You’ll Never Learn: More Performance Wisdom From My Mom

Growing up, my mom was a busy woman. When she wasn’t working she was taking care of the house, ensuring that her children were (mostly) staying out of trouble, and doing a dozen other things. When she had some spare time one of her favorite activities was to play board games with us. We had a few but our favorite was Scrabble.

If you don’t know Scrabble, the basic rules of the game can be found on the Scrabble web page. It’s pretty straightforward. You pick seven letter tiles and try to form words. Points are given to each player based on the number assigned to a particular letter, as well as where the letters are placed on the game board. Whoever has the highest score at the end of the game wins!

As a little boy, playing with my mom was fun. Until it wasn’t. I don’t remember when I began to notice, but it became apparent that her style of play didn’t agree with me. The problem wasn’t that she played to my level. And she didn’t traumatize me by cheating or being a sore loser. What she did, the thing that became a cause of anxiety for me whenever she wanted to play Scrabble, was that she didn’t show any mercy. My mom was ruthless.

Imagine me as a single digit aged kid. I’m working hard to come up with words of value. The board taunts me. There are so many options and none seem quite right. My mom’s sitting there, waiting for me to complete my move so she can extend her already sizable lead. Every so often she would get impatient and help me make a choice. She would use it as a teachable moment, demonstrating to me how to view the elements at hand (the letters in my hand, what words were on the board, the open spaces available and which ones could provide the most points) in order to maximize my turn. Once she was done helping me she would then whoop on me some more.

During one particularly lopsided game I asked (whined might be more accurate) why didn’t she let me win at least once. What she told me still stays with me.

“If I let you win, you’ll never learn.”

And she was right. All of the good-natured beatdowns my mom administered to me was her way of teaching me about certain values. For one thing, life isn’t fair; don’t expect favoritism. You have to work hard as well as smart to win against better opponents. You also have to be resilient. Giving up means you haven’t learned how to channel your frustration constructively. Finally, the more you struggle, the sweeter the reward for a well earned victory. I cannot tell you how satisfying it was for me to finally beat my mom!

Not every personal or professional interaction needs to be so intense. My mom and I had a healthy competition at Scrabble, supported by our love of words, in addition to our similarly competitive natures. But as the smarter and more mature individual, she was in a great position to teach me about more than the rules of this particular game. Through her guidance, she developed my sense of composure, allowing me to make smart and timely decisions about the life I want to live.

It’s that maturity I look for in those that I believe can further mentor me. While it’s not always easy, I do appreciate honest and accurate advice from those around me. It helps me to grow and to compensate for blind spots. And I strive to be equally honest with those who request my help in supporting their careers. Otherwise, they may never learn. And then we all lose.

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