Catching Flies with Chopsticks

I ran across a leadership quote that I'd say was a little atypical as leadership quotes go.

It got my attention because it was from one of my favorite movies of all time: The Karate Kid.

No, not the remake. The can't-be-copied-original from 1984. The one with Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi and Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso.

I absolutely loved this movie because it was about a kid like me, who got pushed around by the more athletic - and blond - big shot of a bully. But one who, with hard-work and perseverance, overcame his limitations and came out on top.

Seeing that movie was the first time I believed nice guys can finish first!

I'll never forget the overwhelming feeling of joy the end of the movie brought me. We hear the song lyrics to "You're the Best Around," by Joe Esposito, underscoring the montage of the final tournament. We watch Daniel land one karate kick after another on his way to the championship round. And in his final moments, injury and all, he delivers the final bully-defeating kick that makes him...well...the Karate Kid!

You're the best!
Nothing's gonna ever keep you down

So many recognizable quotes came from that movie. You may recall, and might even be able to hear Mr. Miyagi say in your head, "Wax on, wax off." Or "Up. Down." Or perhaps you recall, "Sweep the Leg." And the classic, "No Mercy."

But the quote I would like to discuss today is:

"Man who catch fly with chopstick, accomplish anything."

That's deep, right? But what does it mean?

I really pondered this one - many thoughts circled my brain like a fly buzzing around my living room.

First, it occurred to me that this quote speaks to many of the traits that are so necessary for success in leadership and in life.

Focus. Precision. Determination. Patience.

But the harsh reality of our situation is that catching a fly with a chopstick is just damn near impossible. Despite how focused, precise, determined, or patient you are. What were you thinking, Mr. Miyagi!?

As I pondered further, something else hit me. No, not the fly - an idea!

I felt a surge of energy because in that moment I was sure I had discovered the truth of what Mr. Miyagi was saying.

It isn't about catching a fly with chopsticks. No! Instead, it is all about the journey on the way to catching the fly.

Think about it.

When we take on a challenge beyond our means, we are almost guaranteed to gain something unexpected along the way. It may never be the exact thing we were after, but could be new skills and insights that weren't there before.

Let's call it Collateral Learning. 

Catching the fly doesn't matter. But trying to catch the fly does.

This one time, I tried to "catch a fly"

It was a few years ago. A time when I had just left the warm and safe surroundings of a mid-sized company - where I had basically grown up and come into my own as an HR professional - to take the top HR spot for a small, family- and locally-owned business.

This company had just come back from the brink of extinction under new ownership. The new leadership team was looking for a dynamic, energetic, go-getter to lead their HR department and help make that company great again. They wanted me!

Throughout the interviews, it was all rainbows and roses...of always is. And I was excited to join this wonderful organization and be part of its future success.

However, it wasn't long after I walked through the front doors that I saw the rainbows and roses disappear. Poof.

The reality of my situation became clear. First, the HR department was in complete disarray. Next, the employees worked in silent compliance. Third, the leadership wasn't aligned, nor interested in change.

This was my new normal and it was going to be hard.

I decided I was up for the challenge. I was going to fix it. I was going to catch a fly with chopsticks.

Long story short: I didn't.

As hard as I tried to change the culture - and trust me, by the end, I had pulled out all the stops and there were no tricks left in my bag - I just couldn't.

What I learned

I won't go into the details of what I tried, or what specific challenges I faced. Instead, I'll share the top things I gained from the experience.

  • Courage and grit
  • Pragmatism
  • Adaptability
  • Influence
  • New knowledge and skills in my field

And, finally, I learned that while I couldn't change things overall, I helped a few people. I only know this because of the stories those individuals shared with me on how my contributions impacted them personally. So, like the parable of the starfish on the beach - while I couldn't help them all, I was able to make a difference to a few. Maybe one. Maybe two.

If you've seen The Karate Kid, you know that Daniel did eventually catch a fly with chopsticks. It is possible.

In reality, though, we know not everyone can do that.

Instead, I now believe that on the journey toward the impossible, we acquire wisdom and strength. And that's what makes the effort worthwhile.

With that said, get out there and catch a fly...with chopsticks!

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