Storytelling at Work
April 08, 2018
The Fence to Nowhere


"Good fences make good neighbors," wrote the poet, Robert Frost, 63 years ago -- a now iconic poetic meme that looks at both sides of the human condition from two very different perspectives. Yes, it's true -- fences do make good neighbors. But not always. Sometimes, fences do other things -- like make good catalysts to help people understand the distinctions between selfless service, non-attachment, and idiocy.

The year? 1977. The place? Kissimmee, Florida. The occasion? A week-long, outdoor festival of spiritual seekers wanting to experience love. And I was one of them, having traveled 32 hours from Colorado for the chance to listen, learn, and be of service -- my chance to "give back" in response to the extraordinary gift I had been given six years earlier by the man whom all of us had traveled such long distances to see.

And so, when I arrived, after setting up my tent, I plopped myself down in the "service pool" and waited to be assigned to whatever project that needed to be done that day.

I sat there for an hour, doing my best to meditate, and staying open to the feeling that whatever was coming my way was going to be perfect. Though I was still relatively new to the so-called spiritual path, I understood that selfless service was a big piece of the puzzle. And though I had lots of skills to offer, I knew that, somehow, someway, whatever project I would be assigned to that day was going to be the perfect gig for me.

Mitch book.png

A few minutes later, someone with an air of authority, points in my direction, beckons me forward, and explains that I am now part of the fence building crew

"Hmmm... fence building," I think to myself, "not one of my strengths" -- my most successful construction project, up to that time, being a letter holder I made for my mother in 7th grade.

The walk across the festival grounds to meet the fence building coordinator was delightful. The sun was shining. The sky was blue. And I waved at lots of smiling people. When I arrived, the man in charge was all business -- focused, earnest, and glad to see one more able-bodied member of his crew.

To my left, I noticed a pile of fence posts -- a pile, that even I could tell, was not nearly enough to extend across the massive field we were supposed to build a fence across.

While my "coordinator" scurried about, giving each newly arriving volunteer their instructions, I keep staring at the pile of fence posts. True, I was not a carpenter. And true, I had never built a fence across a field in Florida, but only an idiot could possibly believe there were enough fence posts on that pile for us to accomplish the goal.

Ah... my first existential question of the day -- what to do with my profound insight? What do I say? One option I had, of course, was to say nothing -- to simply go with the flow and be a good soldier. Another option was to exit stage right and return to the service pool -- hoping to be assigned to a different project with a better chance of success.

That's when I remembered a single bit of advice I heard my teacher say just a few years before -- that if I ever saw anyone about to step into a hole and said nothing, it was MY fault, not theirs. Bingo! My task was suddenly clear. All I had to do was approach the earnest, young fence-building coordinator and inform him, that based on my calculations, we were all about to step into a very big hole -- that, simply put, there weren't enough fence posts to build a fence across the field. Case closed.

My input, shall we say, was not well-received. With a blank expression on his face, the earnest, young, fence-building coordinator handed me a post-hole digger and gave me my marching orders for the day.

I paused. The moment of truth was now upon me. Do I begin working on a project I knew, from the outset, was doomed? Or do I just let go, trust the process, and see what happens. Besides, I thought to myself, there was always a chance that I didn't have ALL the information I needed to make a wise choice. Maybe a new supply of fence posts was going to be delivered later that day. Or maybe another crew of fence builders, from the opposite side of the field, were going to meet us half way. Or maybe, just maybe, my fence post calculations were seriously flawed.

And so I began.

It felt good to be digging holes in the ground. Good to sweat. Good to let go of the self-talk in my head. But even as I grunted and groaned, in the back of my mind, I knew that our chances of success were highly questionable.

The project went on for three days. From morning to night. In good weather and bad. Six of us dug. Six of us carried. Six of us stuck fence posts in the ground. No new fence posts arrived. No extra crew of fence builders magically appeared to meet us half way. The field did not get any smaller.

On the third day, when we ran out of materials, the six of us -- dirty, sweaty, and exhausted, simply stepped back and stared at the fence. As I predicted, it extended only halfway across the field, a kind of Andy Goldsworthy installation -- a bit of performance art that would have made a Zen master chuckle.

Two hours later, when the festival officially began, I witnessed hundreds of people, approaching from a distance. The fence had absolutely no effect on them. They noticed, of course, that they were approaching what appeared to be a fence, but since it only extended halfway into the field, they simply walked around it. It kept no one out. It kept no one in. It served absolutely no function at all. Except for me, that is -- a function that had something to do with what it really means to serve... what it really means to enjoy the experience of service... and what it really means to let go of all attachment to results.

If you like this one, here's another

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at April 8, 2018 12:47 PM

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Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling for the Revolution is Mitch Ditkoff's newly published book about the power of personal storytelling to elevate the conversation on planet Earth. Provocative. Evocative. And fun. YOU have stories to tell. This book will help you tell them.
Storytelling at Work
"The world is not made of atoms," wrote the poet, Muriel Rukeyser. "It's made of stories." Learn how to discover, honor, and unpack the stories of yours that show up "on the job" in Mitch Ditkoff's award-winning 2015 book, Storytelling at Work.
Do you want to know more about the book before buying it? Click here for Mitch's response to frequently asked questions about Storytelling at Work – the perfect book for people who think they have no time to read.
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Storytelling is an "unconscious competency" – an ability we all have that all too often remains inaccessible to us. Enter the Storytelling at Work workshop – a simple way to activate this powerful, innate skill.
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Want to establish a culture of storytelling in your organization or community? Looking for a simple way to help people to share their meaningful, memorable stories with each other? Here's how.
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Click here to view and listen to a series of interviews with the author of this blog. Go beyond the written word. Listen. Feel. Elevate the conversation. Understand what the big deal is about personal storytelling.
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If you like this blog, you might also like Mitch's other two blogs: The Heart of Innovation and The Heart of the Matter. Mitch is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.
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When Mitch isn't writing, he's captaining the good ship Idea Champions, a leading edge innovation consulting and training company based in Woodstock, NY. What their clients say.