The Hump as Teacher

It is what we have to get over. It means facing and overcoming an obstacle of some kind, usually involving some kind of action that feels uncomfortable or strenuous in some way. Often, it comes at the beginning of a project. “I just need to get over the hump of getting started, then I’ll be okay.”

The more important the project, the greater the amount of personal change and effort called for, the older the issues that make the hump what it is, the bigger it seems. In a previous post I mentioned the need to reach out — that’s just one example of getting over an initial hump. But there are so many others — paying the taxes, cleaning out the garage, writing the next chapter, filling out the application for the job. All humps, all changes from status quo and comfort zone. What a topic. I can hardly get started writing this — if you know what I mean!

The brain-based learning experts might say that such moments are best overcome by simply acting, doing something new and positive to build a sense of accomplishment and well-being, in turn reducing the size of the hump. Like runners sitting in the blocks, wondering if we can run the race negative feelings may wash over us. But when the gun goes off and we actually start running, our sense of strength begins to reappear as we take on the full motion of our bodies (and our spirits).


This would normally be the place for a bloggers list: Five ways to get moving, etc., etc. While such lists have their place, on this subject I tend to think that’s both too simple and too complex. The only choice is to go a little deeper. The challenge, it seems to me, if it is a real hump, is to return to its source, to see it pre-eminently as a teacher and guide, helping us negotiate an especially penetrating underlying fear that must be confronted in order to be overcome.

Having Value

I want to point to just one of these fears that can be a major hump for people in leadership roles of all kinds — it’s the fear called, “I have no value.” What’s particularly tricky about this one is that it hides so successfully in other guises, such as fear of failure or mistakes, lack of confidence, or fear of rejection; maybe fear of losing (or being a loser); maybe even fear of being too self-serving.

“I have no value” can be the master puppeteer pulling all of these strings. We might seem to cut the strings on one of the puppets only to find another quickly dancing our way.

I believe that this puppeteer is also sometimes (but not always) behind fears of repercussions and cynical responses at work. That master fear can be too hard to acknowledge, so we escape from the confrontation with the puppeteer by attacking each other. Workplace culture is full of the puppeteer projected onto others — bosses, employees, peers. If you reflect on situations of blame, especially mutual blame at work, you’ll often see the puppeteer in action in criticisms of others and negative beliefs about them.

Well, I’m mixing metaphors pretty badly here, but the hump we may feel as we get started on anything really important can be evidence of that inner puppeteer, questioning whether we bring value. Got it?

And if that is the case, then the inner work is to examine this notion of personal value directly, where we have it, how it is working in our lives, and what expectations of ourselves we are truly carrying. I don’t think this can be reduced to questions of self-esteem, per se. This is a deeper hole. It can’t be covered over with evidence to the contrary — that we have brought value here or there in our work or lives. That’s not the point. Rather, it’s a hole that’s meant to be there in the same way a well is. It’s actually a secret strength that those aware of this hole experience. We have to go down to find the water.

A Drink with a Friend

I was having a glass of wine with a friend of mine last week, a business owner who I greatly respect; someone who has the admiration of his employees and clients and whose business has been very successful in spite of the recession. He was recounting something that really struck me. “Have you noticed,” he asked me, “that sometimes when you genuinely compliment another person it brings them to tears? It can’t be just saying, ‘You’re a rock star.’ It has to be much more specific, something that others don’t see and maybe even the person doesn’t see.”

I’ve heard others talk about this moment. One, a professional therapist, saw it as touching a person’s birthright, meaning the thing that defines who he or she is, the thing parents may never have seen and pointed out to their child from the beginning. There are so many books on finding personal strengths and gifts now, it seems like evidence of a widespread yearning to find this core. My friend went on to say, “All that crap out there about giving people feedback, ‘naming two strengths or five strengths or whatever before naming a weakness’ — all that has done is create so much damage.” And knowing him, he was also not saying that every exchange should be a compliment, phoney or otherwise. He was simply saying that such behavioral rules are not the answer; that such moments can’t be faked as a tool to get what you want as a leader.

He’d learned and was continuing to learn, just like we all must learn, just like I am personally still learning what that value is. I mean, how could you truly notice this in others if you could not find it also in yourself? How could you notice it in yourself unless you had also noticed it in others? It’s a two-way street, one that ties us together as human beings, as enterprise communities. He went on to say, “When you notice it in others and tell them about it, you build trust with them.” And I would only add, when you see it in yourself, you also build trust with you. And trust — with others, with self, with the universe — does seem to be the way through.


So my bloggers list has only one point today: if you want to get past the hump, use it as a teacher. Like all great teachers, it’s likely to be there to help you find out something very good about yourself. Doubt that this is so speaks to how powerful we have been taught these fears are and how much control we’ve given them — until our own birthright shows up, until in a moment of truth we find the water and are brought to tears.

Technorati Tags: and blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.


  • Jaana Eubanks wrote:

    Dear Dan.

    I really enjoy your blog postings, you write with a very genuine and exceptional voice.

    Can I find you on Twitter perhaps?

    Thank you for sharing!


  • Thank you so much, Jaana. And you can find me on Twitter @DanOestreich. Best to you!

  • We all want to be seen – and appreciated – for who we really are. Or, at least _I_ do, and I often feel strong emotional stirrings whenever I am so seen … or when I see others being seen and appreciated for who they are … or appreciating themselves … which is why tears well up every time I watch the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life (including just now) … and why it will always be my favorite movie.

    Reading about holes, and water, and appreciation motivated me to go back and re-read Chapter 14 in one of my favorite books, This Raft of Self. And as I type these words a torrential rain has started pouring down outside. Much fodder for reflection … which I deeply appreciate.

  • And so it is: the ending of a great movie that can touch all of us. What a delight to add it to this post. Thank you, Joe! Here’s to appreciating you, a beautiful conversation at Ebey’s Landing, and Chapter 14…All the best..

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