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Center for Enlightened Leadership

A Difficult Lesson to Swallow

  Adam Sokolow
  Adam Sokolow
Senior Advisor

I was born curious! As a child, I would often bring home various things that I found on the streets of my inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood and take them apart to see how they worked. I wanted to see how the inside of things connected to the outside of things. Luckily for me, my parents never seemed to mind coming home from work to find the insides of a washing machine or radio on our living room floor. In my imaginings, a gear or a pulley and a radio dial were treasures; they could become critical pieces of my space alien robot or a go-cart sailing ship. In time I became pretty good at understanding the logic of electrical circuits and the mechanical advantage behind gears and pulleys, which eventually made it pretty easy for me to fix things too! In truth, though, my natural ability to understand how to repair things has always been, for me, a mixed blessing!

I once saw a dog chewing on a chicken bone. Having learned at school that chicken bones were bad for dogs—that they could splinter and get stuck in a dog’s throat—I reached out my hand to try to take the bone from the dog’s mouth. To my total surprise, it bit me! I remember saying to the dog (I was around 7 years old at the time), “Hey, I told you why I was taking your chicken bone, so why did you bite me?” The dog just crouched down and munched on its bone while staring at me with guarded menace, letting me know by growling and baring its teeth that I needed to keep my distance. That was the last time I tried to take a chicken bone out of a dog’s mouth. But what I didn’t understand then was that this same lesson would eventually apply to people too!

Having an intuitive grasp of how things work has also meant that I’m pretty good at mentally modeling how things tend to play out over time. My blind spot was that I naturally assumed that other people were like me—that they also valued insight into how things worked in order to improve themselves.  

Consequently, I believed that I was only exercising some friendly coaching in helping others to see the future impact of their present actions as clearly as I did. Well, I learned through a variety of experiences that other people were not at all like me! And it’s not much of a stretch to understand how my erroneous conviction often led me to my own proverbial conundrum: damned if I said something, and damned if I didn’t. Too often my efforts to help someone recognize their own self-defeating behaviors became as hazardous to my health as trying to take the chicken bone out of that dog’s mouth.

As one small example, let’s consider something as commonplace as eating. Everyone (myself included) enjoys something sweet now and again. But a sizable pile of evidence directly links an ever-increasing incidence of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes in our country to what we put in our mouths. Everyone should be on guard against continuing to consume an overabundance of high-glycemic-load, starchy and sugary foods simply because they taste good.

It’s not so much that a particular piece of cake or a double teaspoon of sugar in your coffee is the problem. It’s the future effect that all such additive acts produce in the long run. Think of it as a kind of dietetic reversed compound interest, wherein each small accumulative mouthful we consume can eventually come back to haunt us with a vengeance. Not only can sugars and high glycemic starches make us overweight—they are also highly inflammatory! And our medical community has pretty much reached consensus that inflammation plays a major contributing role in just about every major degenerative disease known to humanity. Besides smoking cigarettes, there is probably no more socially acceptable yet harmful thing we can legally do to ourselves. Yet we still mindlessly consume sugars ourselves and even feed mass quantities of sugar to our children.

I now understand what I wish I would’ve known sooner: a person can, for reasons that are often concealed even from themselves, actively resist any changes or improvements that would be, on every apparent level, good for them. Anyone who’s ever tried to help someone they care about give up smoking or cut back on eating that extra helping of macaroni and cheese knows what I’m talking about. Long experience has taught me that it takes a great deal of skill and patience to effect positive change in others. And it certainly helps to have a low-keyed sense of humor in order to lob helpful information under someone’s defensive radar, if we want to be effective in helping them solve a problem that they often don’t fully understand they even have.

Yet, while I acknowledge that old habits really do die hard, I can’t resist offering this one last bit of unsolicited advice: If by chance you ever see a strange dog munching on a chicken bone—well, sometimes that’s the way things are, and it may be better just to go your own way!

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