Ever been to Mammoth Cave in south-central Kentucky? I grew up hearing about this National Park from my parents, but it took 42 years to get there myself. While my oldest child is spending her Spring Break in France with a school trip, my youngest and I loaded up the car and headed out to see the world’s largest cave system. Let me tell you….it certainly lives up to its namesake.
In the midst of a 4-hour, 4-mile walking tour (during which we covered a full 1% of the known cave system), we observed several teenagers being…..well, teenagers. A brother and sister, clearly dragged Griswold family-style on a lengthy road trip they despised. They complained. They sulked. They insulted nearly everyone they saw for something or another. Apparently, they would have preferred Wally World.
As we climbed back on the bus at the end of the day, I leaned over to my daughter and thanked her for not being that teenager. And I meant it.
She responded, “That’s just what teenagers do, Dad.”
That comment really got me thinking. How often do we just excuse away abhorrent behavior because “It’s what they do” or “Who they are?” And I’m not just thinking about teenagers. We see similar dismissals of subpar behavior displayed by athletes, CEOs, or politicians. We fail to address even when the offender is our peer, so it’s not limited to only those whose stars shine the brightest. I guess, we’re equal opportunity dismissers.
So, why not hold up the exceptions, not the stereotypes? Instead of saying, “Oh, that’s just because he’s CEO,” in response to greedy or disrespectful behavior, what if we proclaimed, “Argh! Why couldn’t he treat his employees more like Howard Schultz?” “Why doesn’t everyone approach organizational culture like Tony Hsieh?” “What if he cared more about others like Richard Branson?”
In formal classrooms, we spend more time examining those case studies of success than we do of failure (although both have wonderful educational uses). After all, do we want to model good behavior, successful strategies, or the right ways of doing things, or do we prefer to focus on all the failures around us?
Thinking about my daughter’s statement, I immediately thought of an old friend of mine from even before my teen years. As we grew up, he shined in nearly all lights, academic, athletic, artistic. If anyone exemplified the “All-American Boy,” it was this guy. But he wasn’t the dumb jock. He didn’t treat others poorly because he was “better than them” (even if he could beat them six ways to Sunday on the gridiron). No, he treated everyone with compassion, caring, and love, no matter who they were. And you know something? That continues today. He’s still that way.
So, no, I told my daughter, that’s NOT “just what teenagers do.” Not all teenagers.
Stereotypes are dangerous. They not only provide excuses, but also point toward a preconception that simply may not be, good or bad. But isn’t it time we stopped excusing people simply because they fit a stereotype? Isn’t it time we stepped up and held people to a higher standard than that? Because for every stereotype….there is an exception. And that exception is more often than not….truly exceptional.