There is this old parable of a master placing an empty box in front of a student and placing a few large rocks into the box. “Is it full?” asks the master, and the student replies “yes”. The master then pours in a bunch of gravel carefully around the rocks and asks “Is it full now?” and the student replies, more warily, “yes”. The master then pours sand to fill all the cracks and, before he can even ask, the student wearily interrupts him and goes “yes, yes, it’s still not full, get to the point”. Slightly perturbed, the master finally pours water into the box and grumpily exclaims that “there, now it’s full”. As the student starts to excitedly draw a breath to explain about electron orbitals and the free space in between atoms and the latest musings in quantum theory she is violently slapped in the face by the master. The reason a master is a master and the student is just a student is because a master can always recognize when a smart ass remark is coming along.
Viewing life through this hierarchy, a lot of wanna-be MBAs are going to try and tell you the lesson to draw from this is that the big rocks are the most important and if you fit them into your life first so that everything else can fit around them. This is the big rock view of the world and one most people I’ve met subconsciously subscribe to. When people meet me for the first time, I am asked about the rocks in my life. What is my job? Where did I go to school and what did I study? What is my relationship status and who do I know? After a while, after the big rocks are exhausted, people might dive into the gravel. What are my hobbies? What movies have I seen recently and what TV do I watch? What are some cool restaurants I’ve been to recently.
Instead, over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to understand a person is to understand their water. Water is what you do while doing something else. It’s what you’re thinking about when you have an idle 30 seconds to day dream. It’s things you’ve been doing ever since you were a kid that even you might not notice because it’s never occurred to you that anybody could ever not do that. Water is the entire invisible life you lead that is the essence of your being.
Whenever I meet someone that I want to get to know better, I try to find the answer to the question “what is your water talent?”. They might have had acrimonious parents and learned from a young age to be a master diplomat so that every social interaction involves them smoothing over the rough edges between various parties. They might be a ardent lexophile who experiences a frission of joy at the perfect word being deployed in a sentence. They might be an inveterate people watcher who loves nothing more than sit outside a busy cafe watching the world go by and who can hone in on first date conversation of any table near them at a restaurant. They might even minutely dissect the interaction of every bathroom they’ve ever been in.
Rocks, you pick, but water picks you. Your water is channeled by your temperament, your circumstances and your formative experiences and, as a result, remains uniquely yours, impossible to copy. Water is the reason why some people seem to so effortlessly achieve rarified greatness in a field while others gamely struggle, despite the same apparent rocks. Your water causes you to live and breath a practice, to go to bed thinking about it and to wake up still thinking about it. If you don’t have that water, you’re handicapped from the beginning.
Observing someone’s water talents is hard because water is mostly invisible. That’s why, when I meet someone, I most like to talk to them about their childhood. Childhood is where your personality first develops and formative experiences impinge upon your life. Were you an angry child or happy child? Anxious or carefree? A life of turmoil and change or stability and constancy? Did you discover your passion then or discover that you have no passions? It’s by charting your life from your childhood until now that I can start to see the pull of your water. Decisions made that another person would not have made. Opportunities that were opened up to you that others were not offered. Skills you happened to pick up extraordinarily well, extraordinarily quickly. All of these are hints of your water talents.
The water view of the world is diametrically opposed to the big rock view of the world. Big rocks give us the illusion that we have control over our lives and that we can chart our destiny. Water believes that our lives are channeled and we are guided along a path. Big rocks view us as a fungible resource, replaceable by someone else with similar big rocks. Water views each person as inimitable and unable to aggregated into abstract categories. Big rocks are modular and can be replaced piecewise to create a completely new configuration. Water is essential and and changes only slowly.
One of the side effects of switching to a water view of the world for me has been the complete elimination of jealously and envy. All around you are people with more money, hotter spouses, more friends, better smiles. If you believe all it takes for you to have what they have is replacing your big rock with their big rock then it’s easy to feel like you did not live up to your expectations and that you’re not having it all. But if you instead believe that, to have what they would require replacing your water with their water, it would mean having what they have would involve losing everything you have. Cast in this light, the things they have feel not as worth it.
So, as the student is still feeling the ringing in her ears and the burn on her cheek, the master asks, if you remove the rocks from the box, if you remove the gravel and remove the sand, what’s left? What is your water?