Executive Perspective

Finding the Right Words

by Paul D. Houston

Each year at this time I reflect on the possible lessons of the season. A few months ago one Sunday evening I was watching an episode of “60 Minutes.” The show featured a segment by correspondent Bob Simon on a tribe living on boats off the coast of Southeast Asia. The segment referred to them as “Sea Gypsies;” they also are known as the Moken people.

Simon had traveled to their region after discovering that these people all had survived the great tsunami several years ago, despite living on the sea and on the beaches affected. How was such a thing possible?

It seems these gypsies are pretty much at one with the sea. They live on the ocean at least six months of the year and their children are born and grow up on boats. They learn to swim before they can walk. Children spend so much time in the water they have developed their vision so they can see underwater about twice the distance of other humans, and they can stay under water almost twice as long as other people. Simon referred to these children as true “sea urchins.”

Paying Attention

This connection to the sea allowed them to read the signs of the coming wave long before it hit. They saw the sea retreating, noticed the sea birds flying away and observed that the sea was not behaving normally. Furthermore, the Moken have a legend about the great waves that the sea god sends when he gets hungry. The waves eat the people to satisfy the god and cleanse the earth and make it new. There were elements in the story that gave them further insight into reading the impending waves and helped them survive.

They were able to get to higher ground or to maneuver their boats away from the impending disaster. Simon interviewed fishermen who had survived when the Burmese fishermen nearby them all died. He asked them how that was possible. They answered that the Burmese fishermen were so intent on catching the fish, they were not paying attention to the ocean.

That is the key to being present or mindful. When you are too busy doing, you forget to be, and you fail to pay attention to what is going on around you. The results can be deadly.

At this level, there are lessons for us. How do we survive the perils of the work we do? Can we find ways of becoming one with our environment so we can read its signs and act on its warnings? Leaders and schools are not separate from their organizations and their communities. They are part of them. But leaders have to pay attention and look at the bigger picture.

People are forever losing the forest by looking at the trees or being drowned in the ocean while they search for the fish. It is the big picture that must be taken. We cannot separate ourselves from the context of our work, for if we do, we sail at our own peril.

Time’s Passage

Cultural traditions, whether in a primitive tribe of gypsies across the globe or close to home in our own communities, have a way of informing our understanding of the reality of today. Myths and legend become mythical because they are based on the truth of tradition. It is easy to dismiss them as “that’s the way it used to be.” In fact, the past is always just prologue to the present and we must pay attention or be engulfed by it.

The Moken’s biggest lesson for Simon and for us was not how they lived through the tsunami, but in how they live every day. Simon was fascinated that every time he asked one of them their age, they didn’t know. In talking with an anthropologist who had been studying their culture, he found they have no word for “when.” In essence, they had no concept of time. They knew instinctively what our great modern scientist Albert Einstein had discovered, that time is relative — and not really that important. At least not important enough to find a word for.

This could go along with the fact they have no words for “hello” or “goodbye.” They arrive and they leave. Their presence or the lack of it seems to be sufficient. No need to clutter it up with words that describe the obvious.

The Moken also have no word for “want.” Think of how often we in America use the word “want.” Imagine living our lives without the pressure of unrequited desire. Imagine what it would be like not to want anything. The Moken have words for “take” and “give,” but to want something that cannot be taken or given is out of their understanding. They don’t spend a lot of time fretting over what they don’t have.

Worrying Less

Despite the world starting to impinge upon their idyllic existence, the Moken didn’t seem too worried about it. They have no word for “worry” either. Of course, if you are not a slave to the clock, don’t spend a lot of time looking to the past and the future, and don’t really have a sense of wanting what you do not have, it would diminish the need for worry.

Words are the coin of a culture. Look at words that surround us — accountability, achievement, standards. They drive so much of how we spend our time and what we want out of it, and they sure make us worry.

Obviously, we live our lives on a different ocean and our boats rest on a less tranquil sea, but we can learn from these people we might call primitive. Maybe this coming year we should focus less on the ticking clock, want less of what we don’t have, and worry less about what we cannot change. Not a bad way to launch our boat into the new year.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.