My fat clumsy fingers paused. I turned to look at my mother, who shook her head and slapped away my hand. “That is expensive. We don’t have money to replace it. It belongs to your aunt. Don’t touch it.”
I pouted and looked longingly at the sparkling glass ball sitting on the table. It beckoned my grimy, 8-year old fingers. I flexed my fingers.
My mother smacked my shoulder and slapped a dark blue rubber ball in my hands. “Here go out and play. Throw this ball around in your uncle’s backyard. You can’t break this.”
I wrinkled my nose and looked at the ugly dark blue rubber ball in the palm of my hands. I tentatively squeezed it. I peered at my mother from under my eyelashes, trying to figure out if there was room to negotiate. Her eyes and posture were unforgiving.
“And besides, balls that you can’t break are better. Those are the ones that you can keep.” My mother pointed at the glass ball that I had been staring at intently. “These? These are pretty, but they are useless. And if these break, they will shatter, you can get hurt, and it will be a huge mess to clean up.”
Then she smacked my back. “Now go out and play. Stop looking at that thing.”
I placed the ball behind my back and forced a smile. I slithered away to the backyard.
Today, as I write this, I squeeze the same rubber ball. I bounce it against the floor, watch it ricochet across the room, and then settle.
Thirty plus years later, this ball has stains and its ugly dark blue has faded to a more translucent shade. But it still retains its shape, resilience, and playability.
Now and then, I wonder about that glass ball that fascinated my 8-year old self. Does my aunt possess it? Does it remain in the same cabinet, shimmering and shining? Did it ever leave the cabinet? Or, one day, did it shatter into a million pieces, hurt anyone, and then be swept away into anonymity?
Physically, rubber and glass balls are different – the former is plain but it has staying and playing powers. The latter is stunning but one false move, and it shatters, often beyond the point of repair. But despite the risk of shattering, a glass ball’s physical characteristics are clear and static. A rubber ball’s physical characteristics are clear and static. A ball is either sturdy or fragile.
On the other hand, people’s rubber or glass ball qualities are not physically visible. You must observe their reactions to expected and unexpected events to determine resiliency or fragility. Additionally, unlike balls, people’s reactions are not always binary – sometimes, reactions can be both resilient and fragile. Unlike balls, people also can evolve from fragility to resiliency, and vice versa.
Once upon a time, I subconsciously judged people’s resiliency based on their abilities to complete forms competently and to absorb feedback well. If they did neither well, then I dismissed them as fragile. For example, a lobbyist I know (“Person A”) dislikes completing forms, and constantly seeks safety nets so that she does not have to be responsible for the results. But she is sociable and bubbly, and she takes meticulous care of her physical features. One evening, we sat together at an event. Person A kept on taking out her compact to powder her nose and peer herself in the small compact mirror. These actions distracted me, and finally, I hissed, “Uh, is something wrong? Why are you powdering your nose constantly?”
Person A turned and looked at me, startled. “Jenny, I need to look at myself constantly. You just don’t know who may be looking at me. I feel like everyone is looking at me.
I turned around in my chair and peered into the darkness of the 500-plus capacity ballroom. I mentally scratched my head. “Uh… who would be looking at you? Why would anyone even be interested in looking at you?
Person A’s face crumpled. She slowly snapped her compact shut and slipped it into her clutch. She focused, or pretended to, focus her attention on the speaker in the front. I rolled my eyes. I associated looking at the mirror often with my mother, who always scolded me about not looking in the mirror enough to check that I was tidy. It was an instruction I never quite understood, and I did not understand people who gazed in the mirror so often. What were you looking for?
Person A was a glass ball?
Not so fast. A few months later, Person A demonstrated glimmers of being a rubber ball – she reported another senior colleague for compliance violations. She called out someone who had been committing compliance violations for years, but no one had hard evidence, or bothered to follow through on a collection of allegations. She had text messages as evidence, and she presented them. That someone was a star performer so no one wanted to touch it, but she pushed forth, and I encouraged her. Ultimately, after an investigation, that star performer was released.
Person A was evolving into a rubber ball?
Not exactly. A few years later, I assimilated Person A into new responsibilities during an acquisition. We scheduled a conference call, and I explained what she would need to do and outlined minefields as well. I stopped and waited for her to ask questions. Her response? “Well, I’m not comfortable with this. Like, how would I know what these people would be doing? I don’t know. But I do know what my people are doing 100% of the time.”
I tapped my fingers on the desk and counted to three. I took a deep breath and responded, “I don’t disagree with you, but no one ever knows what another person is doing 100% of the time. You may know what your people are doing about 80% of the time, if you’re lucky. With this new team, you need to view this as an opportunity and get to know them, and you will get to that point.”
“But I’m not comfortable…”
I interrupted Person A. “No one is ever comfortable. I’m not comfortable. But we have to act and adjust. Do you understand?”
Person A responded, but I did not know if she understood. I marked down a calendar reminder, and checked in with her a few weeks later. The nerves had dissipated, but she was still looking for a safety net. I suppressed a sigh and scheduled another meeting.
When would Person A’s inner rubber ball show itself again, as it had when she reported a star performer’s compliance violations?
Discerning who represents a rubber ball versus a glass ball may be difficult but helping someone cultivate his or her inner rubber ball is more difficult.
Adventures in the trenches forced me to re-evaluate my initial assessment of Person A as a glass ball. She demonstrated courage when she called out a star performer for compliance violations, and she stood by her allegations. But then she reverted back to her “glass ball” habits.
Instead of categorizing Person A as a glass or rubber ball, I have started to ask myself what I and others can do to enhance her rubber ball potential. It is there – she demonstrated that she could, but why is it not consistently repeating itself?
I squeeze the run-down rubber ball again. Cultivating the rubber ball potential in people is hard, but my mother kept building my capacity for resiliency consistently with me. For example, my mother:
Expected a perfect grade on every test consistently – no prizes for a basic expectation,
Did not allow me to shatter ever over a non-perfect grade or other disappointments in life,
Demonstrated brutal honesty with me, even when I probably did not want to hear it, and
Supported me completely no matter the circumstances.
Instead of judging people constantly about whether they are a glass or rubber ball, how can I enable the rubber ball potential of others? How can we all enable the rubber ball potential of others?
By realizing our triggers (for me, it is mirrors) and stepping back.
By not judging and trying to peel back layers.
By learning and accepting.
To a certain extent, we all have rubber and glass ball qualities at certain moments of our lives, as Person A demonstrates. But it is up to us together to decide how we can cultivate the resiliency, playing, and staying powers of rubber balls in each other.
So that we can be more than just admired like a glass ball – so that we can actually live.
And a thank you to Kaylei Elizabeth for inspiring me to write about this – via our live conversations and Twitter chats.