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The Boy And The Starfish


Sometimes it feels like you are not really making a difference, that you are not the key influencer you thought or hoped you were and most of this negative thinking is the result of receiving little or no feedback.

Sometimes we are influencing people for the good and we don’t know just how much. Sometimes through our teaching, coaching, counselling, encouraging or supporting  we are making a difference in the life of one person and sometimes we will never know the full extent of the positive influence we have had.

How many times have you seen actors, artists, musicians etc. receiving awards and remembering the junior school teacher who was a key influence on their life decisions and ultimately a key contributor to their success. Recently a BAFTA award recipient thanked a plethora of people, colleagues, family, friends and finally he made special mention of his junior school drama teacher who had encouraged him to go for his dreams.

About  four years ago as an admissions tutor I supported the application of a student who had scraped through A levels but was appealing to be allowed on our programme on the basis that, if given the chance, they would prove themselves capable. They were adamant that  if offered the place they would ‘not let me down’. A colleague advised against taking the student on as, in their view, the academic  profile  indicated that the student might not make it through. Nevertheless something caused me to take a chance. I went with my gut.

After the first semester things were not going too well and semester two found the student unable to attend classes and requiring remote support. The advice of my colleague was ringing  in my ears and I started to question my own judgement. At the end of the programme with tutorial support from a distance the student had in fact scraped a pass but decided to move away from the city and were thinking of transferring to another University.

Recently I was in my office enduring one of those ‘dead days’ where you are completing the necessary but very boring admin tasks and I was reflecting on the work and wondering what real difference I was making. Then, almost on cue,  I received an email from that very student – I had not heard from them in three years. They were about to graduate, had a full time job, were planning further post graduate study and wanted to thank me for all my past help and invite me to their graduation.

I was grateful for that email  and it made me realise that we may never know how much we have helped or influenced others for the good  or how many we have helped. In teaching you connect with the lives of hundreds of people. And while we would like to think we have had a major impact on all of them sometimes we really only impact a small number. But that is OK.

This reminded me of the old story of the starfish which many of you will already be familiar with but  for those who are not I share it now for your encouragement.

‘A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance, as he drew nearer he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water.

Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean.

As the man approached even closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time he was throwing them back into the water.

The man asked the boy what he was doing, the boy replied, “I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen. “But”, said the man, “You can’t possibly save them all, there are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can’t possibly make a difference.”

The boy looked down, frowning for a moment; then bent  to pick up another starfish, smiling as he threw it back into the sea. He replied,

“I made a huge difference to that one!”

~Author Unknown~

The earlier story highlights two very important issues for every educator, coach, counsellor and supporter. Firstly you have to believe in yourself – even when the feedback is not clear. If you are skilled in what you do, have a heart to see others do well and if you have had past feedback to indicate you are good at what you do  then there is no reason to doubt that you continue to influence others even if there are no thank you cards in the post. The second thing it highlights is the importance of receiving and giving feedback. The importance of acknowledging the support and encouragement received from others . The importance of saying thank you.

Maybe you could take a few moment to reflect on the people who have influenced your success in life- the friends  and  family members who encouraged you to go for your dreams, the business friends who supported and advised you during difficult periods, the people who were there for you at difficult or challenging points  in your life. The first customers you ever had who were willing to take a chance on a start up.

As these people come to mind consider saying thank you. It’s so easy with email to simply shoot off a short thank you note .Your  email could  make their day, week, month or year.  If your company is successful consider contacting those ‘first investors’  – those early adapters whose custom gave you that initial business boost. Consider offering them a tangible thank you. Practicing being thankful, counting your blessings, is a valuable  way of getting a better perspective on life and it encourages others. Win Win.

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