Learning from Life and Leadership

Who is Watching You? Three Observations about Invisible Influence

my karategiSometimes you do what appears to be foolish, and it helps someone else. It is the principle of invisible influence.
Invisible influence means people are watching you and you affect them, even though you are unaware of their notice. You see someone pick up trash and you bend over to pick up the next candy wrapper on the ground. It is an example of invisible influence.
I learned about how influence is both potent and, many times, invisible.
In 2000, as a 45-year-old with one kid in college and another in high school, I had an insane idea. I wanted to learn karate. (Don’t laugh too hard!) I went down and enrolled at my local karate school.
At my first class, I discovered the next oldest person in the class was a 15-year-old girl. Everyone else was between 9 and 15. I started wondering if I had lost my mind.
But I persevered. I learned poses, sidekicks, and high kicks. I did the warmup exercises (with much less agility than my younger counterparts). Once, an instructor wanted me to do a front flip. I told him I was never good at being a pretzel, even when I was young. He decided I needed to do it anyway.
I threw my head down, and he pushed my backside. I flipped but felt a rib pop. I wanted to say, “I told you so.”
I moved through various belts. I had a white belt, a yellow belt, and an orange belt. It was going well.
Then, a new job in a different town drew me away. It was the end of my brilliant karate career.
During my short stint at karate, parents brought their children to the class. Most read books or did something else while waiting. One man came each Tuesday night.
He seemed oblivious to the class. The truth is he was watching.
My last week in karate, he joined the class. We spoke briefly. He told me, “I watched you and knew I could do it too. I needed to spend more time with my son. You gave me the courage to join, and I am now going to learn karate with him.”
To say I was surprised is an understatement. My only goal was to learn a little karate and satisfy my yen to do something different. In the end, I pulled someone else in the same direction.
From a much older vantage point, I reflect on that brief period and its outcome. I realize three things happen when we do anything.
First, people are watching. I imagine plenty of people would line up to watch a middle age man make a fool of himself, but that’s my self-consciousness talking. People are watching. They cannot help but see the actions of others. Nothing we do hides from view. (Just watch your children. They will mirror everything you do.)
Second, people are evaluating themselves while they are watching. The man at the karate class was taking stock of whether he would do it or not. It was never in his thinking until he had someone like him do something strange. Then, he did not judge me (and my utter lack of competence), but he confronted himself. Can I do it? Should I do it? Why not?
Third, people are making up their minds while they are watching. My karate class lasted four months. He was there on my first night, but it took four months for him to get the courage to don a black karategi (the formal name for the uniform). He had to overcome his own self-consciousness and get his courage up. He had to watch many times to a peer do something before he could decide to do so himself.
The way to influence people is to hang in there and keep going. It will take some time for them to decide.
It is a sobering thought to think that people watch me and make up their minds based on what they see me do. It makes me more careful. It also forces me to be more humble.
I will never know how long my friend stayed with karate. All I know is by taking a terrible risk (one that puzzled and amused my wife) did he start. When one person goes first, another dares to try.
What are you doing in your life that bears the marks of invisible influence?

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