Dr. Anthony Paustian is the provost for Des Moines Area Community College in West Des Moines and the author of "Beware the Purple People Eaters: A personal look at leadership."
After his college wrestling career ended, my uncle, Terry Paustian, became a high school teacher and coached wrestling for 17 years. Two-years after what he thought was the end of his coaching career, the high school athletic director asked if he would consider becoming the coach for the boys' golf team, a decision that was likely driven by desperation (the previous coach had suddenly resigned).
My uncle wasn’t a golfer. He knew very little about the sport, and he had a wrestler’s mentality––a mindset which is 180 degrees different from those who golf. Reluctantly, he accepted the position.
After selecting the team following tryouts (which he did by simply selecting the 16 players with the best scores), Terry began to watch and observe them during practice. He could tell that many of the players had already established their games through private coaching and the help of others far more qualified. That was a good thing; he didn’t feel he had anything of “real value” to teach them that would improve their swing or putt.
But through simple observation, he came to the realization that golf is a mental game as much as it is a physical one, and his sole job as coach was to teach these kids to keep their minds out of the way of their performance. He decided to apply some of the same psychological techniques he had once used with his wrestlers.
As the team prepared to play for the conference championship––an event the school had not won in over a decade––Terry could see they were all quite nervous. When they stood up and grabbed their clubs to exit the bus, he yelled, “Hey! Who told you to get out? Sit down!” The boys immediately sat. He then reminded them that the school had not won this event in a very long time, but he knew why.
My uncle paused, and said, “In the past, this team has been in it to win right up to the last few holes, and then everyone’s game starts to slide. It’s not that anyone lacked the talent or desire to win. Your bodies just started giving out after 15 holes. What you need,” he paused again for dramatic effect, “…is potassium! It will lift you up, and I guarantee you will play great for the last three holes.” He held up a bunch of bananas, began tossing them at each player, and said, “Bananas, full of potassium and natural steroids; you won’t believe how this works. Trust me!”
Throughout the match he continued to toss bananas to his players. Before his golfers began teeing off on the 16th hole, Terry looked at them and said, “Banana.” They would look at him and nod.
The boys’ golf team won the conference championship. They finished undefeated in duals. They won three additional tournaments and the district match. But they only finished second at state. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that my uncle forgot the bananas for that particular meet.
Sticky Thinking (or creativity) is frequently the result of a question, in this case the question of how to best coach. By sticking with an approach used to help his wrestlers with the need to distract his golfers, my uncle was able to help his team overcome a huge psychological barrier to success––themselves.
A simple question led to the sticky thinking behind the invention of the Polaroid camera, after a 3-year-old girl asked to see a photo of her that had just been taken. A simple question also led a group of watermelon farmers in Zentsuji, Japan, to come up with a more efficient way to ship and store them––the creation of the square watermelon.
Let’s get sticky and start asking questions. Here are a few to get you started:
- What would the company look like that had the ability to put me out of business?
- What words would I use to describe myself? What words would others use?
- If I wasn’t already doing this, what field would I go into today?
- What do people really care about today?
- Is there a better way of doing this?
- What if I were to challenge all of the assumptions in this field (or business) and do something that sounds truly crazy?
Practice Challenge: A key to sticky thinking is the natural ability to continually ask questions. Like a little kid to an adult, ask again and again. Question the why or what behind everything. Practice makes permanent.
©2014 Anthony D. Paustian