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The Small Man Builds Cages for Everyone

Every year I choose a personal theme, and in December I decided that 2010 would be the year of SCALE and REACH. Thus far, it’s been an accurate prediction—some days it’s all I can do just to try and keep up.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking more about EMPOWERMENT than anything else. Empowerment, as I think of it, is all about the beautiful principle of transferring knowledge and helping people consider possibilities that previously seemed out of reach.

The best lesson to illustrate empowerment is through a selection from Hafiz, a Sufi poet from the 14th century. Consider:

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the

Most of us spend a lot of time building cages for those around us. This is accomplished by striving to make people small, so that we small men can feel bigger. Cage-building is protecting yourself and your interests, making yourself look good, and discouraging good ideas because you weren’t the one to come up with them.

Taking the credit for yourself, assigning the blame to others—that kind of thing. Mostly it involves thinking about the kingdom of Me.

Key-dropping, on the other hand, is making other people look good, building them up, expanding the pie. In other words, key-dropping is all about EMPOWERMENT, that beautiful thing of knowledge transfer and possibility.

Think about the times when someone has really helped you think or live differently. It was like they placed a key on the ground in front of you; you picked it up and unlocked a cage. (You had to open the cage yourself, of course, but it was a lot easier with a key.)

As I consider the work I’ve done over the past five years, I see a mixture of cage-building and key-dropping. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Accordingly, I see myself dropping more and more keys. But I can also see that I’ve built some cages. The course of action to change this is simple: build fewer cages; drop more keys.

What does that look like? Something like this:

  • Before speaking up at a meeting, before sending an email, before publishing a blog post, whatever — ask the question, “Will this empower?”
  • Give away your best work, and think about how you can give away even more of it
  • Stop keeping score — or if you must keep score, make sure you’re always giving more than you take
  • That thing you know how to do that everyone else marvels at? Show people how it’s really done.

You could probably think of examples that make more sense for your own situation. But whatever you do, don’t be the small man building cages. Be the sage, dropping keys for the prisoners.

What keys do you hold that could set a prisoner free? Why not start dropping those everywhere you go?