Canoe Talk 2 – The Wonder of Witnessing Others in Wonder

Canoe Talks is a video series of unconventional wisdom in an unconventional setting designed for mindful change-makers – entrepreneurs, creatives, leaders, business owners, and professionals.

Strategist, teacher, and author of TRACKING WONDER Jeffrey Davis responds personally to questions raised by a reader and Tracking Wonder Community member.

In this Canoe Talk, I respond to two community members and Tracking Wonder Inner Circle MasterMinders‘ inquiries together. Barb Suarez has asked if I would read a poem and comment on it. And Bethany Hegedus asked, “How does being a poet and writing poetry inform my deliverables, my client deliverables, and what we do at Tracking Wonder?” Bethany also asked, “How does it feel to see, to witness our clients incited with wonder, and then as a consequence, have an exponential impact?”

I think all three of these questions are interrelated. So I to start by reading a poem “A Series of Small Wonders” from my collection, Coat Thief. It reflects upon all of these inquiries even the one about what I do at Tracking Wonder as a consultant, a strategist, speaker, and a great question about witnessing other people’s wonder.

Portrait of the Poet as a Young Man

I set off to be a poet in part to help me see the world again, as an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin. I felt like I was losing my imagination, my ability to be present. And I literally wanted to become a poet to be more present, to see the world differently as an exercise, and it’s helped me profoundly.

To be a poet, I have found, is a practice in pausing long enough to become more aware of marginal moments. Marginal moments are like being at a Beyonce concert and the whole spotlight’s on Beyonce, but you happen to notice maybe a man in his 70s dancing with his teenage grandson. And like, this is a moment you notice and take in. That’s a marginal moment.

So part of being a poet is practicing recognizing those marginal moments and then finding among imagination and memory and an embodied visceral language to try to find the music in such a marginal moment.

A Poet’s Imagination at Work

So how does actively seeing the world as a poet affect the way that I show up at Tracking Wonder and what we do at Tracking Wonder? Everything. I have found that to be effective at what I do as a consultant or a speaker, I have to listen and I have to listen for the music and the exchange of whatever we’re working on with a client.

I have to be attuned to the marginal insights, the random connections that may lead to innovation. And of course, if I’m helping shape copy or ideas, then of course, something with the poet’s tongue comes into musical play.

But that last question is really something: How does it feel then to witness our clients become incited with wonder and in turn have exponential impact to spread the wonder, so to speak?

That poem, I chose that poem in part because to witness others in wonder is one of my greatest pleasures.

A few years ago, I was leading a live immersion event at the Mohonk Mountain House Resort in New York’s Hudson Valley. For several days, we had set up some situations and scenarios to help people advance their ideas. But of course, also to be tracking wonder along the way. And I was taking such delight in their delights, in their insights and their connections and their surprises. I always thought, oh, I really, I love being in wonder with other people’s wonder.

I called it “vicarious wonder.”

Trading Sunglasses for a Life Jacket:
Helping People Get Up on Water

When I was a teenager, I think I got the first taste of vicarious wonder, when I used to be a camp counselor each summer at the very camp that gave me the first taste of how it is to live a day fully. And when I was about 17 years old, I was a really good counselor, but I was also a cocky 17-year-old boy. I had this great job of being the water ski instructor. I was pretty good at water skiing and I was decent at instructing 10, 11, 12, 13-year-old, 14-year-old boys in water skiing.

My job was to sit at the back of a boat that another much older gruffer counselor, Jim, drove. Jim drove the boat. I sat in the back with a checklist. It didn’t require a lot of me, honestly. And one morning, we’re out in the boat with probably four boys. I got my sunglasses on, I’m doing my checklist thing. And this boy, he’s probably 12 years old hops in the lake for the first time. And he’s afraid and he’s suppressing tears.

And Jim says, “Davis, get in the lake.”

And I’m like, “What do you mean get in the lake?”

He says, “You got to help him.”

And I said, “What do you mean, help him?”

“Coach him through to getting up.”

I had no idea what that meant, coach anybody through anything.

So I took off my sunglasses and put on a life jacket and jumped in the water.

I got behind the boy and instinctively, I put my hands on his life jacket behind him, started talking to him and just listening, listening to his fears. And then I was remembering when I was nine years old, behind a boat of one of my dad’s friends, when I first learned to water ski. And I was remembering some of my fears and that it took me a few times, I think three times before I finally got up on the water. And so I was sharing that story with the boy.

And then I remembered the basics, like how do you position your legs? How do you hold the rope? How do you know when to let go of the rope, if you’re not going to get up?

I assumed a beginner’s mind again, and I talked him through all of that. And then I assured him of two things. One is, if you don’t get up, let go of the rope. Don’t let the boat drag you. But I assured him too, that if he gets up and he falls, it’s not really going to hurt that bad and he’s not going to get injured and he’s not going to die.

And I could feel him relax, and so I held onto his life jacket until the boat went. He didn’t get up the first time, so I swam over to go over to him and help him stabilize. The second time, same thing. And then he got up the third time. And when he got up on the water and went across, I can still remember, this rush went through my whole body like I’d never felt before. It was more than wonder, it was jubilation at somebody else’s victory.

I think that is still what I feel when I’m fully immersed with my clients. It’s an utter joy and an honor to work with them through their struggles to move forward toward the goals they really deeply want, and yet have some fear about pursuing them. And then to see them get up and fly across the water, just because I might have just held onto their life jacket and then let go at the right moment and told them, you’re not going to die if you happen to fall.

I think that’s what I’m here for.

So thanks for asking and thanks for running with me.

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