In People Stuff

For many years my great-grandparents had a Franklin cook stove. The original “heavy metal”, it provided heat for the kitchen and for cooking their meals. There was nothing modern about it. No insulation or digital controls. Fueled by wood, coal or, when times were hard, corn cobs from their Iowa fields, when it got hot the entire stove got hot.

So how to teach the little ones not to touch it?

My Great-Grandpa Thompson had a memorable way of doing that. He’d put a penny on the stove and let it warm up. Not glowing orange where it would peel the skin off your finger, but hot enough to send a red alert signal to your brain. He’d then call all the little ones into the kitchen.

“See that penny there? If you can pick it up you can have it.”

While no youngster today would believe it, there was a time when a penny would buy you a substantial piece of candy.

Inevitably one of the small ones, driven by the dream of a sugar buzz, would pick it up.

And drop it just as quick.


“Hot, isn’t it? Don’t want to do that, do you?”


“If you see a quarter there, you gonna pick it up?” 

“No, Grandpa!”

The kid who picked it up was smart. He learned from his experience.

The kids who watched him pick it up were wise. They learned from the experience of someone else.

I daily remind my students they can skip smart and go straight to wise if they will simply learn from the experience of others. We can avoid pain and mistakes, find quicker paths to success, and increase our knowledge simply by listening and learning from others.

Sounds easy enough. Why then do so many of us insist on being smart when we could be wise?

It’s called an unteachable spirit. A form of pride, it’s an arrogance that refuses to acknowledge we could learn from another. Whether not asking for directions, a stubborn refusal to listen to a teacher, or failing to pick the brain of a business person who’s where you we’d like to be in 5 years, it’s all an unteachable spirit.

We are all born with an “I know better” nature. If you think that’s not true, try parenting a toddler for a day. If Moms and Dads had a dollar for every moment they had to redirect their children between birth and 18 years, we’d all be zillionaires. There’s something in us that pounds, screams and demands our own way.

What’s inside us that prevents us from being teachable? Pride for certain. More than an attitude of “I know better”, it’s also a quiet arrogance that believes there are individuals and/or groups of people we couldn’t possibly learn from. For example, what is there to learn from someone 180 degrees apart from our political persuasion? In today’s post-modern “facts are irrelevant, feelings are everything” environment, we’ve done away with productive debate in favor of safe spaces; be it a room for snowflakes on a college campus or behind the anonymous wall of a computer. Or, as my friend Dr. David Long described the current problematic zeitgeist, an attitude of “I’m right. The other side is dumb.”

When I summon the courage to ruthlessly inventory my thoughts and actions, it’s not hard to find the areas where I’ve chosen to be unteachable. The more I am convinced I’m right about an issue, the less willing I am to hear a different opinion.

My friend Dr. Mike Yoder and I share a deep love for all things rural and agricultural. I’m pretty certain he smiles the same way I do at the “pop pop” sound of an old school 2-cylinder John Deere 520 tractor in the field. Politically, we are miles apart. When either of us post an article for discussion on Facebook, it’s most always point/counter-point.

When I’m smart, I offer my convictions. All my pithy and punchy thoughts in the rectangle response window. When I’m wise, I put my “I know best” attitude in my pocket and use Dr. Yoder’s viewpoint for my good. His experience is different than mine, which is to say he has seen things I haven’t. He’s met and interacted with people I haven’t. So it follows there are things I can learn from him. That includes asking myself hard questions like, “Do I have a blind spot in this area?” and “Have I read and studied enough to back up my opinion?” and the grit my teeth, make myself look in the mirror question, “Is it possible I could be wrong about this?”

Proverbs 27:17 says “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Notice it doesn’t say anything about winning. Or even being convincing. My friend Dr. Yoder and I see the world differently. That will likely never change.

What should change is me. After listening to my friend, is there a finer point on my pencil? After debating with my friend, has the process encouraged me to think more deeply and critically? After hearing my friend’s convictions and opinions, am I more educated on the topic?

Am I sharper?

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”  – Proverbs 27:17  

Todd A. Thompson – One Eye Out

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