This was a last minute edition to The Freak Factor book, which I'm about to submit for publication. It should be available in early March.
Some people worry that focusing on their strengths will make them one-dimensional. If you've ever had that fear, then you need to read about Clemens Rettich. His experience shows that you can be strong, while still moving in many directions. In fact, your strength might be that you are moving in so many different directions.
“It started in second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Hannah, once turned to me in exasperation, saying ‘You don’t have to be such a know-it-all.’ I had probably answered a question of hers with something half-baked that I had gleaned from a book somewhere.
It was 1967. My family had just moved down from northern British Columbia the year prior, not long after we had emigrated from Germany for a second time. At the age of eight, I read voraciously. Books, comics, cereal boxes. Anything. Text was a drug.
Somewhere in there, I began my journey of almost getting everywhere. Therein lays the weakness I have struggled with for years: I find everything interesting; every avenue has intersections and branches to follow. I get bored and struggle to see anything through to the end. I know just enough about almost anything to be dangerous.
I pick up so many things and then put them down. Family and friends always wondered if I would ever focus. Degrees, businesses, places I lived, events and activities, always completely committed (for a day, or a month, or a year). I learned like a sponge but always got bored and moved on before ever getting to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour mark of real expertise.
Languages came easily if I tried: music, French, Latin, poetry, computer languages and management. But I never mastered any of them. By the time I hit my 40’s I was starting to wonder. So were a lot of people around me. I wasn’t alone in feeling that my inability to focus and to commit for the long haul was serious weaknesses.
I trained in improvisational theatre for 2 years with the Vancouver Theatre Sports League. I did two years of performing arts at Simon Fraser University, working collaboratively with artists, dancers and musicians. More languages. I worked for five years in a letterpress shop as a typesetter and printer. That’s a language where you learn to read and design upside down and backwards. Then I moved away from the big city.
On the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) for 15 years, I taught and did community development work, directed a music festival, produced a CD, raised two kids and managed staff. I traveled every year for more training and to lead workshops in improvisation, team building, and leadership around British Columbia. I focused on the language of Positive Behaviour Support. As a high school principal I worked with the Haida First Nation to develop a multi-agency intervention team for aboriginal youth. Then I got a business degree, an MBA in executive management from Royal Roads. I spent three years marketing educational programs in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, Spain, and Brazil.
But early on, even in the constant shifting, I was already conscious of something. I was comfortable everywhere and could make almost anyone else comfortable too: physics majors who played cello, loggers who played hard, teenagers who trusted no one, chefs, mathematicians, politicians, athletes, gay punkers, and bankers. It didn’t matter whom I sat down with, I knew just enough about their world that I could find a place to connect and start a conversation. And I knew how to listen.
Now I have a career as a coach that has, at its heart, the ability to connect dots and think outside the box. I am old enough to have learned to bring complete focus to someone for two hours without blinking. Listening has become a contact sport for me and I play hard.
I think the key to making a difference is learning how to listen. Most of my clients’ major breakthroughs were not the result of anything I said, in any language; they were the result of what they said in a place where they actually got to hear themselves think… and I just listened.
My strength also lies in my layers of experience and education. I make connections others don’t make. I see patterns and trends and possibilities. I don’t believe in rigid plans but believe passionately in having a focused, crystal clear vision of the future. After years as a business owner, manager, and team leader, I know that leadership and management are a craft and an art more than a science. And I understand what that actually means. Where other people talk about creativity, and thinking outside the box, I have lived outside the box my whole life.
Now everything I went through makes sense: the endless indiscriminate reading, the meandering journey through music, the sciences, performance, business, education, sports, management, art, writing, and the fascination with what everyone else does. Just like then, I ask questions to allow others to connect the dots that I see hanging in the air. I create safe spaces to have conversations outside the box, because I have always been comfortable there.
Sometimes I Iook back and regret how long it took me to get here. Wouldn’t it be cool to have an extra decade to really enjoy this? But, as a number of friends and supporters have said, I wouldn’t have been ready. I couldn’t be who I am without my past. I couldn’t do what I do now as well as I do, if my so-called weaknesses had not shaped me and my journey.”