Learnable Moments: Optimism and Grit in Action

Learnable Moments

A Tale of Two Cabbies

Good teachers know how to make use of “teachable moments,” but all of us could probably do a better job of acting on “learnable moments.” I had two such moments recently—and, amazingly, I was aware of both of them while they were happening.

The morning had been crazy—schools had been delayed for two hours because of freezing rain, which meant that my two boys were hanging around the house later than usual, begging for rides to their bus stops. I was trying to get myself ready to jump into a cab and go to the airport for a flight to Dallas.  The cab was due to come right when my younger son had to meet his bus, so I had to race back home from dropping off to avoid having the driver give up on me and leave. I ran inside, grabbed my suitcase, and got in the cab. I closed my eyes, caught my breath, and tried to relax, but right away, the driver started talking.

Now, I like to think of myself as an open, compassionate, empathetic person, someone willing to listen, eager to share, ready to help, and so on. And sometimes, I really am that person. But other times—far too often—I’m stuck inside an endless internal dialogue and I just can’t pay attention to the yammering of other people who are inconveniently located outside of my skull. My older son seems to share this trait with me, but being a child, he’s more open and expressive about it. When his little brother is driving him crazy, he’ll just turn to him and say, “I’m trying to think.”

With the cab driver yesterday, I wasn’t trying to think, exactly, but I didn’t want to hear all about his problems. I had my own stuff going on. He kept talking, though, and eventually he broke through my callousness and self-absorption, and he engaged me in conversation. And I’m grateful that he did.

He was a young man, born in France and raised in Tunisia. He had a wife and two children about the same ages as my children. He had worked in finance for a number of companies, all the way to the level of vice president, but had been laid off more than a year ago. His wife had found a full-time job at another bank, and now he was driving a cab to bring in some extra income.  He had moved his family to a new town to lower their expenses, and he was worried about the quality of the schools. Life was hardly a bowl of cherries.

Many people in his position would have been angry and bitter, railing at politicians, business owners, or someone else for ruining their lives. I probably would have been angry and bitter, myself. But this man was not. He was as upbeat, positive, and optimistic as anyone I had ever met. He had no doubt that things would get better for him, and he felt like, all things considered, things weren’t really all that bad. “I set my own hours, I don’t have to shave, I can wear jeans, I can talk to nice people—what’s bad about that?” he said. When I said something about his great attitude, he told me that his father had always taught him that a customer never deserved a sour demeanor from someone providing a service—and that a positive attitude always paid off. It was his subtle way of letting me know that I could call him directly, the next time I needed a cab, instead of calling the dispatcher. Which I will absolutely do—because his burst of sunshine on a cloudy morning changed the whole day for me.

When I got to Dallas, I had the same experience all over again. It took a while for a taxi to show up, and when I got in and asked why there were no cabs at the airport, I learned from my driver that about 50 cabbies had walked off the job after one of their colleagues had gotten suspended for getting into a fight with their dispatcher and then yelling at a policeman. The young woman driving me shrugged and said, “I don’t like the new rules, either, but that’s no way to fix them. Meantime, I’m going to make some money.”

Her story was very similar to my morning driver’s. She had been laid off from a corporate job and had decided to drive a cab to make some money while she tried to build up a small tax-advice business. She, too, was relentlessly upbeat about the hand that life had dealt her. She had faced setbacks, sure, but that was just life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but the game isn’t over until it’s over. She wasn’t going to let anything keep her down for long. She had things to do. She had plans. She was dusting herself off and getting ready for the next move. And meanwhile, at this job, she was going to talk to management about changing the work rules people didn’t like. And if that didn’t work, she was going to think about joining Uber and driving for them. Nothing was going to stop her.

And that was my learnable moment for the day. “Nothing’s going to stop me” is a choice.  It’s a decision you make, and it has more to do with who you are than the situation you’re in. Some people endure epic, historical horrors and manage to stand back up and re-make their lives. Some people stub their toe and then lie down to take a nap. You may not be able to control the things that happen to you in life, but you are absolutely in control of how you respond to those things.  And while I know I’ve heard that message from many people, real (my father, for one) and imaginary (Gandalf, for one), it doesn’t hurt to hear it again. And again and again.

I’ve written in previous blog posts about the emerging research on character traits like grit, perseverance, and optimism, and how much those traits affect academic, career, and life success. And while statistical research should be convincing, nothing compares to having a living, breathing exemplar right in front of you. Besides Frodo Baggins, I mean.

Were my two cab drivers simply born with traits of resilience and optimism, or did they learn them somewhere?  If they learned them, who were their teachers? Parents? Clergy? Schoolteachers? If the traits are more innate than learned, are there things we can do to cultivate, support, and strengthen what students come to us with? What do you think? Where did you learn your lessons in resilience and perseverance?

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