Lifting a Single Finger to Point Out Gifts

One of the foundational principles guiding our work in the neighborhood is Asset Based Community Development. We are glass-half-full people. We look for assets before we look for needs. Asset mapping rather than needs assessments. We are treasure hunters.

When we move into the neighborhood to live and work, we are charged with looking for the gifts of the neighborhood. Maybe they are institutional assets such as schools or libraries or churches or businesses. Or maybe they are associational assets – groups that are already convening such as book clubs or PTAs or bowling leagues. But our favorite kind of treasure hunt is within individuals – gifts of the heart, head and hands.

What do you love or feel passionate about?

What are you smart about, or what knowledge is your head filled with?

What kinds of things do you do well – gardening, woodworking, fixing things, artistic endeavor?  

Many people are reticent to list their gifts. Maybe they haven’t used them in a long time, maybe they have never even unearthed their gifts, or maybe they have been using them, but don’t recognize them as valuable treasure.

 Sometimes you have to ask people probing questions: “What do other people say you do well?” Or “What was the last compliment someone offered you?” Or “In what situations do people ask you for help or advice?”

Sometimes you have to dig deep.

Our staff has been reading David Brooks’ The Social Animal, in which a narrative featuring the life of a couple describes principles of human development, especially those related to the success of humans. In one short section of one of the 22 chapters, this short and simple statement jumped off the page at me: “Successful people tend to find those milieus where the gifts they possess are most highly valued.” It wasn’t an astounding revelation, but it resonated with me.

I was thinking about the youths we have been working with in our Young Leaders of Abilene and wondered whether some of them even know what their gifts are. How can we help identify them, provide opportunities to practice those gifts, and allow them to experience the satisfaction that comes from being in a place where their gifts are highly valued?

Brooks goes on to say that another characteristic of successful people is that they possessed a talent early on that gave them some “sense of distinction,” no matter how small. Can we recognize those small, special talents among our youths and create the sense of distinction that might nudge them on to greater things?

I think we can if we understand it’s important enough to be intentional about.

In Michelle Obama’s recently published memoir, Becoming, she tells the story of her desire to learn to play the piano. She lived with her family in the apartment above her great aunt Robbie and Robbie’s husband, Terry. Robbie was an exacting instructor, but Michelle was a determined little girl. She was driven even at four, wanting to be the best pupil ever, and was even chided for moving too quickly. The piano in the apartment on Euclid in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago was a battered, old upright with chipped keys. Lesson one was finding middle C, the foundation of piano playing. Luckily for Michelle, middle C was especially worn and uniquely chipped, so that quickly landing on it took no effort. When it came time for the recital, Michelle was more than prepared for her debut. The recital was held in a fancy music hall in Chicago. It was the first time she had seen a baby grand piano. As she sat at the glistening keyboard, all the keys looked the same – bright and shiny. Panic set in. You guessed it, she couldn’t find middle C.

Throughout the early part of her life, Michelle finds herself regularly wondering whether she belongs or if she is good enough. Her journey has provided her with the strong voice to encourage others, repeating the mantra to them as she had to herself, “You are good enough. You are good enough. You are good enough.”

Young Michelle looked into the audience as tears welled up in her eyes, searching for help. Aunt Robbie quietly walked to the piano and laid a single finger on middle C. Michelle took it from there.

Our young leaders are learning and working hard and we can remind them they aren’t limited to the beat-up keyboard, they are good enough for the baby grand.

And, if we are needed, be there to quietly lay a finger on middle C.

Janet MendenhallComment