy has made me a far better teacher. I am in a much better position to help anyone and everyone I come in contact with.
What Is Needed
As barefoot runners, we need to open our minds. We need to accept the fact that the vast majority of the people involved in our sphere of influence is working toward the greater good of easing the suffering of those in need. We need to accept and embrace the methodology of others. We need to get over our cynicism and start learning from each other, even the people we think are wrong.
The real benefit- this opening of our mind is a two-way street. When we take the time to listen to others, we set up an environment where they’ll be more likely to listen to us. Our mutual curiosity and drive to learn thrives in an environment of free of defensive posturing.
Two things need to happen:
- We need to accept the idea that we don’t have all the answers; we can’t help them all. We can’t reach every starfish.
- We need to open ourselves to the possibility that other people may be able to help those we cannot. Furthermore, some may be more effective at helping those we can help. We need to drop our cynicism and start listening to each other. We need to focus on learning.
We all believe we’re making a difference. That’s the easy part. The hard part is accepting that others not only believe they’re making a difference, but actually DO make a difference.