A Group Final

Posted by jlubans on June 30, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: My students doing the end-of-class anonymous plus/delta .

One of the oft-heard hesitations about working in groups is that an individual’s brilliance may shine less, over-shaded by the group result.
That’s a fair objection. Our culture may talk team, but it venerates the individual. We tend to compensate individual effort more than that of a team. Other organizational structures, like performance appraisal, promotion and salary setting, perpetuate the notion of individual achievement over team achievement. After all, independence (critical thought and action orientation) is a valuable asset, is it not? So, becoming one of a faceless team may not be the best career move. Understandably, there may be reluctance among top performers to subordinate themselves to a team assessment.
A constant complaint about group work, certainly in school, and probably just as often on the job, is that the “slackers”, or the less able, are rewarded the same as those who do all the work.
In my own way, I perpetuate this dual perspective: my class is about teamwork and freedom at work, yet the final is an individual exam.
Now, I do give a lot of credit when it comes to participation – 30% of the grade*. But, participation is difficult to grade. It can be observed to some extent, e.g. does the student show up, does the student have something to say during small group discussion, does the student lean into the group or sit back silently?
But, still, my final exam is all about the individual’s ability to understand and to identify class concepts.
This latest group taking my 8-week Democratic Workplace class struck me as more together; there seemed to be fewer differences among the students than what I had seen in the three previous classes. This group worked well together, always including everyone in discussion – helping each other with translation and clarification of concepts - and they all seemed to be making genuine efforts to contribute in positive ways to the class. While a few students were better at English and had a bit more to offer, they were not that far superior to the group. And, for those weaker in language, that did not seem to affect their performance in group work in which they could speak Latvian.
So, on the day of the final, I surprised them with a choice:
Take the exam individually or in small groups. They opted – unanimously - for small groups even after I said, “No, you cannot choose your group.” I’d assign them randomly.
There were three groups, of 3, 3, and 4 students. If these groups asked to collaborate with each other – something they had done in class activities – I would have let them.
The results – the scores - were excellent - and should serve to drive home a central class notion that group work – when everyone is prepared to do their best – can often be superior to individual effort, to going it alone. These scores (on a scale of 10) seem to confirm this: 10.0, 9.5, and 9.3.
The previous three classes used a similar exam, with much greater variation among individual scores, ranging from lows in the 6’s to high 9’s.
And, I saw that the students learned from each other in coming up with answers. There was much animated discussion during the 50 questions final. And, given the course content and class objectives, the students saw for themselves that group work can be more effective than individual – on average - if everyone is prepared to bring their best.
Caption: Students Klinta Kalnēja, Linda Voropajeva, and Evija Lapsa after their group final.

One student later observed in the anonymous plus/delta review:
“We as a class/group are a better team.”
Yet, another did comment, in summing up the class:
“Not so much opportunity to show our individual skills and knowledge.”
So, the tension between group and individual goes on, but I do recommend experimenting with group examinations. And, on the job, if you really must do performance appraisal (it really is best not to do it), try group assessment. Let the team “product” – however it is to be assessed - be the basis of the evaluation. Perhaps there can be ways to identify the “stars” – the MVPs – and to reward them above the team reward.
Once you make team assessment clear at the start of a year, that may encourage a team’s addressing its common problems. Often teams go through the motions rather than openly discuss individual effort toward teamwork.
If someone is a slacker, why should not the team confront that person and find out why and what can be done? Currently, it appears that team members are too intimidated and fear being labeled “not a team player” for calling out a team mate’s shortcomings. Instead avoidance and accommodation are practiced rather than talking through performance issues.
Frankly, I like this group exam approach and given another group with similar abilities and interests, I’ll do it again.

*REQUIREMENTS FOR GRADE in my Democratic Workplace class at the University of Latvia, Department of Information and Library Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences:
30% - Attendance and participation in class
30% - Assessment of individual work and participation in team assignments, including the “Books2Eat” project
20% - Solo paper
20% - Final examination

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable, Aesop’s “THE ESCAPED JACKDAW”*

Posted by jlubans on June 25, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)


“A Man caught a Jackdaw and tied a piece of string to one of its legs, and then gave it to his children for a pet. But the Jackdaw didn't at all like having to live with people; so, after a while, when he seemed to have become fairly tame and they didn't watch him so closely, he slipped away and flew back to his old haunts. Unfortunately, the string was still on his leg, and before long it got entangled in the branches of a tree and the Jackdaw couldn't get free, try as he would. He saw it was all up with him, and cried in despair, ‘Alas, in gaining my freedom I have lost my life.’”

“No strings attached”, the saying goes. When we set ourselves free, be it from a despotic workplace, a sour relationship, or a totalitarian government, do we lose the “strings” that entangle and imprison us? Or are we like the jackdaw, doomed by the past?
I asked in a previous blog,
How does any organization moving from dysfunction into effectiveness, continue its progress?
What does “of the people, for the people, by the people” mean up close and personal? Should we qualify the phrase with “sometimes”, as appears to be the case when you consider the low voter turnout in some democracies?
Or should we adjust freedom’s tocsin to “of the organization, for the organization, by the people?” Doing so, we revert to the sly, old model, with a few punctiliously telling the many how to behave.
For humans – in and out of the workplace - it appears that it is far easier to be told what to do than to figure it out for yourself. Yet, most of us know it is far more rewarding to figure out a problem on your own. (Which reminds me, as a little kid in a post WWII German refugee camp, I acquired the nickname, “Japits” a merging of “Jānis yourself” in Latvian because I was forever claiming my independence from adult supervision and advice: “I’ll do it myself!” That may explain some bloopers in my personal history!)
So, there’s the dilemma. How much do you want to invest in your newly gained freedom – untangling the jackdaw’s knotted string - vs. giving up your freedom?

*Source: AESOP'S FABLES A NEW TRANSLATION BY V. S. VERNON JONES WITH AN INTRODUCTION By G. K. CHESTERTON AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR RACKHAM (Publisher: London: W. Heinemann; New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1912). Available at Gutenberg.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week. Henderson State University
Huie Library, Arkadelphia, AR United States

© John Lubans 2015

Q: “Sweet are the uses of ______ " (Fill in the blank.)”

Posted by jlubans on June 22, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Chainless

This essay is about a bike chain*, so let’s jerk the chain a bit of those who have no use for Shakespeare (That dead, white, male, you know!) Please complete the title quote:
A. Maple syrup.
B. Vinegar
C. Adversity
D. The iWatch
E. None of the above.

I often write about the right answer, Adversity. For example, my chapter, “Productivity in Libraries? Managers Step Aside!” in Leading from the Middle
has several paragraphs on how adversity can help an organization. Being the contrarian, I have always seen adversity as an opportunity, a rare opening for change to break into a traditional organization.
By now you may be muttering, where is this going?
Library colleague and friend Evangela Oates posted a video of a mountain
bike race
in which one of the competitors, Aaron Gwin, snaps his chain at the top of the run. Permit me to revert to breathless Internet speak: “His chain breaks at the start. You will be amazed by what happens! OMG!”
Now, I have a couple of levels at which I can interpret the broken chain. One I have already alluded to, how we deal with adversity. You know the clichés: “When life hands you lemons, make …..”
And, Winston Churchill’s famous, “Never, never, never give up.”
Or, the dubious but harrowing, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Imagine what your hair looks like after surviving a lightning strike.
Mr. Gwin is handed a lemon at the starting gate. His choices: call it a day or go for it. He chooses adversity and claims a World Cup win.
Now another level of interpretation is metaphor.
What is the chain but a symbol of energy transfer. If the bike is a system, then the chain transfers energy from outside – the rider – and makes the back wheel move. The chain provides motivational energy to the system. So, what happens, off the mountain, in an organization when the outside energy stops or dwindles to less than what is needed?
What does an organization, dunned for a tenth of its budget, do? In times like that, I was told over and over we could not go on or, as one consultant put it: “There is no part of this “bicycle” that you could do without.” So, do you surrender? If you follow Mr. Gwin’s lead, you ride, hell–for–leather.
Whenever we did in the organization what Mr. Gwin did on the mountain, we’d win.
Another level of interpretation is somewhat technical; indeed the bike techies, after Mr. Gwin’s win, went back and forth on the question of needing a chain on a downward slope. Is chainless better? One went so far as to ask: “Could it be that the chainless drivetrain is the biggest tech breakthrough of the year?!”
Well, yes, as long as there are not too many plateaus in the downward run – another metaphor, that. In that case, as I found frequently on the job, doing without some part or process deemed absolutely essential actually improved what we did, in quality, quantity and service.
Simplicity trumps complexity every time.

*Writing this takes me back to my University of Colorado at Boulder days, decades ago, when I rode my bike to work at Norlin Library and all over campus carrying out my administrative duties. I even gave up my highly coveted XX parking permit which allowed me to park my car anywhere on campus!
That bike was a Raleigh, three speed and all I needed. No mountain bike, but it served me well, in sunshine, snow, rain, wind and mist.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: American Library Association Library, 50 E. Huron St. Chicago, IL USA

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Abstemius's (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “The Ass's Wish”*

Posted by jlubans on June 19, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Weary Ass in Winter.

“An Ass was wishing in a hard Winter, for a little warm Weather, and a Mouthful of fresh Grass to knap upon, in Exchange for a heartless Truss of Straw, and a cold Lodging. In good time, the warm Weather, and the fresh Grass comes on; but so much Toil and Bus'ness along with it, that the Ass grows quickly as sick of the Spring, as he was of the Winter. His next Longing is for Summer; but what with Harvest-Work, and other Drudgeries of that Season, he is worse now than he was in the Spring and then he fancies he shall never be well 'till Autumn comes: But there again, what with carrying Apples, Grapes, Fewel, Winter-Provisions, etc. he finds himself in a greater Hurry than ever. In fine, when he has trod the Circle of the Year in a Course of restless Labour, his last Prayer is for Winter again; and that he may but take up his Rest where he began his Complaint.”

“The Life of an unsteady Man runs away in a Course of vain Wishes, and unprofitable Repentance: An unsettled Mind can never be at rest. There's no Season without its Bus'ness.”

I’m exploring ways to teach leadership in other than the usual, lecture on theories, assigned readings and such. The Friday Fables could address - in an indirect way - what we often encounter in workplace relationships and leadership.
We’d not have any acronyms to memorize, or, anything particularly pragmatic or formulaic to take away. Instead I’d emphasize the philosophical and ethical aspects in these stories - from across the centuries - as they may relate to our contemporary behavior and decision-making.
What, I would ask the class, is your perception of the appended moral to today’s fable. Is it unduly harsh in its blaming the “unsteady Man” for his “vain Wishes”, his “unprofitable Repentance” because, after all, “There's no Season without its Bus'ness.”

This fable (from the 15th century) suggests a variety of Herzberg's Motivators and (mostly) Hygiene Factors. His theory, as you know, concludes that organizations do too much of the hygiene and too little of the motivator factors. The ass’s dissatisfaction is literally due to negative hygiene factors as he vends his way around the “Circle of the Year in a Course of restless Labour”. So, would introducing a few positives (vacations, a pail of water, sick leave, weekends off, a retirement plan) make for a more creative and happy Ass? Or, would there be only less dis-satisfaction and no real satisfaction for the Ass?
How would the class address the tribulations of the “unsteady Man”?
Would students seek ways to influence the “unsettled Mind” in a co-worker or subordinate? I could use my Melanie case study:

You meet Melanie for coffee everyday. Lately, Melanie is telling you she is desperate to leave her job. It’d be the first thing she would do, only if… Melanie has lots of reasons why she can’t leave. You concur entirely with Melanie’s desire to leave – anyone this unhappy needs to try something else. But, the only action she takes is to complain to you. Today, she tells you, “I despise this job!”

What do you advise Melanie to do? Is she not a bit like the unhappy Ass dealing with his “Drudgeries”?
Envision a scenario that makes for an improved view of life for Melanie.
How can an organization help make things better for its employees? Or, is mankind never to be free of “restless Labour”? Should we just buckle down and slog on?

So you see, we could spend a class session or more discussing just this one fable. The outcomes, insights from this should be a better understanding of staff grievances - real and imagined - and what to do about them. Possibly, I’d add in a required reading, my chapter in Leading from the Middle: “’I’m So Low, I Can’t Get High’: The Low Morale Syndrome and What to Do about It.” An assigned reading, as a counterpoint to the fable, could help students make transfers from the story to the workplace.

*Source: Abstemius' Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Olympic College, Haselwood Library. Bremerton, WA United State

© John Lubans 2015

"Сойдёт" (not!)

Posted by jlubans on June 16, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Tasting room with our tour guide.
Valmiermuiža has been my favorite Latvian beer for several years. So, when my cousin Ivars suggested we drive to Valmiera (on the road to Valga)
and tour the brewery, I leapt at the chance.
Afterwards, as we visited in the tasting room, I asked about how Valmiermuiža achieves its consistent quality.
Our guide, Ms. Dace Ciesalniece - a member of the “viesmīlības komanda” (hospitality team) - responded that “cойдёт” (pronounced, "soydot”) is a word (and behavior) you never use when working at Valmiermuiža.
It’s a Russian word and was used in most Soviet enterprises. It continues to be used in Russia to this day as “Так Cойдёт!” In American English, it’s the equivalent of, “OK, that’s close enough for government work” and implies that shoddy is not all that bad. In other words, “It is more or less OK” so let’s go with it. It's passable, middling, not bad, or adequate,! Not exactly what you want to hear in the hospital or the library or from your lawyer or plumber. And, as our guide’s comment confirmed, the brewery’s founder, Mr. Aigars Rungis, (interestingly, his title is “Host”, not boss) did not want to hear or see the word and its concomitant attitude in his business.
Indicators of quality:
The beer is delicious and the one I prefer has a delightful amber color. And, there’s an overall symmetry and tastefulness of design in the interiors of the restaurants and stores, including the glass ware. And, I was impressed with our guide’s thorough knowledge about beer making – certainly far greater than mine - and, importantly, her big picture view of the business (after only a year on the job). And, quintessentially, there’s Valmiermuiža’s voluntary adoption and adherence to “German purity laws” when it comes to what goes into the beer: water, barley, yeast and hops, no more, no less. In other words, no monosodium glutamate, no propylene glycol, no high fructose corn syrup and no caramel coloring!
Naturally, I was interested in how this quality culture came about since culture has much to do with how an organization achieves consistency and profitability.

Caption: Attention to detail; Latvian flowers in the tasting room.
While the history of the brewery dates back to 1764, the latest incarnation is only 6 years old, starting in 2009, with Latvia’s wrecked economy mired in the worldwide recession. Can you imagine what financial partners thought about Rungis’ pitch for launching a craft beer in an already beer-inundated Latvia? Imagine what they thought when he told them that this beer would likely be Latvia’s most expensive. (At the Prisma grocery chain, a half liter bottle today goes for over 1.40€, while a best selling brand like Aldaris sells at .53€. The cost is explained in part by the use of a “slow and patient brewing process”, that a significant portion is unfiltered and, that all of it is unpasteurized, obviously with a shortened shelf life.)
And, what did investors think when they heard that the market share goal was 1%, definitely not dominance? Well, five years later that goal was achieved along with the industry’s prize for being the best medium or small brewery. **
It’s pretty obvious that I like the beer. And now I can say I savor it not only for its excellent taste, but also that Valmiermuiža is a splendid example of leadership and of a leader’s role in stating a clear vision and of bringing clarity to and understanding of expectations. Mr. Rungis apparently has - better than most - made clear to his/her followers what is expected and why. They know that when a choice is to be made, they have the freedom (and expectation) to opt for “quality above the quantity.”
So, I end with a Latvian toast for Valmiermuiža, “Lai ražīgi!” Alas, the robots translate this in very Soviet industrial terms, “for effectiveness” and “for efficiency” – no doubt to counter the implied slackery in “Cойдёт!” - but you get my meaning.

Caption: Uniquely shaped Valmiermuiza glasses for enhancing flavor.

** How many people work at Valmiermuiža? Ms. Ciesalniece writes: “Altogether we are about 100 people working in Valmiermuiža (Rīga and Valmiermuiža together). About 40 people tend for the hospitality and tourism, about 30 people are responsible for the brewing, quality control and sales, the rest is administration and marketing.”

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Snake and his Tail”*

Posted by jlubans on June 11, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by John Lord, Tail and Head, One-on-One.

“A snake's tale (sic) once decided there was no need
For the head to go first. 'It's my turn to lead.'
'Be quiet,' the snake's other members said.
'Wretched appendage, how could you go first
Without the eyes or nose or ears
By which each living creature steers?'
But their arguments didn't prevail
And the rational head lost out to the mindless tail,
The roles were reversed,
And, dragging them blindly along, the tail went first.
When the snake fell into a rocky pit and was almost killed,
The tail which was so self-willed
Began humbly apologising, pleading:
'Save us, please, O head, our master!
The mutiny I raised has ended in disaster.
Put me back at the rear
And I'll obey and you needn't fear
Any more accidents with me leading.'”

“Moral: Leaders need to have a sense of direction.”

Keeping to my contrarian ways, I’d add that both leader (head) and follower (tail) need to have a sense of direction. It’s what Mary Parker Follett said many years ago when describing effective leadership:
“Leader and followers are both following the invisible leader –the common purpose.” When students do the “balloon trolley” – which I use to teach the importance of shared leadership - I choose leaders from the back and the front and the middle to help a group navigate around the classroom or hallway or parking lot. Keeping things interesting are the balloons in front and back of each member of the trolley. Drop one and start over. As each newly appointed leader keeps his/her place in the line and directs the group, the lessons are quickly learned. Each member of the group, regardless of location, has a role and responsibility, the least of which is to listen and to speak up (communicate!) when the line encounters difficulty - the tail indeed has information which the head does not. The linking metaphor is not lost on the group – each literally must support the other.
La Fontaine’s version** of this fable, in-line with Aesop, suggests that letting the “tail”, the rabble, lead a nation will result in disaster. A century after La Fontaine, many would dispute the divine right of kings and some would embrace the revolutionary notion of governance “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yet, even today, many bosses, the world over, are reluctant to embrace a democratic leadership. It's a bit like the centuries it took for scholars to get over the "ancient mistake in natural history" that a snake's tail was as poisonous as the head!

Here's the conclusion of La Fontaine's fable:
“With cruel kindness Heaven granted
The very thing he (the tail) blindly wanted:
To such desires of beasts and men,
Though often deaf, it was not then.
At once this novel guide,
That saw no more in broad daylight
Than in the murk of darkest night,
His powers of leading tried,
Struck trees, and men, and stones, and bricks,
And led his brother (the head) straight to Styx.
And to the same unlovely home,
Some states by such an error come.”

*Source: Michie,James & Lord,John Vernon.
Aesop's fables. London: J. Cape. 1989,

**Source: THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE Translated From The French by Elizur Wright. [original place and date: Boston, U.S.A., 1841.] A New Edition, with Notes by J. W. M. Gibbs,1882. Available at Gutenberg.

© John Lubans 2015

“Perpetual Pursuers of Power”

Posted by jlubans on June 09, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption. The incomplete human: effects of totalitarianism*

I’m in Prague, that bejeweled city smack dab in the middle of the European continent, landlocked by Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia. Its baroque monuments silently testify to a former grandeur; its palaces and churches mutely proclaim power, that peculiar type of power – the coercive, absolute kind - by which one person or family prevail over the rest of us.
Few politicians, as well as CEOs, Executive Directors and other bosses to whom we entrust power would admit, even to themselves, to a naked self-love of power. Of course not! Those pursuing office, elected or otherwise, seek only to serve, to sacrifice so that mankind (or an organization) can achieve its potential.
Here in Prague, the Czech Republic’s Václav Havel – a different seeker of power - comes to mind. Havel was this country’s first democratically elected president, serving from 1989-1992, after openly opposing communist, totalitarian rule for many years. Havel said this in 1991:
“Being in power makes me suspicious of myself”.
I first visited Prague on a cold night in January of 2012, not long after Havel’s death on December 18, 2011. The equestrian statue in Wenceslaus Square was laden with tributes of photographs, flowers and candles, some still kept burning. It showed to me just how beloved Havel was as an author and president.
I have to think that the man’s humility, evident in his quote, had much to do with this sad outpouring of affection and loss.
So, what can Havel suspicions of power possibly mean for the rest of us in positions of authority? Well, are you ever suspicious of why you are there? Why you want to be there?
Do the trappings of office – grand or humble – and the deference of many have an insidious, insulating quality? Do we make self-serving decisions and then rationalize those questionable decisions. Especially ones that help us retain or accumulate power at the expense of someone else? After a while, do we even care?
Is it humanly possible to keep one’s foot on the tightrope of democratic leadership and not trip and fall into the autocratic abyss?
Is my not wanting power – indeed giving it away – an aberration or a character flaw? Or, does the lust for a fear-inducing power over others infect only a small percentage of the population?
Can one be the head of a group and still only have a trivial interest in power?
When in “power” are there not legitimate perks of office only meant to save our time as we go about our important work? That’s a fair enough question and one that Havel raised over and over again. I think Havel did this publicly to stave off the insinuating and seductive ways of power, ways that range from self-serving, to being unaccountable, to doing shameful things shamelessly.
Regardless of where you are on the power continuum, reading Havel’s reflections on power could be of personal value. He ended his “suspicion” speech with a suggestion. “Politics, (or leadership – ed.) therefore, ought to be carried on by people who are vigilant, sensitive to the ambiguous promise of self-affirmation that comes with it. I have no idea whether I am such a person. I only know that I ought to be, because I have accepted this office.”
Sensitive and vigilant, that’s all. And, most of all, willing to question self.

*Monument erected in 2002 on a hillside in Prague to “victims of communism, …to all victims, not only those were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism.”

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Woman and Her Hen”*

Posted by jlubans on June 04, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Photograph by Robert Doisneau, “Hen on leash”, Paris, France. ca. 1944 (wartime).

“A WOMAN possessed a Hen that gave her an egg every day. She often pondered how she might obtain two eggs daily instead of one, and at last, to gain her purpose, determined to give the Hen a double allowance of barley. From that day the Hen became fat and sleek, and never once laid another egg.”

Aesop’s Woman was not a disciple of less being more. Her hen’s liking of luxury may give credence to the notion of “too much of a good thing”.
But, being a contrarian, here’s another view:
Daryle Singletary writes,
“Too much fun, what's that mean?
It's like too much money, there's no such thing
It's like a girl too pretty with too much class
Being too lucky, a car too fast
No matter what they say, I've done
But I ain't never had too much fun.”

Yet, on the job, I know managers are expected to appear fastidiously frugal and resolutely resourceful. I recall how my going on a paid trip to a conference in Honolulu garnered tsk, tsk’ing and plenty of askance looks.
Budget managers are all about making sure we never have too much fun. That may be a “bean counter’s” chief chore. The bean counter (BC) thinks it is her responsibility to make sure there’s barely enough, and most definitely, not too much. For the BC, less is indeed more, all the while pinching our pennies.
When I teach budgeting I refer to Aaron Wildavsky’s work on budgetary behavior and BC thinking. Some of the latter is illogical and inimical to the best use of budgetary resources:

• “Substantial carryover (a surplus) indicates that the agency does not need as much as it received and cuts will be made in the future.” So, if you have streamlined, reduced expenses and saved your organization’s money, that excess money is hoovered up into the general fund and does not return to your unit (unless you have gotten special permission from the BC or, much better, his superior).

• “Suspicion is raised if the agency comes out even, the budget ends on zero. It is, strangely enough, seen as spending to the limit without considering the need for economy.” So, library friends and colleagues, when you rush to zero out the fiscal year by buying ultra expensive sets of materials that will likely never be used, keep in mind that the BC already knows about this scam, everyone does it. No wonder there’s never any money for the really important stuff!

• “If the agency runs out of funds it may be accused of coercive deficiency trying to compel more funds on the grounds that a vital activity will suffer.” A very risky process, unless you are protected from the top. In any case, those who have to pay for your debauchery will detest you, but then you may not care!

*Source: FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886.
Available at the Gutenberg Project.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Luther College Preus Library. Decorah, Iowa, USA

© John Lubans 2015

The Kindness of Strangers

Posted by jlubans on June 02, 2015  •  Leave comment (1)

Caption: Stopp!

Eighty kilometers south of Tartu, Estonia, we found ourselves stranded in Valga. I last saw our bus from about 50 yards back as I ran after it, waving my arms and yelling for it to Stop! (or Stopp! in Estonian.)
No big deal, a sunny day, surely another bus would be along soon? We’ll laugh about this in a day or so.
True, but the missed bus had my backpack and our suitcase on it. And if the driver did not drop those items off in Tartu – why should he? - then they’d wind up in St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, Russia. Imagine how long it would take, if ever, to get those items out of Russia.
So, after recovering our breaths - the absconding bus still visible a quarter mile down the highway - Sheryl and I schemed how to catch it. Perhaps a private car could head it off? But reason prevailed. The bus driver didn’t stop when he could see me in his rear view mirrors, so was unlikely to stop for someone waiving him down from a speeding car! Besides, where was I going to commandeer a private car?
Our next thought was to get a message to the bus terminal in Tartu so the agent could get our luggage off. We asked a taxi driver but he did not speak English. He did tell us there was either a train or a bus in a few hours, pointing to a video display on the side of the shared train/bus station building. This was Sunday so not many people were around; the station ticket offices were closed.
Then we spotted a young red-haired woman on the train platform. She said she spoke English “a little bit.” She quickly understood our predicament and willingly googled the bus company’s numbers and called, first to Riga (our starting point) and then to Tartu, speaking in rapid Estonian.
A complete stranger, she helped us. She arranged to have the luggage taken off the bus and left at the Tartu bus station. “These things happen,” she said consolingly. With a wave, our angel got into a waiting car and went out of our lives.
Waiting for the next bus - in the dappled sunshine of a little park in Valga - I thought about kindness. And that I tell my classes early on about how and why humans cooperate, that our inclination is to help each other. Stuff may get in the way of our doing so, but our first reaction is to help. And, I go on, our willingness to help strangers is why we have survived over the millenia. Undoubtedly, there are humans with more of the selfish gene (if it exists) and less willing to help – the jerks – but for the most part we have an innate desire to help each other.
Our abandonment and rescue in Valga relates to an anthropological study discussed on NPR.
The lead author explained: "Sharing and cooperation is crucial to survival … So [tribe members] evolved mechanisms to cooperate with unrelated individuals."
The researchers studied existing tribes of hunter-gatherers and their cooperative relationships with non-family members. There’s a very practical reason: “hunters only find food about 75 percent of the time. That would mean a family would go hungry one day out of four. But that doesn't happen because unrelated neighbors learned to share their food.”
And interestingly there was support in this study for the “Collective Intelligence” result of another study on why some teams are smarter than others. That latter study found that, among a couple other factors, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men.
The anthropological study found that when males and females have equal roles in decision-making – including which tribes to join – the result is an optimal mix of family and strangers. Instead of rejecting anyone not a family member the mixed tribes of family and strangers cooperate and strengthen their likelihood of survival.
While our red haired angel of Valga is far away from the Palanan Agta tribe of the Philippines and Congo's Mbendjele BaYaka tribe, still there’s an exclusively human link - the kindness of strangers.

© John Lubans 2015