The Wisdom We Left in the Third Grade


Two things happened today that prompted this article. The first occurred during a keynote speech I was delivering at the Society of Financial Examiners annual educational conference.

The room was filled with four hundred executives who had gathered to hear some modern-day time management suggestions. I was talking about how important it is to get some down time during the day to refresh and refocus. In a moment of clarity, I blurted out, “And whatever happened to recess?” The question drew a rousing cheer and loud applause! I thought to myself, “Yeah, whatever did happen to recess?”

An hour later, I was reviewing my e-mail on the way to the airport. There was a fairly lengthy thread started by my business partner in my other business – Outdoorplay. He was congratulating our Customer Service Manager on closing a large phone order.

The conversation really took off though when our General Manager announced that tomorrow’s lunch would be pizza compliments of the company. Everyone was congratulating Stacey, thanking Brian, and debating what type of pizzas should be ordered. You can’t mandate the kind of collegiality a simple pizza party can produce.

So Much Wisdom Left in the Third Grade

In his best selling book “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” Robert Fulghum made a number of great points on how we forget so many important life skills as we mature. Today’s experiences focused me on two of them:

  •  Give Yourself Recess Once or Twice a Day. Numerous studies have established that the human brain works best in short bursts, rather than marathon sessions. In “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working,” Tony Schwartz analyzed the same study that Malcolm Gladwell used in his “Outliers” book. One of the findings of the study was that we are most productive when we work in ninety-minute periods, then take a break to refresh and replenish our mental energy. Funny that, teachers send third graders out to play every couple of hours to “burn off steam,” which may well be a euphemism for refresh and replenish.
    Schedule a short break into the day twice a day – mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Do something light for five to fifteen minutes. It can be as simple as returning some calls, catching up with a co-worker, or taking a walk outside. The benefits are amazing.  Not only do we get some down time to recharge, we approach our next project with more energy and enthusiasm.
  • Throw an Impromptu Pizza Party Every Now and Again. Spontaneity is often lost in the business world. We slug it out every day, in the trenches, marching collectively forward toward the pre-determined goal. Gaiety and fun are foreign and often frowned-upon events at the office. Work, after all, is work.
    The sad irony is that we all want more work/life balance, which is a euphemism for working less. The truth is that we have to work, most of us anyway, for many years. So, why not enjoy it more?  Why not interject a pizza party once in a while? Happy people work harder and with better results.  Whether it comes from the top down or from the bottom up, hosting events that produce a more collegial and focused team is a win-win for all involved.

Some More Wisdom from Grade School

There’s a wealth of opportunity from grade school waiting to return to our adult worlds. Here are a couple of more ideas:

  • Assign Homework. What? Wait a minute. Wasn’t this article about the fun we had when we were young?  No. It was about the wisdom we grew out of after that time. One was doing homework, so that we’d be prepared when we got to class.
    Today’s meetings can be big time wasters, often due to a lack of planning and preparation. So many meetings start with the organizer handing out a stack of papers, then basically reading what’s in the stack to us.  Why can’t we send meeting materials out the day before so that when we get together, everyone’s ready to contribute immediately? Meeting time is our most valuable time together.  All these people have come together in one place at one time. Why not make it highly productive?
  • Presence. There’s nothing quite like watching a third grader work on a project.  The tongue is wedged into the side of her mouth; she’s hunched over the work. The level of concentration is astounding. She is totally present.
    “Engagement” is the adult equivalent of childhood presence. We each choose to be engaged or disengaged. It’s not something our boss does or our clients do. Certainly, they can promote or hurt our desire to engage, but at the end of the day it’s our choice. Choosing to engage benefits us individually first and foremost. Sure, it benefits the organization too, but remember that the time spent is ours. The more engaged we choose to be, the more we enjoy the time we spend at work, and the more satisfied we feel about our work. This increased sense of accomplishment and satisfaction is what we take home to our families at the end of the day. Think about that.
  • Make Believe. Give a child a box, a couple of chairs and a blanket and they are likely to build a fort and go on a journey of their own making.  The simple math is that he is taking what’s on hand and creating something with it. Children do it all the time. We adults have long-forgotten this skill, and it’s to our detriment.

Solving problems with the resources available is a powerfully rewarding feeling because it taps into that creativity we’ve hidden away inside. The more creativity we can produce at work and at home, the bigger we feel and the more we feel we can accomplish.

Spend a Day with a Third Grader

To find the most valuable tools for solving modern-day business challenges, spend some time observing a third grader. Look for the traits that make being eight years old such a joy. Find ways to adult-size them. The results will surely be enjoyable.

2 thoughts on “The Wisdom We Left in the Third Grade

  • I love the wisdom in this article. “Engagement” is the adult equivalent of childhood presence, so true! I watch my six year old when she’s fascinated with something and there’s no stopping her!!
    She doesn’t stop to check email, FB, TV, mail, pay bills..obviously, she doesn’t have all that, but still. She also doesn’t hear me when I call her for dinner or the doorbell rings and a friend wants to play. She shows me how being absorbed by something and not letting distractions take me away is the best way to get things done. Thanks for the great post, Paul!

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