It’s Hip to be Square

I’ve recently come to realize it’s hip to be square.

I decided this some months ago when I was helping present a powerful workshop to a corporate group, and one participant – let’s call him Joe – almost missed the boat. Joe is young and bright, and based on raw talent, intelligence and ability, could have gotten more out of the workshop than anybody else in his company.

But he didn’t – in fact, he almost got no value at all. I’d missed (until almost too late) seeing his attitude. He was aloof, impressed with his own cleverness, and was hiding his insecurities (we all have them) behind a facade of sophistication.

That facade of sophistication took the form of being critical of others.

I finally caught on when we were reviewing the major learnings of the workshop. Everybody was asked, what did you like best, or, what lesson will you take from this?

And everybody had an answer except Joe.

When it was his turn, he was a little at a loss for words, then started to offer us – I’m sure in a constructive spirit – some critiques for how we could do a better job with our workshop. I was actually very interested in that (as I always am in critiques of my performance) but my co-presenter stopped him. “We’ll ask for feedback later. This question is for your improvement, not ours. What did you like? What did you learn?”

Joe had no answer.

Afterwards we presenters debriefed, and my co-presenter described Joe as being pseudo-sophisticated. I realized I’d been doing the same sort of thing for years – distancing myself from things around me by viewing potential lessons as all being lessons for other people, not lessons for myself.

John Milton said “a wise man will make better use of an idle pamphlet, than a fool will do of sacred Scripture” and I realize in my fear of seeming “square” I had been playing the fool. Like Joe that day, for years I’d missed learning because I was trying to be “cool”. Learning takes risk and openness. Criticizing others is safe and closed, imposing an intellectual and emotional distance and detachment. How much more would I have learned by now if I’d been less “sophisticated” and more open – more square?

Happily, after Joe’s turn was his President, who had learned a lot and shared his enthusiasm freely. This provided the example I think Joe needed. (And this provided another lesson in the power that leaders have in modeling positive behaviors for others.) I could almost see him mentally replaying the workshop in his head, looking for what he liked, for what he could learn. In a somewhat sheepish way he shared it with the group, and I could see he was out of his comfort zone.

He was being square. And I decided I’m going to be more square too.

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