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Jay Leno: In Defense of Class Clowns

School-themed post reprinted from Katie Couric’s book, The Best Advice I Ever Got.

I grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, and I was lucky enough to have really great teachers in high school. Mrs. Hawkes taught English and creative writing, and I had her for sophomore English class. One day, she stopped me in the hall and said, “Come here, Jay, I want to talk to you. I always see you fooling around in class and I hear you telling stories in the hallway, and people seem to be laughing. Why don’t you write down those stories and I’ll accept them for class credit?”

I took her up on her offer, and for the first time in my life I actually enjoyed doing homework. Up tot that point, I was the kind of kid who did exactly what I had to do. Excuse me, is this going to be on the test? That was my usual question. But for the first time in my life I cared about doing well at something for its own sake. I started writing funny stories. I wrote it all down, crossed it out, rewrote it, tried again from another angle, and I’d find myself – rather than the usual forty-five minutes I spent on homework – actually spending three hours trying to get the story perfect.

In class, Mrs. Hawkes asked me to read the story aloud, and I got a few laughs in the usual kid way. Afterward, she said, “Jay, have you ever thought about becoming a comedy writer?” Although I’d always been a show-off and a cutup, it never occurred to me that you could make a living by writing comedy, and so Mrs. Hawkes’s question really sort of changed my life. I thought, Here is something I’m learning in school that I can actually use for a practical purpose. I had no interest in algebra or trigonometry. I was dyslexic, so that stuff had no meaning for me. But here was something that was new that, wow, I actually enjoyed doing, and it didn’t seem like homework at all, and I even got credit for it! It was a real turning point in my life.

Today, whenever I meet young people who are interested in something – anything – I try to encourage them. Because so many kids these days aren’t interested in anything. They just sort of hop around from one thing to the next, or maybe they just zone out. So, whether it’s photography or painting or whatever it is, I always try to encourage them in any way I can, because that’s what someone did for me.

And the moral of the story is…

One of the things that we struggle with as bosses, teachers, parents or coaches is how much we dictate the approach and stay involved in the process. Sometimes we find ourselves taking on the lion’s share of the work simply because it’s faster and easier. Later we’re disappointed to find we’re still shouldering most of the burden.

So how do you break free, engineer a turnaround like Leno’s teacher and later have someone famous say you were the most amazing mentor?

Two takeaways:

1. Find the path of least resistance

I like to meet problems head on and directly. “Muscling,” I call it. When something’s not going my way, I attack it like I’m going into battle. You know those kids that stick out their tongues in deliberation? That’s me: Intense effort and determination. It’s exhausting!

Earlier this summer I was riding with a bike coach and he said: “Jen, you’re a masher. You’re pushing down on your pedals when you should be pulling up. You’ll get more power that way.”

Leno’s teacher didn’t try to “muscle” him into the prescribed assignments. Instead she took the more graceful approach of pulling, i.e. engaging him in a different, ingenious yet effortless way that transformed him as a student.

I know, it’s weird. The path of least resistance yields better results. Technique trumps force. If something seems ridiculously hard, you’re probably doing it wrong.

2. Let them own it

Leno’s teacher invited him to participate in a way that showcased his strengths. He took pride in his work, and made efforts to perfect it, because he owned it.

After 8 years of hiring, training and managing recruiting teams, I came to realize that ownership is an important ingredient and predictor of recruiter success. The sooner I assigned client management duties to a recruiter, the more quickly they rose to the occasion. When they were personally accountable to clients, they adopted a greater sense of urgency and stricter qualification of candidates.

If we listen to our natural tendencies to own or control something, we can never be free from it. Sometimes the best approach is to set parameters, offer encouragement and then give someone else the stage.

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