I was a bossy kid. My brother is two years older than I am and when we were 4 and 6 years old he went inside and told my mom, “Mandy’s making me play with her again.” In elementary school, I made flashcards and made the kids on the bus practice them. Several months later they worked up the courage to tell me they really didn’t like playing flashcards.
My first job was as a lifeguard and swim instructor. For swim lessons, I started as an assistant to a more experienced instructor, and I didn’t really like the job. Eventually I got to be the lead instructor and make all of the decisions, and I loved it. Turns out I was a bossy teenager as well.
Another decade later I found myself working for NOLS as a wilderness guide and educator. NOLS has a briefing process that occurs two days before the start of any course, giving the instructor team time to prepare gear and make curriculum plans. Often this process includes a conversation about working together and supporting each other. A common question heard in these briefings is, “What do you need to be successful as an instructor?”
The more courses I worked, the more preferences I seemed to acquire.
My list started to sound something like this, “I need an open and fun instructor team that does planning in the mornings and not late at night. I have a strong preference for long days of travel and a rigorous route to test the students' independence. I won’t eat oatmeal for breakfast. Speaking of eating, I eat less than the average person and therefore would like to carry less weight. I also really need 8-plus hours of sleep each night, and I don’t like sleeping next to people who snore. I might think of a few more things later, but that’s it for now.”
My list didn’t seem excessive until a course briefing with a fellow instructor named Ian McBride. Ian’s response to the same question was, “Well, this is a job, which I think means they are paying me to work in whatever conditions arise.”
His comment surprised me. Was it my job to adapt to any situation at hand? Didn’t I have some right to stylistic preferences if I stated them upfront? Perhaps both were true to some extent, but I really started to think about the balance of these mindsets.
After more reflection, I came to the conclusion that what I was really looking for in my long list of requests was the illusion of control. We were about to walk into the mountains with a lot of uncertainty and unknowns. Having personal preferences, pet peeves and “needs” was simply me grasping for control. Or even worse, an anchor placed to later lodge a complaint or have an excuse as to why I wasn’t performing well: “After all, you did serve me oatmeal for breakfast.”
During that course, I tried out Ian’s approach. I intentionally let go of the little differences and tried not to balk when one of my preferences couldn’t be met. At first it was frustrating and I felt adrift without my strong opinions to fall back on. After a few weeks I relaxed a bit, and it actually started to feel liberating. The less I cared about, the more satisfied I was with how things unfolded.
Since that time I have continued working on holding opinions loosely when possible, although admittedly, I still have a long way to go. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about anything — it just means I try not to care about everything. Whenever I sense myself about to step in and “correct” someone’s behavior or request a change, I ask myself, “Is it a difference that makes a difference?”
This particular question generally forces a binary answer that leads to an intentional response. One answer to the question is, “While that’s not how I would do it, their approach probably doesn’t make a difference in the scheme of things. I’ll let this one go.” The alternative is, “I truly believe the consequences of this approach or style will be detrimental. What resources and influence do I have to suggest a change? Is it worth the relationship or organizational capital to do so?”
When my answer is the former, I allow the issue at hand to peacefully drift out of consciousness. Items falling into the latter category often require tact and intention in how I go about suggesting a change.
Unfortunately, the world around us seems to have a deepening belief that every difference makes a difference. Just as my NOLS course preferences were acquired over time and seemed valid, the individual values, beliefs and opinions we all hold seem warranted. And, it is certainly not difficult to find evidence or other corroborating opinions to back them up in today’s environment.
What if more things mattered less? What if we saw more things as differences that don’t make a difference. I can only speak from my personal experience, but it has the potential to be quite freeing. Here are five ways to put it into action.
1. Intentionally practice being curious instead of critical.
2. Make a policy that everyone in your household is allowed one pet peeve. Everything else they have to let go. This is an actual rule in our house. Mine is leaving lights on. My husband’s is leaving the sponge in the sink.
3. When you read something on social media that gets your hackles up, consider whether commenting is going to lead to a meaningful change for any of the parties involved.
4. If you are asking someone to redo a project or change their style, reflect on your motivation. Will the result truly be a better outcome? Or might you be grasping at the illusion of control?
5. Ask yourself the question, “Is it a difference that makes a difference?”