Several years ago I had a client who, when he came to my office each week, spent the first several minutes complaining about all the unjust happenings that had occurred in his life since our previous meeting. His teachers did not know how to teach, and, therefore, his test grades were low. His mother was sloppy and disorganized, and, therefore, he had to eat out all the time, thereby wasting his money. The students at school were lazy and left their lunch wrappers all over the tables in the cafeteria, and, therefore, there were no clean tables where he could sit to study or to eat lunch with friends.
One day after several weeks of this, I told the student a story. The story was about a soccer team. The members of the team were on the field practicing. Each day the coach gave the players directions about which moves to practice when their goal was to get the ball down the field to the goal and what moves to practice to block the other team from being able to move the ball in the other direction. Little by little as the team practiced they seemed to be getting better at moving the ball down the field, as well as better at keeping the other team from moving the ball the other way on the field. Meanwhile, other kids were in the stands watching the practice. They were watching the players on the field, and talking about the coach and his ideas, or commenting on the players. The kids in the stands said things like, "That coach doesn’t know how to coach. He should teach the team to use more passes, or more deception, or more maneuvers if he wants them to get the ball down the field." And they said, "See that kid over there, he can’t run for anything. The kid over there is so awkward. I could do a better job than that."
Where do you see yourself in this picture I asked my client? "I would be in the stands," he said. "Yes, you would!" And in the stands all you can do is critique the guys on the field. You can’t get any coaching. And you can’t get any practice. You can’t learn any new techniques. And you can’t learn how to get stuff done. And you can’t find out if you have what it takes to step up. In the stands is a very safe place.
"How could you be more on the field?" I asked my client. We talked a long time about the role he could take in his own learning, for example. If, in fact, his teacher didn’t do a good job teaching something, what resources did he have? There were the other students in the class. There was going back to the teacher for extra help. There were internet tutors like Khan Academy. There were other adults already in his life—parents, former teachers, older siblings, for example. There was the library with supplemental books, text books, and study guides. There was the possibility of asking for a paid tutor. And there was bearing down and reading and re-reading the text book. In fact, sometimes teaching yourself is even better than being taught. All of these could put my client more on the field than in the stands, where he would feel more like a victim and an onlooker than a player.
The next time my client came to see me, when he started to tell me about something unjust that had happened. I asked him if he felt like he was in the stands, again. And he said, "I kind of wish you hadn’t told me that story."
Next time you feel like something has happened to you, try to think about what you can do to put yourself on the field. Because it is always better to feel like you can take action to overcome a problem than to feel like you are relegated to being a powerless critical observer.