Sometimes It Seems Easier To Donate ($ or goods) Than To Be Gracious

When I first ran across this article, “The Lesson of Grace in Teaching,” I was moved by the story behind the title, but didn’t think it had direct bearing on business or management. Then, I remembered my own principle: Everything is connected in system perspective. Indeed, “grace” is useful in teaching, and there are many principles in the teaching profession from which management can learn.

After Francis Edward Su’s award speech for teaching mathematics, he received so many requests for the speech that he created a blog just to post that speech, which I linked above.

When Su was told by his first graduate advisor that he didn’t have “what it takes to be a successful mathematician,” he was on the verge of quitting the field. Like many before and after him, PhD students tend to entwine their identity with their degrees, or their impending degrees. However, after some painful soul searching, Su decided to switch to a different advisor instead of altogether dropping out of the PhD program. Su had in mind the professor from whom he had taken only one course prior to switching. It was from that course, or more precisely the interaction with Professor Diaconis outside of the course, that Su learned about “grace.”

Nature's grace.

Nature’s grace.

Su’s mother died during the semester of Diaconis’ course, and Su went to the professor asking for an extension. What Professor Diaconis immediately said was, “I am really sorry about your mother. Let me take you to coffee.” During that coffee break, the “obscure” student and the professor “pondered lives, personal journeys, struggles, and other weighty issues.”

The coffee time was Su’s epiphany: “By taking me to coffee, he [Professor Diaconis] had shown me he valued me as a human being, independent of my academic record. And having my worthiness separated from my performance gave me great freedom! I could truly enjoy learning again.  Whether I succeeded or failed would not affect my worthiness as a human being.  Because even if I failed, I knew: I am still worth having coffee with!”

Su’s definition of “grace” is: Good things you didn’t earn or deserve, but you are getting them anyway. A derivative from that coffee encounter is, “Your accomplishments are NOT what make you a worthy human being.”

Not that everyone has to go through “failure” in order to appreciate such depth of humanness, but those who are NOT afraid of failure grasp these ideas more readily. As Su points out in his talk/article, when we struggle or are confused, that’s when learning really takes place. Of course, “grace” isn’t just about learning, but also learning to be generous, to others and to oneself.

This isn’t about superficial “forgiving yourself,” or “treating yourself well” new-age thinking. In the context of Su’s presentation, I think his concept of “grace” is about: (1) When we are generous toward others, many doors open not just for others but also for ourselves. In the case of Professor Diaconis’ generous gesture, he eventually “won” a bright student who then became a highly valued teacher. (2) When we don’t try to infuse our achievements into our identity, we would be less concerned about what we get, and actually let wandering take us to wherever it may. In turn, we would be able to see more possibilities. So, Su didn’t let his first advisor’s discouraging (and, disparaging) words kill his interest. He loved math, with or without the PhD, and it was that love and Diaconis’ timely offer that gave Su the possibility of success that he might not have otherwise realized. The lesson “grace” stayed with him and lead to his teaching award, and not just award but affection and appreciation from many students.

Yet another "grace" from nature.

Yet another “grace” from nature.

In our workplaces, unfortunately, we see more evidence of the lack of “grace” than its presence. Competition tends to snuff out any possibility for “grace,” as does the desire to snatch others’ turf, envy of direct reports’ or colleagues’ achievements, being constantly on guard or on the defensive, or thinking and plotting one’s own promotion. Recently, I got one of those circulating emails (which sometimes bring smiles and laughter, and occasionally a word of wisdom), “You cannot hang out with negative people and expect to lead a positive life.” That’s in a nutshell what “grace” is about. Have you ever seen and received “grace” from negative people?

Just like meetings don’t change people’s minds easily (my previous post), neither would a speech or an article. In addition, I have learned from the knowing-doing gap  the principle of letting actions teach us. So, I know better than to expect that my writing – especially in the shadow of Su’s brilliant speech and writing – would excite people to practice “grace.” Heavens, do I?! However, why not envision a path of “grace” and practice on a colleague, an acquaintance, or even a stranger for a week and see? And please share your insight.

Postscript: Shortly after I finished my draft of this entry, I received a very gracious communication that lifted my spirits and allowed me to breathe more easily. Indeed, I need to find ways to pay forward.

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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