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Among the great stories and life lessons in The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander is this:
Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws. The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology.
When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?” “Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister. “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so g—damn seriously.’” “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?” “There aren’t any.”
Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, and has been since its formation in 1979. He frequently gives talks on leadership and opening up to possibilities. When he told this story to a group of corporate executives, he learned later that the company’s leader installed a sign at every manager’s desk in the company that simply said: Remember Rule 6. Zander writes: “The president then informed me that a similar plaque now stood on the desks of every manager in the company, with the inscription facing both ways. He said that the climate of cooperation and collegiality that had resulted from this one simple act had transformed the corporate culture.”
I’m a big fan of humor in the workplace. If we’re not having fun (most of the time), it’s our own fault. Sure, the work can be difficult, challenging, even tedious. But fun is well within our control, and it provides a break that makes us more effective and more likely to stay on the job.
The key to success is to take the work seriously, but not to take yourself seriously.
Zander says: “Humor can bring us together around our inescapable foibles, confusions, and miscommunications, and especially over the ways in which we find ourselves acting entitled and demanding, or putting other people down, or flying at each other’s throats.”
Being serious is a survival tool; it helps us focus and helps signal our intentions and our status to other people in the room (who may be a threat.) But being deadly serious also signals that the work, the conversation, or the moment itself, is Hard. HARD, in capital letters. Humor signals that the work is manageable and that you still have personal bandwidth available. You still have oxygen left in your system. Your ease signals to the rest of the team that we will be all right; we’ll get through this together. Everyone can take a breath. They’ll have to, in fact, to laugh.
Here’s a note Zander received from a young woman in his youth orchestra:
[During rehearsal for a very difficult piece] “I know that I was mentally exhausted, and we all kept missing notes and entrances. “Take it straight through the second movement,” you said to us, “and NO MISTAKES.” I don’t know about anyone else, but all my muscles tensed, and I wanted nothing more than to run away and crawl into a hole. You must have sensed this, because you thought a moment and then said, “If you make a mistake . . . a five-hundred-pound cow will fall on your head.” Partly from the image, and partly from the complete surprise of hearing that word out of your mouth, we all began to laugh, and everything was better, including the Bartok. I don’t think anything could have relaxed or empowered me more at that moment than the word “cow.”
I agree – the word cow is inherently hilarious. I resolve to use it more often.
When the work gets heavy, lighten up. Remember Rule 6.