Don’t Teach Fish to Climb Trees

Whether we realize it or not, we’re all teachers. We might not stand in front of a blackboard, but we’re influencing those around us with our words, actions, and perspectives. Intent matters and not everyone has recognized that they are causing others to learn to modify their behavior, knowledge based, and morality. Once someone does recognize this truth, however, they become responsible for choosing the lessons they want to impart upon others.

What do you want to teach? What kind of influence do you want to have? And what methods will you use to achieve this?

You can passively teach someone (setting good examples through your own choices) and you can actively teach them (help them work on their self-improvement skills). You can even do both. But one of the most important things to remember is this:

They are not you.

Sounds silly, right? It is! I know that another person isn’t me… but when I tried to teach my daughter how to best make a to-do list, I showed her how I do it. And when I tried to help my partner get better at making sure dinner was ready every night, I explained how I keep consistent.

It didn’t work. My daughter kept going back to ignoring all her responsibilities, and dinner was never even started. I didn’t understand: I was setting amazing examples. I was explaining the reasons these things were important. I was pointing out the natural consequences that happen when things aren’t getting done. I was pointing out the effects it had on other people. In my head, I was trying all the right things. I couldn’t understand why nothing changed.

Then something did change. My partner’s self-esteem. My daughter’s confidence. My partner felt lazy. My daughter felt dumb.

And then something else happened, this time to me. I remembered my 7th grade art class. We had an assignment to create an ad for a product using the skills we’d been learning. We had the weekend to do it, and I stared at that stupid list of criteria for the majority of Saturday and most of Sunday. I got some papers out and did my best to draw a design, but it sucked. I can’t draw. It looked horrible. I threw it away. I tried again. And again. And again.

On Monday, I turned in some wrinkled paper with a half-crap design on it, and went back to my other classes with no homework complete and took the zeros. I felt stupid and lazy, even though I’d spent my entire weekend on that art assignment.

And when I got my grade, it was a D. My teacher asked me to stay after to discuss it. They wanted to know why I hadn’t tried. Didn’t I understand why it was important? Didn’t I get what would happen if… of course I did.

And so does my daughter. So does my partner.

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. – Albert Enstein

I read this quote so many times throughout my life and I thought I understood. Don’t compare the fish and the squirrel. The fish is smart in different ways.

That’s true. But I missed a crucial part of the lesson, one that wasn’t written out, never said out loud. It was always there though, so glaringly obvious. And when I saw it, holy crap.

Why was the squirrel climbing the tree? He wanted his food.

And guess what?

The fish has his damned food. He’s not smart in different ways, he’s just smart. He already solved his hunger problem, he didn’t have to climb the tree. What if he wanted to? Why would he want to climb a tree for food? That’s stupid. He can’t even eat nuts.

I could have aced that advertisement test. I can’t draw, but I can market. That’s what an advertisement is: something that can grab a person’s attention and hold it. And I spent a weekend trying to make my lines straight. Good on me, right?

I didn’t need to climb the tree.

And neither does the person you’re trying to help.

My daughter needs to finish her responsibilities (schoolwork) because education is incredibly important. A to-do list isn’t teaching her that, it’s just lining up the tasks. But helping her learn what part of the lesson is most important sure is helping.

My partner needs to handle dinner because I can’t physically cook and we still need nightly meals. Learning to be consistent won’t address other problems that pop up that need solved. But their problem solving skills created a long-term solution… and can again.

The person you’re teaching isn’t you. They don’t learn the same way, and they don’t have to. Because you aren’t teaching a fish to climb a tree, you’re teaching a fish to get some food.




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