Perception vs. Reality: Why you’re not “you” all the time

glassesA couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I’m continuing to work my way through it, and I’m still finding it enjoyable and thought provoking. So much so, that I’m going to share an insight that struck me yesterday as I was reading.

But first, what are some words you’d use to describe your character?

Honest? Driven? Insecure? Kind? Shy? Driven? Loving? 

When I look at myself, I tend to categorize myself uniformly. E.g. “I’m a processor, rather than a decisive leader”. Ask my wife, my siblings or some of my close friends, and they’ll tell you that I indeed require a fair amount of time to process information, and come to a decision, especially if it involves other people’s emotions.

However, if you were to ask some of the volunteers at our children’s ministry, they would likely say that I’m more decisive. Many of the decisions they see me make happen in a short period of time, and they don’t see me take in as much input, so their take on my leadership style is that it is more decisive. In fact, some co-workers have laughed at how what they hear about my leadership often seems incongruous with what they see in smaller, less time-restrained meetings.For years, I’ve viewed situations like this through the lens of “what I’m really like” versus “people’s perception of me”. I’ve believed that I function in one specific way, and that those who see me otherwise have simply had their view obscured.

However I was struck by an anecdote from The Tipping Point. Gladwell uses the work of researchers who put observed different groups of kids taking tests with the opportunity given to cheat. They observed that kids didn’t neatly fall in categories of “honest” and “dishonest”. Instead, they found that kids choices varied based upon circumstances such as the kids surrounding them, the instructions given, or the place that the tests were carried out. They discovered that kids demonstrated different character traits based upon surroundings, meaning that it was nearly impossible to define kids character outside of their circumstances. He sums up his lesson like this:

Character, then, isn’t what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be. It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits…Character is more like a bundle of habits, and tendencies, and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. (163)

OK, so how does this relate to children’s ministry? As I thought about, a few things struck me.

I need to be intentional about the circumstances I create

I know that different circumstances cause me to behave different ways. I need to be intentional about the environment I create for myself at work, just like at home. For me, this means a reliance on “to-do” lists, it means making notes of what I want to express before a difficult phone call, it means a few minutes of quiet and prayer before Awana or Sunday mornings. I know that these steps bring out the character traits I need, so I should be intentional about them.

The kids we minister to don’t fit into blanket categories (neither do the adults)

It’s so easy to categorize people as “good”, “smart”, “selfish”, etc. When we do this too readily, especially with students, we open ourselves to the possibility of misjudging the actions we see and the intentions behind them. We should be aware that even our best (or most difficult) students are capable of surprising behavior based upon different stimuli.

It’s worth the time to ask “why”

Why is a student surprisingly misbehaving? Why is a volunteer suddenly uninterested and disconnected? Why are your older kids grouped into new friendships? Oftentimes the answer is obvious, but it’s always worth really investigating. When the people you work with start acting in ways you don’t expect, it’s probably not that they have changed, it’s probably because their response has changed to new factors. Figuring out what’s changed in their surroundings may help you better approach the new behavior that you are facing.

So, what about you? Do you have any tips for dealing with behaviors that seem “out of the blue?” Please share!

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