The milk normally goes on the left side of the fridge where the shelf heights have been adjusted to accommodate the taller sizes of containers. This past week I had inadvertently opened the right side of the fridge and was trying to shove the milk onto a shelf that was only half the height I needed. Imagine my surprise when the front half of the upper shelf gently slid backward fitting perfectly under the back half of itself.
How was it possible that after using this fridge for almost four years, I had no idea this shelf had a dual function? I had assumed, that the way I had been using the fridge was the only way it could be used. I had never looked at it closely enough to notice any other possibilities.
It made me ponder how often I do this with other things. More importantly, how often do I do this with people. Especially people I think I know well. How often do I assume that the things I have always known about them are the only things there are to know? That the skills and talents I believe they have, are the only skills and talents they really have.
My teacher days were spent in a country school where the students arrived in kindergarten and left after they graduated from grade nine. I recall having conversations with many of these students while they were in their early teen years. They were trying to make changes in themselves but they couldn’t seem to shake whatever image the others were holding about them. The other students, and sometimes we teachers, continued to see them in the same way we had always seen them.
It shouldn’t have surprised any of us that often the very quietest students, those who never tried to steal the spotlight at our school, became well respected leaders in a new setting. And sometimes students who had been willing to settle for second string on one of the teams, became a shining star on the basketball or volleyball team. I remember one boy, who never, ever drew attention to himself, who went on to be a varsity track runner. Each of these students, had a hidden shelf. Each of them kept it out of sight until the moment it was either needed, or someone pushed up against it enough for it to be revealed.
Humans have a wonderful capacity to see patterns and to organize data. It gives us comfort to categorize things and people, putting each neatly on just the right sized shelf in the fridge. There is a danger in doing this. Once we make our quick assessment and get the fridge closed, we stop noticing other possible ways we could have catalogued the qualities of the people in our lives. And even more concerning is that sometime when we use one label for a person, it comes with a lot of fine print that may or may not accurately describe them.
What a shame.
No one is all or nothing. No one is a complete free spirit. No one is void of creativity. No one loves being included in every single thing, every single time. No one likes being left home alone, excluded from every single thing every single time.
Each of us is complex. Each of us has hidden shelves, tiny gems, that are often only revealed when others get an unexpected glimpse of us in an unexpected way. The trick to revealing these shelves is twofold.
Part one asks that we become more curious and open minded about each other. It requires that we suspend our assumptions about others for a bit in the hope they will be comfortable enough to show us a new shelf they have been waiting to reveal. When I work with clients who mention some new idea or interest they would like to pursue, it shocks me that often they are completely prepared for their idea. They have a manuscript written, they have a travel brochure in a drawer and a trip planned, or they already know how to play the instrument they are talking about. They just needed someone to gently nudge the shelf.
This of course leads to part two of revelations. We ourselves need to be willing to take the risk to reveal the hidden gem parts of ourselves to others. What a terrible waste it would be for us to come to the end of our lives knowing we had talents and dreams and contributions we chose not to reveal.
We live in a strange time; a time of needing to declare our ‘tribe’. Unfortunately, by doing so we also often declare our allegiance to every single thing that tribe represents and it is easy for us to forget to show up as unique interesting, complex beings. Similarly, by ignoring these same possibilities in other we miss out on some of their incredible gifts.
My inquiry for you this week is, ‘What shelf will I slide?’
Elizabeth is a certified, professional Life and Leadership Coach, and the owner of Critchley Coaching. She is also the founder and president of the Canadian charity, RDL Building Hope Society. She works with corporations, non-profits and the public sector, providing leadership and personal coaching for individuals and teams. She creates and facilitates custom workshops for all sizes of groups. Contact Elizabeth and allow her to help you slide back one of your hidden shelves.