Tag Archives: Robert Sutton

10 Statements That Shaped My Life | Perhaps They Can Yours, Too

Julian Fellowes’ superb historical piece drama, Downton Abbey, is chock-full of pearls of wisdom if you listen closely. A Season 4 episode has Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) telling young Tom Branson (Allen Leech), “Life is all about solving problems and then you die!”

By no means exhaustive or ordered, I recently compiled 10 statements, which over time and through life’s ebb and flow have transformed into 10 pearls of wisdom.

1. “Focus on the grass”

To understand this statement a farming image and true story from Mooi River, South Africa, might be most helpful. You can then apply the principle to your personal situation.

How to turn a profitless, underperforming dairy farm in a tight economic market, into a competitive contender and revenue generating one?

The answer? Focus on the means of increased milk production–grass. Everything on the farm took a temporary secondary position to the primary. The farmer increased his time, effort and resources on pasture. Good grass meant happy cows, resulting in increased milk production and a healthy profit margin.

*I wrote at greater length on this in Frazzled, Frustrated or Fearful? Focus on Your “Grass”.

2. “Walk on the grass but don’t make paths”

You’ve seen the signs on groomed landscapes–“Keep Off The Grass.” Who would have ever thought they convey a life message? This is the response I got from my South African PhD mentor when I asked him to tell me his philosophy of life.


“In your search after life’s meanings and truths, courageously risk veering off from your too-familiar life path, and into a pathless wilderness, which might appear at the outset murky, messy, even ominous. Risk the journey, whether it be into the depth of human thought, or the much more unsettling kind: face-to-face encounters with people different.”

3. “Writing is in the editing”

On my Research, Writing and Teaching seminar’s first day, my professor was wise to warn us, “Start your term papers early, because if you want an A-letter grade, good writing only happens in the editing.”

If truthful, we each and all aspire for instant success. It’s not mere vanity, but reflective of our daily struggle to balance life’s demands over and against a 24-hour clock.

In life, like in writing, we want each first act or draft to be near perfect. This is even more true for anal-retentive persons.

So no matter how much we might pursue instant success in life, relationships, vocation, politicking, et cetera, remember that like writing, life is in the editing, in the falling down and getting back up, or in the dogged determinism to keep taking one step forward, even though you know it frequently will result in two steps backward.

4. “Do no harm!”

Fact–In life there are assholes too numerous to count or categorize. This realization and personal experience prompted Stanford University professor of management science and engineering, Robert Sutton to write The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

The important point here is that you don’t have to be an asshole! And the way to avoid being perceived as or labeled one is to live, think, love, speak and act by the credo, “DO NO HARM”–to yourself, to others, to the environment.

5. “Think and hope the best of people, but be prepared for the worst”

Aka, Mental Health 101. It’s a truth that has helped me avoid incarceration when my life has been persistently frustrated by Robert Sutton’s subject matter above!

People are essentially good––definitely, at least, “more good” than bad. What “evil” they are or possess is much more reflective of nurture (environment and neuroplasticity) than of nature. In fact, it is this positive perspective of human nature that enables one to think and hope the best of people, yet be prepared for the worst.

6. “You can’t parent or love well if all you have to give are your leftovers”

Everyday and ever-present is a ghost of the so-called Industrial Revolution. Industrialization initiated many new mechanized and now technological wonders, but one intangible yet irrefutable feature it brought to all peoples is a rapid change of pace and way of life.

We seem to learn only after fallouts and break-ups that meaningful life relationships take an immense quantity of time, effort and shared experience. If you’re in the process of falling out but haven’t quite yet fallen down, then please read statement #6.

7. “For every new responsibility or relationship you take on, you will have to sacrifice another”

North Americans have a very “can do” mindset. It’s reflected in the slogan of the U.S. Army, “Be All That You Can Be,” and in our willingness to work excessively hard and long hours so as to attain and maintain an accustomed way of life.

The hard truth is this: With too full lives already, for every single new event, role, responsibility and relationship that we choose to involve ourselves in or with, some previous event, role, responsibility or relationship will suffer neglect.

8. “All you need is 20-seconds of insane courage”

You likely will recognize this statement from the movie We Bought A Zoo. It was Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon) explanation to his children of how he found the courage to walk up to a total stranger at a cafe and introduce himself. She later became his wife and the mother of his two children.

Every day and in many ways I’m reminded that it only takes 20-seconds of insane courage and action to change negative circumstances, contexts or dour moods into positive ones, and even if the change is small and less-than-transformative, at least it might be big enough to help you re-engage life and its struggles for one more moment or day.

9. “Break the overwhelming into bite-size pieces”

Likely you’ve heard the expression, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Like focus, this, too, is an especially hard statement to put into practice. College graduates remember only too well the first day of the academic year and perusal of each course’s curriculum requirements. Panic!

Every professor seemed to think s/he was our only class. Professional work pressures soon made college expectations seem like child’s play. Yet the same lessons learned apply–break the overwhelming into bite size, daily tasks, and you’ll pleasantly be surprised how much can be accomplished.

10. “What’s the worst case scenario? Can you live with it?”

Aka, Mental Health 201. Fear is a, if not the greatest paralysis. While this statement of question likely provides small comfort to someone given a terminal diagnosis (at least initially), it does provide a modicum of relief for that “punched in the solar plexus” feeling, which makes for a grievous and sleepless night, and which likely resulted due to unwelcome and unexpected news, such as a termination letter or a lover’s betrayal.

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Filed under Family, Life, Memories, Mental Health, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith, Success

Difficult People and (sometimes) Dangerous Animals | An Unpleasant Commonality

I’m no Jeff Corwin, Nick Baker, or Jack Hanna, but twice in April 2010, I easily could have met as untimely an end as the famous Australian “Crocodile Hunter,” Steve Irwin.  Cause of death would not have been stingray barb, but rather, clawed-paw, teeth, tusk, foot (large), and crushing body weight of either a mature male lion (450+lbs), or an “ele” (pronounced “eli”), of which the Kruger National Park describe the average weight as “two mini-buses full of people (6 tonnes).”

The incidents occurred at Klaserie, a 60,000 hectare, privately owned reserve, appended as it were to Kruger with unrestricted animal migration.

Thursday morning began with a visit from the game warden’s wife and daughter, who drove the few kilometers off the main road to our friends’ camp in order to fetch their daughter.  The two girls were taking horseback riding lessons in Hoedspruit, the nearest town.  Prior to leaving, she informed Jonathan of a sighting of two large male lions feeding on a fresh buffalo kill, just off the Reserve’s main road.

After they departed, Jonathan said to Iain (another long-time friend) and me, “Shall we?”  This is man-talk for “Chaps, are you ready to walkabout and look for those lions?!”

Jonathan and I on one of our many walkabouts.

Jonathan and I on one of our many walkabouts.

Over-enthusiastically we climbed into the Land Cruiser (LC), not pausing to consider any variety of “what if” scenarios.

We had one rifle between us, which Jonathan as resident owner at Klaserie took responsibility of, several pairs of cameras and binoculars, and a few pocket knives, which, I assume we somehow thought might be of use to clean any animal aggressor’s toe nails or teeth while it was busy inflicting bodily harm on us.

As to the lone rifle, I was sure of my own abilities – having successfully shot a 6′ reared up and ready to strike cobra in the head – but in all the years I’ve walked-about with Jonathan at Klaserie, I’ve simply trusted that his previous army experience made him a crack shot at any close in and charging animal.

Peter holding the cobra I shot at our home in Musoma, TZ

Peter holding the cobra I shot at our home in Musoma, TZ

Based on the friend’s description, Jonathan knew exactly where to drive and park the LC so as to be downwind of the lions.  We disembarked and began a slow, quiet, single-file walk through the thick bushveld in search of “our lions,” with Jonathan in front (of course), me in the middle and Iain bringing up the rear.  As we painstakingly descended the knoll where the LC remained, we soon came across the buffalo victim’s detached tail – the first sign that we were on the right trail.  A short while later we came on fresh lion scat – poop for you unfamiliar with the term.

What happened next is a jumbled blur of remembrances.  I recall how quiet and still the surrounding bush had become.  At this point we were almost creeping through the thick brush.  I was looking down for telltale sign of lions when Jonathan whisper-shouted, “LION!!!”

A male lion feeding on a wildebeest, in a dense bush similar to the Klaserie lions.

Male lion feeding on a wildebeest in a dense bush similar to the one hiding the two Klaserie lions.

My head whipped up to see a flurry of lion motion beneath a large bush a mere 35 meters in front of us.  Engrossed in their buffalo, we evidently startled them as much as they us.  One lion bolted from the rear of the bush, but the other charged over the buffalo and towards us, his mane fanned back as if he had it sticking out the window of a car going 100 km/h, and I remember the eyes – eerily and menacingly yellow.  After only a few forward strides, the lion fortunately did a sharp 90-degree turn to the right, kicking up early morning dust, disappearing into the bush and leaving us walkabouters with elevated testosterone and heart rate levels.

Charging lion, similar to the one that came toward us.

Charging lion, similar to the one that came toward us.

This lion encounter did little more than provide us with an exciting story to tell our families back at camp over a late breakfast, and then again in the evening while nursing drinks around the campfire.  Little did I know that tomorrow’s (Friday) elephant encounter would put this in the small potatoes category.

Growing up my family always loved vacationing in East African national parks. Getting charged by elephants, rhinos or buffalos was always part of the “fun” – only because they were controlled provocations.  On many occasions we were the hecklers and agitators, who would make respective animal sounds in an effort to get them to come for us. On these occasions we always had a clear and fast getaway, so barring colossal vehicle malfunction, there was little-to-no risk.  Friday’s incident, however, induced restless sleep for weeks after the incident.

It was our last day at Klaserie, with a Saturday departure.  Mid-afternoon my wife Ana, middle daughter Christina and I left camp in the LC.  I drove and they sat on the cushioned benches in the open back.  For more than an hour we inched through Klaserie’s bush only to see the “usual” – giraffe, impala, zebra, kudu, et cetera.  As the afternoon sun reached its golden peak, we crossed the river and were heading back to camp from the backside, along a track where several days previously elephants had knocked several small trees down, forcing the track to detour.

Me clearing a Klaserie track

Me clearing a Klaserie track

Cleaning up after Klaserie elephants.

Cleaning up after Klaserie elephants.

As we came across fresh elephant spoor, including young ones, I recall we were growing hungry and ready for a hot shower.  A few kilometers further on the track skirted a small and densely vegetated hill.  I saw an ele feeding on the right side of the track about 100 meters ahead.  I immediately stopped the LC.  My attention was focused forward, when suddenly my wife leaned into the open driver’s side window, pounded on the roof of the LC with her hand, and shouted, “GO, GO, GO!!!!!”  My head whipped from noon to almost 3-o’clock where she was frantically pointing.  Silently but with great speed an ele was bearing down on us, pushing through brush with ease.

Frequently the LC’s side mirrors were folded in.  For some unknown but grateful reason they had been repositioned that afternoon.  I had a split second to decide what to do. Going forward was not an option due to elephants in the road. I couldn’t veer off left or right due to thick brush, plus many LC-disabling rocks.  Reverse was my only option.  I quickly shifted into reverse and off we shot with the ele in fast and persistent pursuit.

Somehow I managed to keep us and the LC on the narrow and winding bush track while reversing at a speed of near 70 km/h for upwards of 175 meters.  The ele eventually came onto the track in her pursuit of us.  I recall a moment frozen in time, where my head was fanning left to right for rearview mirror guidance, plus fleetingly glancing at center mirror to ensure my family were still in the back, and also glancing forward to our danger, thinking how IMMENSE and NEAR the ele looked as she bore down on us, and wondering HOW LONG and FAR are you going to pursue us?

This close encounter ele photo taken in Pilanesberg gives you some perspective to our BIG & threatening the charging ele was.

Close encounter ele photo taken in Pilanesberg gives you some perspective to how BIG & threatening the charging ele was.

As I was reversing I remembered the downed trees and how impossible it would be to quickly maneuver them.  Fortunately, just as we were approaching them, the ele pulled up and violently shook her head repeatedly as a sendoff.  We did a quick about-turn and returned to camp the long way.

One of two Reserve vehicles destroyed by the ele.  Note the tusk insertion on the driver's side door.

One of two Reserve vehicles destroyed by the ele. Note the tusk insertion on the driver’s side door.

We three got the prize for “first encounter” with this rogue ele.  As Jonathan later told me, she went on to attack and destroy two camp vehicles, plus pinned a game garden to the ground during a morning walkabout with a group of tourists.  She was subsequently destroyed. Christina remembers Ana telling her in that moment of initial charge, “Get down, get down!” And then while they were both huddling under the rear seat, Ana telling her, “I just want you to know that I love you!”  That initial night and several subsequent ones I woke up perspiring, having relived through dreams our close call.

A commonality of dangerous animals and difficult people?  

In 2011 a former colleague shared a Robert Sutton book with me, which at the time we both personally could commiserate with victims of the book’s main character type – the asshole (The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t).  Sutton is a professor at Sanford University, and “The No A**hole Rule” originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review.  The book’s essence is that bullying and destructive characters damage fellow human beings and undermine organizational performance, and how to either restrict, reform, repel (or avoid) such individuals from organizations.

Unless we’re dishonest or blind to our own idiosyncrasies, each of us have at one time or another acted in a donkey-hole-kind-of-a-way toward another person(s). Regrettably too many people – mostly those with at least a modicum of positional or special skills power – have perfected this destructive “art” form.  Such individuals are adept at creating an organizational culture of fear and of negatively affecting the motivation, energy, productivity and retention of employees.

Like our elephant, some individuals develop a propensity for bullying behavior, and this for no evident reason.  They are “set-off” by the most random and insignificant of reasons.  Yet once agitated they possess the requisite power to make life insufferable for you, your family, and/or colleagues.  The individual likely has some invisible and precipitating pain source, but in the case of rogue animals, this isn’t discovered until after the animal is destroyed.

With “human aggressors,” males particularly, the precipitating pain could be something as “trivial” and personal as a struggling relationship, coupled with long periods of no sex (There’s nothing like protracted periods of no sex to make men irritable!).  Or, donkey-hole behavior could be symptomatic of far greater, deep-seated traumas or psychosis.

When confronted by aggressive human behavior, the safest first response is retreat.  This allows you to live and respond another day.  From the relative safety of distance you then have the freedom of choice.  You can choose to accept and live with the however-frequent blow-ups, or reframe hostile encounters with the truth that you’re not the problem or its cause – it’s him.  Alternatively you might avoid all future encounters, waiting patiently instead until his destructive social behavior unseats him from power.  Finally, you can simply pack your office and leave in search of a corporate climate like Google that has a hardwired philosophy of “Do no evil!”  


Filed under Africa, Life, Memories