We've often heard that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and I'm a big believer. There is also value in understanding and appreciating the parts themselves to truly grasp what makes the whole so great.
Some may remember The Karate Kid as a typical eighties movie of teen angst, an East Coast kid starting a new school in California. There’s plenty of adversity, a pretty girl, and an opportunity to cheer for the underdog. It was entertaining enough in that sense, but what really stuck with me was the way Mr. Miyagi trained Daniel in the art of karate. What appeared to be a series of seemingly unrelated menial tasks, that on the surface seemed to be purely for the benefit of the teacher, ultimately came together in mastery for the student. Waxing cars, sanding decks, painting fences and houses created mind and muscle memory that were critical to the craft. This kind of teaching is unique and meaningful.
As a kid, I had an occasional opportunity to work with my dad, a master carpenter who did a good amount of residential remodeling around town. The summer before my tenth-grade year in high school, a project came up for me to work with him full time. It was an opportunity to make some money, and to learn more than I could have imagined.
The Lowe’s lived in a small cape-cod style house, with living space on the first floor only. The project involved expanding the second floor to create additional space for family and guests to visit:
We started in June, and spent the first couple of weeks taking everything apart from the back of the house. The shingles came off, the insulation came out, everything down to and including the rafters. And of course, that involved a lot of cleanup – day after day of piling things in the yard and moving them to the truck so they could go to the dump. It was very hot, so it seemed to take an especially long time to get that part done.
Next, the roof and outdoor siding was replaced and then came the wiring and the plumbing. For me, this was the most boring part, and involved lots of measuring and handing tools to my dad and his plumber. I couldn’t really see what was happening, and some days it was hard to tell if much at all had been accomplished.
Finally, it was time to build! In what seemed like no time, studs framed out the walls, windows were in place, and drywall went up. I remember nailing the floorboards down and feeling a great sense of accomplishment and contribution. Finally came the fixtures, trim work and painting. It was truly a transformation from the original space.
That summer was a special opportunity to see a project like this from beginning to end, and a great lesson on the importance developing a solid foundation. The planning and preparations were key. By doing those things thoughtfully and carefully, the final stages went smoothly and the end result was incredibly gratifying. Unfortunately, I don’t have any actual pictures to share, but the memories remain. We did a lot of work and had a lot of fun.
Patience and perseverance are a big part of the leadership equation as well. In a world of instant gratification, it can be easy to forget about the investment it takes to learn and master a new skill.
When working with new team members, I need to remind myself that I didn’t learn it all in one day either. By breaking big things into smaller parts, the learning becomes more meaningful and lasting. Take the time to teach the importance of each of the pieces and how they come together. This creates a greater attachment to the learning, and a depth of understanding that can lead to further innovation.
Sometimes you are the student. For all of us, learning will continue to be a lifelong process. Keeping up with new technology and the demands of our ever-evolving leadership roles is not simply something “nice to do”, it’s an imperative. This can be challenging and even daunting at times. You may feel anxious to rush the process, or perhaps resist the need to do it at all. It's great to have the end goal in mind, but it's also important to focus on the foundational elements. Take small steps each day – you might be surprised at how it all comes together when you are least expecting it!
And don't forget, it's always okay to ask for a little help along the way.
I never learned karate, but I did watch the movie again on a recent cold and rainy day. Aside from the awkward teenage flashbacks, I was once again reminded that hard work and faith in the process pay off.
I’d love to hear more about your most memorable learning experiences – please share in the comments below.