The work and wisdom of Julio Olalla has been a significant influence in my work and life. Julio emigrated from Chile to the United States and worked with Fernando Flores, the founder of ontological coaching. In 1991 he founded the Newfield Network – a community of learners trying to make the world a better place through the understanding of human behavior – ontological coaching. I called my company, “Conversations,” because of something he said in our coaching class: “Any problem in an organization or relationship is directly related to a conversation not being held or one being held poorly.”
In my coach training with him in 2006, Julio introduced the concept of “Enemies of Learning,” some of the self-destructive behaviors and ways of being that sabotage our ability to learn. Two of them were:
- Gravity (Heaviness) – where you know something is important and joy leaves you
- Triviality (Lightness) – where nothing deserves to be taken seriously. Julio said, “True humor is the ability to laugh at yourself.”
When your Way of Being is consumed by either one of these, you aren’t open to new information because of the emotional state generated by each one. What’s interesting is that these two become a balanced way of navigating life. Taking thing seriously that are important but always having a touch of lightness in each situation. But just a touch.
We’re in a period where it seems that everyone is experiencing the heaviness of life – politically, economically, professionally, educationally, ecologically, and communally. We know there are important issues to resolve but find ourselves frustrated, angry, resentful, anxious, and resigned – emotional states that often don’t predispose us to productive action. So how about sprinkling a little “lightness” into our lives. I’m not suggesting that we don’t take anything seriously; I am suggesting that we can laugh at ourselves a little more.
In that spirit, I’d like to share a “golden oldie” – an essay I wrote for Julio’s class 14 years ago.
My Life as a Comedy April 26, 2006
Someone once asked me to talk about my life as comedy. Well, I’m from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a place where we take life very seriously. We’re serious about our food, our beliefs, our land… well, we’re just serious about everything.
My parents’ first apartment was above a pizza shop across from the church they grew up in and where my dad learned to play the pipe organ. My dad was the younger son of a prominent attorney in town. I remember as a little kid going to visit my grandfather and grandmother in their very serious house. Since they both died by the time I was six, my only memory of my grandfather was that he would greet us in his study in his pajamas, smoking a cigar, and give me 50 cents if I told him I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up. It was pretty serious. No comedy here. In fact, when he died, my father had to sell over 80 properties to pay off his serious gambling debts.
We moved to the house where I spent most of my childhood not long after that – into the only house that didn’t have to be sold. It was a row house in a working neighborhood. All the people were pretty serious. Mr. and Mrs. Steinhauser were our neighbors on one side. He was retired from the railroad where he was on permanent disability from having been struck by lightning. I don’t remember him ever saying much. On the other side were Mr. and Mrs. Freiler. My best memory of him is his serious sinus problem. We were awakened many mornings by Mr. Freiler clearing his sinus passages.
The neighborhood was serious, but the other 15 guys I grew up with figured out how to take some of the edge off seriousness. We were always in trouble and I was probably the biggest instigator. I remember once when I led a raid into the Franklin and Marhsall College athletic department. We snuck into the laundry room and stole some of the practice football jerseys. Then, when we had them, we put them on and went out and played football – on F&M’s athletic field (seriously)! It wasn’t long until the players walking by noticed what we were wearing and promptly removed our sporting apparel.
Junior high school was one of the more serious times in my life. It was here that I learned many important lessons in life. I learned that you shouldn’t go to your first boy-girl party and dance with a girl with a glass of Coke in your hand. It doesn’t do much good for your social life after you’ve spilled it on her new dress. I learned that you should never be the one to be in the act of throwing one of the girl’s gym clothes around the classroom in a game of keep-away as the teacher walks in the door. I learned that if you’re the one seen throwing paper out of the third floor window, you’ll be the one spending considerable amounts of time picking up trash on the school grounds. The administrators and teachers (and even some of the students) frowned on frivolity. But the most important thing I learned was the seriousness of extending one finger on your hand.
We were coming home on a bus from an away football game when I was in 7th grade. We had just won the last game of the year on the last play of the game to remain undefeated. There was a lot of ruckus – not nearly serious enough. And our assistant principal stood up and told us to sit down and behave. He was serious. Well, the other upper classmen engaged in a display of extending their right hands, palm towards their faces, and extending only the middle finger. I honestly didn’t know what this gesture meant, but since I wanted to be one of the guys, I did the same – just as the principal turned around. The only one standing up with his hand in this position was me. The principal glared at me in that serious way and told me to report to his office first thing the next morning. All the upperclassmen began to tell me that it would probably be a good idea if I didn’t come to school – ever again.
I went home and told my mom what I had done and she got very serious. I asked her what it meant and she told me at some point my father would tell me (he never did). But that I should call the principal immediately and apologize. I got up the nerve and called his home, to find he was entertaining guests and was upset that I had called him at home. The next morning, I went to school early and sat outside his door for what seemed like hours – a nervous wreck – trying to understand the seriousness of my actions. When he arrived, he brought me into the office and asked me if I knew what I had done. I said it was something bad, and I had asked my mom what it meant, but she wouldn’t tell me, so could he please tell me what it meant. He got this look on his face (I think he was trying to keep from exploding – it wouldn’t do for a principal to lose his seriousness). He said that if I had realized I did something wrong, that was enough punishment for now, and that my father would best be suited for telling me what it meant. I’m still not sure what the noise was coming out of the office as I left (laughter?!). But I eventually figured out what it meant.
High school and college were pretty serious times, too. Many of the same situations seemed to show up. I remember a wrestling match against Columbia High School. I was the heavyweight and we were losing by what I thought were five points. I knew that if I pinned my opponent, we would win the meet. This was very serious stuff. The honor of my school; the chance to be the hero. I could see myself being carried off the mat in the appreciative arms of my teammates.
I went into the locker room prior to my match and got psyched up by stretching and … pulling the towel holder out of the wall. Quickly, I went out into the gym and warmed up. My coach’s look of resignation when it was my turn to go out confused me. I told him I could win this thing for us. He looked at me somewhat confused. I ran onto the mat. (Now others were in attendance later told me that I roared like a lion as I ran out. The entire gym let loose with an “ooooh.” )
I pinned my opponent in the first period and jumped up in the air. When I walked off the mat, I saw my teammates and coach dejected. I asked them what was going on, and the coach said, “Geoff, we lost the meet. How can we be happy?” Now I never was too good at math, and I had mis-calculated the score prior to my match. We had been losing by 7 points, not 5. My pin meant we lost by 1 point. I never did find out what happened to that towel bar.
Similarly, in a baseball game where I was catching, we were playing in the semifinals of a tournament against a tough opponent. The pitcher was one of our non-starters and he had pitched a terrific game. My coach told me prior to the last inning that I should make sure to make a big deal out of the great job Denny had done in pitching when we won. He got the strike out that I thought would end the game, I ran out to the mound, and in my best Yogi Berra moment, lifted him off the ground and congratulated him. (I did notice that no one else on my team had moved from their positions and the there was no cheering from the crowd.) Denny looked down at me and said, “you idiot, there’s only two outs.”
My career started as a high school English teacher and wrestling coach. Serious business. Teaching the young minds of tomorrow. Our school board – serious men. Our superintendent and high school principal – serious men. As part of my moving into seriousness and assuming this heavy mantle, I decided that I wanted to create a school mascot. We were the Black Knights, but I liked the Phillie Phanatic more. So with help from my wife and a friend, I built the Hempfield Phanatic suit and dressed up in the suit for all football games. It was pretty amazing. But this was also about the time that I had applied to become the department chair of the English Department. I had taken all my serious classes and had become very chair-like. But in my interviews, one theme kept emerging from other leaders. How could a person who acted like a buffoon be serious enough to be a department chair? This was the message coming from those who also were interested in the job. So I went to my final interview in my Phanatic suit and got the job. It also helped that I was the only one who had done the required course work to get the necessary certification.
Of course teaching was a great experience. One day, I was teaching the works of Mark Twain and we got into a discussion about Huckleberry Finn. I kept referring to Huck Finn. When all of a sudden, I had an accidental transposition of the initial letters of each word and came up with a rather embarrassing name. As my class dissolved in laughter, I maintained the proper serious shade of red and never – ever referred to that character as Huck again. From then on, it was Huckleberry.
My family life has been very serious, too. You know, I am from Lancaster, Pennsylvania and we’re serious here. My wife was the girl who sat in front of me in home room. After three years, I noticed her and asked her on a date. I saved my lunch money for a month to take her on our first date to a Temptations concert at F&M. The day before the concert, it was cancelled, so we ended up going to friend’s house who threw an impromptu party. I went to pick up Sally at her house and was met by her father, who had lost a leg in World War II. He met me at the door on crutches, with his leg off, leaning against the fireplace. I had happened to break my nose at wrestling practice that day and had two black eyes and a taped nose. I’m pretty sure our faces shared the same reaction.
We’ve had two sons, who we’ve raised in a very serious way. I can tell you this with all seriousness through a story from the dinner table. I don’t remember what the exact situation was, but we were talking about something serious. I was trying to emphasize a point that would be one of those serious, defining moments that we’re so good at in our part of the country. I noticed the boys had smiles on their faces and were starting to laugh. I became furious and told them, “this isn’t funny.” Well, that about it did it. The whole family exploded into hysterical laughter. To this day, whenever someone says, “this isn’t funny.” We all laugh. So much for my seriousness.
I left my teaching career and spent 7 years working for a corporation overseas, building a company that used technology to help train large populations. The chairman went to jail. I worked for 6 years with school boards who many times were trying to figure out how to kill each other.
Now I’m a coach and business planner. I became a LEGO Serious Play facilitator to enhance what I do. Sometimes I use LEGOs to help people talk to each other more easily. And some people find that amusing. There’s a reason they call it “serious play.” No fun or lightness here. Its serious business.
So here I am, 56 years old, and being asked to write a piece, entitled, “My Life As Comedy.” My wife is outside doing the yard work and occasionally glaring in the window while I try to think about anything that could possibly be comedic in my life. I drive a good, solid 1997 Buick with 190,000 miles on it. I play the tuba for fun and can sometimes be found in leiderhosen in a German Band. I’m doing the two-step behind closed curtains in my family room. How could anyone find comedy in this life? After all, I’m from Lancaster, Pennsylvania and we’re very serious here.
I’m now nearly 70 years old and seem to have lost some of the “lightness” of my younger days. Dusting off this essay reminded me of how important it is to carry this in our lives. I need to laugh more (and I think my wife would agree).
I hope you’re able to balance the seriousness of the events in your life and leadership, knowing what truly is important, with the lightness that can make life and work more enjoyable and spread enthusiasm, curiosity, and peace throughout your organizations, communities, and families.
© Geoff Davis, 11/29/19