By Bradford F. Spencer, Ph.D.     (Fall 1993)

The tragedies of living through a 40-foot straw are well chronicled in the annals of business history. From the railroads (who declared themselves in the business of moving people and products and missed the opportunity to dominate the transportation industry) to IBM (which did not anticipate the demand for personal computers).

We can agree, therefore, that the dangers from the misuse of a 40-foot straw in the business world can be significant. I would like to wander from my usual focus (some would say obsession) on work to the broader perspective of life.

The pain we experience from living our lives within too narrow a focus is inevitable both inside and outside the office. Our goal-driven, achievement-oriented natures leave no room for input or feedback. While pushing to achieve our goals, we often find ourselves unable to enjoy our families and friends and therefore miss the opportunity to learn how others feel and see the world. When we find ourselves in total disagreement, we need to consider that our 40-foot straw may point in a different direction or that our straw is viewing the same object from a different angle than our son, daughter, or spouse. Altering our focus may not change our mind, but will provide the opportunity to alleviate the anger through understanding the perspective of that other person.

It is interesting to consider that the person with the anger is the person with the problem. Until we resolve our anger, not much more can be done. Often, we unconsciously use the 40-foot straw as a reason to deny the unpleasantness of our anger. Unfortunately, in this case denial is not a helpful process – we invariably pay the price of hurt feelings and lose an opportunity to communicate meaningfully with someone we love.

Self-assessment may be in order. While our families are compiling vacation checklists, here is your own checklist of questions to ask in order to conduct a self-examination of perspective – both within your working world and at home.

  1. Do you know how long your own perceptual straw really is? The longer the straw, the greater the benefit . . . and potential danger.
  2. Does your current, real-life situation call for tunnel vision with it’s accompanying obsession – or might that simply be your personal style?
  3. What are you likely to miss because of your narrow focus? What obstacles are you likely to run into, and could you avoid them if you were more open to an alternate route?
  4. Have you ever worked with someone who looked at the world through a 40-foot straw . . . and the straw was pointed in the wrong direction?
  5. What happens when two people look through (separate, but equal!) long straws? Do they see the same thing? What is likely to happen to their ability to communicate and to work as a team?
  6. Have you ever been in a situation that called for a narrow focus – and no one even had a six-inch straw?
  7. Have you ever thought of how foolish we must look when walking and holding our straws?