Neurons over Knuckles

March 07, 2022

The events of the past few weeks have reminded me that I have been a lifelong fan of neurons over knuckles. 

I only got into a fight once.

In 5th grade, a fellow classmate, Tim, taunted me. 

My father left in October of that year and, Tim sensing something was wrong, started teasing me.

This went on for months. 

“You’re a sissy”

“You’re fat”

“You think you’re smart, but you’re really stupid”

It wasn’t sophisticated – we were fifth graders after all – but it was successful.

One day I snapped. 

It was January of 1977, four months after my father left, and we were in the schoolyard selecting kickball teams. 

Tim said no one should chose me. 

Why that particular ridicule rocked me hard, I cannot tell you. 

It was not his worst.

Yet, I turned around and beat Tim to a pulp. I gave him not one, but two black eyes.

Tim got the knuckle-end of my anger not just at him, but at my father, myself, and anything else I could think of. 

And while the fight earned me new respect in the schoolyard, I felt even worse about myself than I had before. I did not like knowing I was capable of that kind of anger.

The cliche about moments like this is you”see red.” 

More accurately, I would say that I felt *justified.* Tim had teased me. He had started it. So, with that, I was justified to do whatever I wanted in response – to return his words with fists. 

In next week’s newsletter, I’m going to talk about the theme of the April meetings, which is “Positive Politics” – how to play politics in a positive way that improves your company, your customer experience, and the world of you and your colleagues. 

A fundamental tenet of positive politics is not reacting to real or perceived negativity from your colleagues – to not feel justified to retaliate (or simply stick your head in your plans).

It is so easy to call up justification for being angry or seeing ill intent from your colleagues. 

Despite Tim’s teasing, he did not deserve my fury about my father, or about my self-hatred.

Neurons aren’t just about intellect or knowledge. Our brains are also the seat of our emotions – emotions like anger and emotions like love.

I spend a lot of time with members helping them see that it’s understandable that they are angry – to allow them to be angry – but then to work to do something positive.

I know in the midst of war and bitter partisan divisions in our own country, positive politics may sound naive or pollyannaish. 

It’s not. I assure you.

While I have not used my knuckles since January of 1977, I have learned that there are other kinds of toughness – including, and especially, the toughness you need to lead with love.


P.S. Today is my mom’s birthday – “Chic” to her friends and family.

She died 10 years ago, but my sister is flying in from LA right now so we can celebrate our mother tonight (photo of the three of us in the San Fernando Valley in 1977 below – gotta love those tube socks!). 

Longtime readers know it was Chic who taught me how asking for help builds connection and community, deepens our love for each other, despite our differences (or maybe even because of them), and warms our lonely hearts. 

Happy birthday, ma! 

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About the Author

Phyl Terry

Phyl Terry, Founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, Inc., launched the company’s flagship leadership program – The Councils – in 2002 with a fellow group of Internet pioneers from Amazon, Google, and others. Thousands of leaders from the Internet world have come together in the last 15 years to learn the art of asking for help and to support each other to build better, more customer-centric products, services, and companies.

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