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
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?
I used to hoard things I knew how to do. I thought it’s what gives me the competitive edge. I purposefully told people that it’s hard or that “I just know the right things to do at the right time” or whatever other bullshit.
Then, I listened to an interview with electronic artist BT where he said he shares all of his advanced music-making techniques openly. Not only does he hope to elevate the level of music production in the world, but it pushes himself to grow – rather than rely on the same “secret” tricks. To become better, make better stuff, and drop even more keys.
From that moment many years ago, I stopped building cages and started dropping keys.
Lately, I’ve been helping people I know dig out their passion and message they have and then get their blogs up and running. And implant ideas on how to utilize and monetize it all so that they don’t have to do non-passionate stuff for a living.
And this is exactly what I want my work to do. To empower people so they can save themselves. To just give them the little insight, or connection, or inspiration, or tool, that helps them move forward. To show them they already have courage. To hold up a mirror so they can see who they really are.
Great quote from Hafiz – love it! Need to live it 🙂
This is terrific! I love the idea of “beautiful rowdy prisoners” and I can’t wait to apply the “Will this empower?” question to everything I do this week. Thanks for posting exactly what I needed to hear today.
I’ve spent years in the traditional publishing paradigm of guarding copyrights jealously. Now I’m about to make the big step of making some of my best material available for free–and I’m both excited and scared. I’m starting with a “best of” compilation–and we’ll see what happens. One baby step at a time. I’m open to new ways, willing to believe that “as you sow, so shall you reap” is true.
I have been sampling your site over the last few days, and I have already seen so many things differently. I think this post doesn’t yet apply to me, as I am young and in my opinion I have yet to acquire skills that I can pass onto others. What I do gain from this, is the knowledge that I must share what I learn as I learn it. Thank you for writing about this topic – it fuels my desire to do something good so I can help others do the same.
Exactly. I imagine this is what the world will look like (more keys, less cages) as we move towards becoming human beings. There is enough on the planet to go around. Share, live, love. The keys we are dropping were given to us for free. They’re called creativity, inspiration, innovation…
LOVE this post. One of my favorites from you. Thank you for sharing and for dropping keys.
My first response to this title – I know many of those small men! And then I wanted to forward this post to them. In the next breath, I realized that it was also me. By wanting to point it out to them, thereby securing them a little tighter into their own locked cages. What a great post on reminding us to keep on doing what we love, and to drop keys for those in cages, but not to insist that they use them.
Thank you for this fabulous article. Truly inspiring… ‘Thinking about the kingdom of Me’ is a striking description. Thanks again.
“Dropping keys for the beautiful rowdy prisoners.”
That’s worth living for. I needed that today.
When we first started blogging about preparing for our trip around the world I thought it would just be for family and friends. But what I noticed as we became more transparent about our successes, struggles, and crazy ideas was that people who weren’t even planning to travel were following us.
They wanted to know how we saved money, how we decluttered our lives, and how we were actually making this life work so they could do something similar in their lives. I have never felt richer than I do now from sharing so much of my knowledge and personal experience for the good of others.
That being said, I still build cages and am inspired by your post to reexamine a few other areas of my life. Thanks for the mental workout today – I needed this lesson.
Hmm. I recognise myself as a ‘small man’. But not because I try to keep others from being excellent – I’m just afraid that they’ll see my lack of excellence.
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.
Ouch. This was not a realisation I was expecting to have today. Time to learn about being secure enough to let others be brilliant around me.
Beautifully put. I made the decision to empower others by giving them the gift of tools that will help them find their own truth. We all know all there is to know. The problem is some of us fail to see the truth we already know. A simple shift in focus can make all the difference. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing your heart so openly.
Hey Chris, lovely poem!
I have come to believe that we build our own cages, lock ourselves in and “forget” where we’ve put the key. Funny or not so funny part? We’ve being taught that it’s good to be in the cage and are given instructions early in life on how to build a nice secure one. You may think you’re learning something else, but it’s really how to build a cage.
Too many of us walk around in our mobile prison/cages. When you are ready to get out of the cage, you’ll remember where you put the key. Fortunately, I found mine. It was hanging around my neck the whole time!
Thanks for your provocative post, Chris. My favorite empowerment saying was often quoted by the founder of the consulting firm of which I was a partner for a time (his name was Benjamin Tregoe). Ben thought that the power of an idea was not in using it for one’s own gain, or even in the sharing of the idea, but rather the power of the idea lay in how many you could teach it to who could then pass it along themselves. True empowerment was a gift that keeps on giving. The quote he so often mentioned is from Lao Tzu: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” So, I strive each day to be a teacher of fishing.
Couldn’t agree more. It’s always about helping as many people as you can. Instead of pushing others down, pull them up.
I’m just starting the journey to working on things that I’m passionate about – and I’m being sure to document the steps I take so I can help anyone who wants to do the same.
Thanks for the post Chris!
Great post Chris. I owe any success I’ve had to a myriad of key-droppers. Thanks for reminding me how much I want to be one as well.
Brilliant! Simply Brillaint!! Just this weekend I felt I was being stupid for giving away some of my most cherished secrets… worried over it throughout the weekend feeling bad. Now that I’ve read this, I don’t feel bad anymore… infact I’ll try and drop more key from now on.
But wouldn’t it be better if there were some form of reciprocity in dropping key from others too?
This is so wise, and so important – the really strong, the really wise, are the ones who are happy to help others be big – even bigger than they themselves are. That is true strength, true confidence. I think we all know when we are in the presence of those people. It’s easy to dismiss that quality as innate, but I think, as you posit here, it is something we can learn and work on. Thank you for inspiring me to do so.
Empowerment is truly a powerful force to be reckoned. It feels so good once you empower something with knowledge or skills that impact their lives for the better. One of the best gifts in the world, better than anything else.
This really gets a clear and important message across. Let’s start helping one another and leave our egos out of it! Thank you for a great post today.
Someone’s been annoying me all week. Thanks for helping stick to my own standards of behaviour, because I was getting very tempted to drop down to his level.
My key, resides in financial planning. I have been studying for years to learn how to empower others to take control of their finances. I’m now working on putting that all together.
Keep up the good work.
Chris, I love how you put this. The dropping-keys metaphor is beautiful.
I wrote a post about almost this exact topic yesterday, talking about how the government doesn’t seem to do things like the Berlin Airlift anymore, but luckily us regular citizens (especially bloggers, designers, entrepreneurs, non-conformists!) are leading the charge for being generous and giving and changing the world from the bottom up. Of course, I had you in mind as I was writing. Cheers to our non-movement movement of sensible kindness and openness!
This is an important philosophy to embrace because the most valuable intellect and skill is that which is shared with the masses. There is a reason that a graveyard is the home for the most potential in the world because people often fear sharing their insight with others and in turn, it is never utilized. I have always been an advocate of transparency which results in shared knowledge, potential synergies, and the ability to create something with someone else that you would have neven been able to do on your own. Therefore, it is time to let your keys dangle and begin sharing “what you know” with the world so that everyone can reach the next echlon in their existence because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Amazing poem. I copied it down into a book I keep for just such purposes. Just a few minutes after reading this my boss gave me a small squishy figure of a bodybuilder who is wearing a shirt that says “You’re empowered!” Every time I look down at his little flexed foam muscles (or manboobs, something weird is going on with this guy) I laugh.
What perfect timing. Thanks for another inspiring post!
Try as we may, we can never get others to conform to our self-imposed standards. Empower and embrace people for who they are not what we expect them to be. Look for their strengths, not our perceived weaknesses of them. Thanks for the thought fodder.
Wonderful post! Beautiful poem! Thank you.
Loving the poem. That went down in the journal…
A great reminder….give first, share always.
Thanks for another great post!
Lovely. Empowering others can take on lots of wonderful (and *easy*) forms, including encouraging, teaching, taking time to listen *and hear* people … sometimes I think that if we took time to engage others (genuinely and unrushed) that alone would help empower a lot of individuals: allowing a person to share his/her true voice = mighty empowerment.
I love this new series of “in your face” philosophy. Keep up the good work. You’ve certainly empowered me!
Chris – a lot going on in this very short post. I would contribute another analogy that is pretty practical and something I would think you see in some of your world travels. The models of scarcity versus abundance. The scarcity model means some people think the “pie” is constrained to a specific size. The pie is innovation, economic development, growth, etc…They fight over what exists versus finding ways to make the pie bigger so more people can have some. I saw this a lot working in parts of Latin America for example. Sometimes its just cultural. Regardless, it’s nice to see you making the pie bigger for everyone through your empowerment attitude.
Great timing – thank you. Just doing last minute updates to a talk I am giving tomorrow night about giving feedback. Will tie in to book I read recently too expressing the difference between critical and creative thinking (Think!: Before it’s Too Late: Twenty Three Reasons Why World Thinking is So Poor by Edward De Bono – highly recommended to people reading!) Thanks again.
Excellent post (again).
I always used to think “scarcity” instead of “empowerment”.
Where I work (as a telco engineer) I always protected myself through scarcity of information.
I’ve now automated my role and empowered people to check stuff (that I used to check for them) themselves, which has made me largely redundant but everyone a lot more useful and informed.
I think it’s a much better way to play the game.
Great post and wonderful poem. I’ve worked with people who seem to enjoy putting others in cages through pettiness, envy and micro-management. In these kinds of situations it seems that there are a few who are also quite happy to be in a cage and would rather try and get the Sage caged, than have the courage to pick up the keys and set them self free.
My sense is that we can all swing between being a Sage or a cage-maker depending on how content/happy we are with our own lives and how confident or secure in ourselves we feel. When the contentment and confidence are low, some will build cages for themselves (or allow themselves to be caged) and others will set out to try and clip the wings or otherwise undermine the autonomy and freedom of others. I’m thankful for the Sages in my life. I try to behave more like them than the cage makers when life occasionally slides sideways.
What a great post Chris! I have benefited from many keys being dropped for me and I have had the pleasure to see many keys I have dropped help others. Like you, and many others, I still have cages though… some keys for the future.
What a beautiful poem to highlight such a profound truth. I find it sometimes overwhelming the forms fear takes. I wholeheartedly agree with those above who acknowledge your talent for empowering others. No one is perfect, but your desire to continually trudge closer to that unreachable point is inspiring.
When you have compassion for someone, and come to truly care for them, it becomes impossible to build yourself up at their expense or even at all. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, or if I’m finally just learning how to put myself in someone else’s shoes, but I’ve noticed myself really listening and feeling the ups and downs of my clients, family and friends over the last year or so. And I notice how much more I care, when previously most of my concerns were for myself.
I think it’s hard to say which comes first either – finding happiness in your own life and therefore feeling free to focus on others, or focusing on others’ needs and thus finding peace for yourself.
Either way, the outcome is pretty fantastic!
Today must be poetry day, what a treat. Love the Hafiz piece, I had never read it before. It gently encourages us to take risks by sharing our knowledge and strength – thought provoking stuff. thanks.
Such a beautiful, powerful post. Thank you.
Thanks for dropping me a couple of keys today, Chris. 🙂 They’re much appreciated, and I hope to put them to good use!
I see empowerment at work when I go to autocrosses — all the people there are so willing to help you out! In a way, it’s more fun for them if you start getting better, as it pushes them at the same time. But they also like to pass on their knowledge to others. It’s fun to benefit from that, and also to pay it forward.
Love this post. I’ve been thinking about it all day.
A Perfect Poem & Metaphor – I’ve always enjoyed this one too..
I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never — ”
“You lie!” he cried,
And ran on…
I love the poem the keys you dropped in your post about it, thank you! The reason I became a coach was to empower people. I’ve been blinded to the keys strewn around me at times because of the cages I believed contained me. What a lovely analogy, the keys are always there if we look for them, and I would posit that they don’t always come from generous and open people. I would love for others to see that the keys are just waiting for them to pick up and use…Thanks for the great post…
Thank you so much for this beautiful post, Chris! You are one of several people who has given me the key of looking at the world in a more positive manner and more of a “why can’t I do that, too?” mentality. Know I’m on your team, working to inspire and empower others with all that I am learning in life along the way.
Chris, this is awesome! This is probably one of my favorite posts of yours. Thank you for this.
Getting behind in my reading of posts with $100Business Course. Enjoying both.
If we keep finding solutions for new problems we won’t be afraid to give most of our best suff away.
Gorgeously said, Chris.
I am absolutely guilty of building cages. On the flip side, I sometimes keep knowledge to myself because I don’t think it will be useful to others. Of course, that’s unreasonable. I believe we all have empowerment to share in multi-faceted, layered ways. Thanks for this bit of empowerment. 🙂
This is absolutely lovely, Chris. Hafiz is one of my favorite teachers…a man who dropped a lot of keys. Thanks for sharing this.
Wow! This is such a great post on so many levels. I know that I have built quite a few cages throughout my life. I can recall many times hearing news about the success of others and rather than being excited for them my first thought was to find ways to dismiss their success. Often I have held back information that may have allowed those around me to grow and excel. Why did I do this? Am I so insecure that I have to do things to keep others at my level. For whatever reasons it’s been a hard mindset to overcome. I really do believe that in life you receive what you give. We are on this planet to serve others and to make a positive difference. As I go about my day I will definitely be thinking about whether my actions will empower.
I just read Gary Vaynerchuk’s “Crush It” and wrote a blog post on the plane to get to St.Louis. In my post I used the phrase “I felt like I’m trapped in a cage” (I wrote about getting out of it). After arriving here I saw this post. Serendipity?
You can build a cage, or drop a key for someone. You can also decide to get out of the cage you thought you were in. Yes, with a key it’s easier….but the most important part is to believe in that you can get out of it.
Thanks for sharing the beautiful poem!
Stunning post Chris!!
Love the question “Will this empower?”. So simple yet so profound.
I stand empowered and ready to empower.
This is a beautiful, empowering post. You have captured the essence of this poem – well, I mean, the poem captures its own essence and is a small miracle: it teaches a profound and powerful truth and does the very thing it is talking about, in fewer words than I’ve used in this comment. Nevertheless, for those of us that need a bit more explanation, you’ve laid it out perfectly.
Thanks for that, it’s definitely put a great spin on a day that actually started with me beginning to realize, while writing my morning pages, how I can begin to do exactly what this post is about. Now I have a sharper lens to see it through. Empowerment, indeed!
Thank you for this. It was exactly what I needed to hear……right here, right now.
I think I was a key dropper who felt she had run out of keys to drop, so she started building cages instead. Wow, how does that cynicism manage to sneak in so unnoticed? I think I’d like to reapply for my previous position of the key dropper.
You know, I think we get this idea in our heads that if we go from point A to point B, then point B must be the superior destination. Not always so. Just because you lost faith and became a cynic doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t return to the faith. It just means you need to discover what weakness lead you astray and learn from it. Repeatedly if necessary…..
Great quote and aptly stated. A complimentary quote from Ghandi may be, “Be the change you want to see in the world”! thank you for being the change you want to see in the world! Namaste and many blessings
Excellent article Chris,
I have found out that giving more away than you receive helps people in the world much more than focusing on the traditional what’s in it for me. As the old saying goes, “Never take more than you give”. Keep up the good work…
Thank you, Chris. This comes at a good time, when I’m trying to learn how best to open not only others’ cages, but my own as well. This key is much appreciated!
That’s one of my favorite passages by Hafiz.
It helps me to see each aspect of daily work as worthwhile. Whether putting out an article on deadline, hauling hay on our farm or teaching a class I can treat who (or what) I’m working with in an honorable, even reverent way. Why not?
“You who have the light, what are you doing with it?” Paul Claudel
Beautiful piece of writing. It gave me to have another perspective to see the purpose of our existence in this world. Have been introduced to your blog by a friend just a few minutes back and I now look forward to discovering many more such brilliant thoughts.
I found I was in a cage. “Stuck in a job that sucked.” Someone drop the key for me and I have started to open the gate. Though as I am moving out of the job that sucked I no longer find it as unbearable. Now I see in that job I have keys to drop and young people to help from allowing themselves to be caged.
this contains a key to the inevitable (and probably current) paradigm shift for the evolution of our species and our society. Lovely posting. I especially love mystic poetry and particularly the muslim, mystics Rumi and Hafiz. Lord knows, the Islamic world needs pay heed, honor, promote and celebrate these incredible, wonderful poets that speak to all of us.
Thank you for sharing this little gem of knowledge. For some reason it seems easier to build cages and “protect” yourself, but reading through your post I started thinking about the keys I could be dropping and how that might change my perspective. again, thanks.
Great post – love the idea and helped me look at some things I did today to make sure I was leaving behind keys. Can be tough at times in a big company, but clearly the right attitude to have.
Chris, that is amazing stuff to ponder and so well put! I’m really glad you are fond of Hafiz, he is my favorite poet and sage.
Here’s to the key droppers revolution!
Oh, and thank you so so much for my 30th happy birthday video clip- you and my boyfriend are the kind of guys that know what soulful key dropping is all about 🙂
An absolutely profound piece of writing Chris.
Just recently, from an unexpected source, a key was dropped at my cage door. The door didn’t open by itself, I had to do the work to get the key to open the door, but open it did: slowly, wonderfully. To a new world of possibilities and freedom.
The cage was a dreadful place: physically, emotionally, spiritually. And the realisation that I was judge, prisoner and warder, and had agreed to my own imprisonment. How many of us do this, to ourselves, or let others do it to us? Lock ourselves in the ‘safety’ of a cage.
My small wish is that the future lets me drop some keys to release those beautiful and rowdy prisoners from their cages, whether those cages are built and policed by themselves or others.
Thank you for this post Chris! I needed to hear this, esp. right now. I’m working on a total life redesign and I needed to remember that I have to be a “key dropper” to feel like I’m being authentic.
Chris, bad ass. Amen brother.
so validating and inspirting. and, the stephen crane poem left by one of your readers – a real addition.
Liked this article Chris. Definitely aggree with the idea of giving value to people before asking anything in return. I feel like the more you can help others the more people will naturally want to return the favor and help you out. And I also agree that it’s important to not keep score with the people you provide value to. Just keep giving and trust that eventually it’ll be returned to you.
Love the post. As a life long community activist, I know that “key-droppers” are often considered trouble makers. When you seek to empower, those already empowered often take offense. Just look at the history of some of the great key-droppers.
Good timing, got thoroughly caged this week by a petty, frightened supervisor. Took this post for me to realize that she couldn’t keep me there. She may have built it, but only my belief in the bars was keeping me there.
Somehow, it helps to think that her mean-ness stems from fear. I am able to take it less personally.
Thanks to Chris, I have escape plans A, B, and C and I just have to be patient and work hard, and someday, I’ll never have to go back. To my job anyway–I’m sure being caged is a lifelong hazard to gaurd against.
Wow. This describes most of the supervisors under whom I’ve worked over my entire career (building cages) and even corporate culture in general, in my experience! LOL!
This truly was one of your best posts, all snark aside.
I try to drop keys everywhere, all the time. That is why I write. That is why I share some of my poetry openly on my blogs. When I know that my art or my writing has touched someone, I feel blessed.
I try to drop keys in all areas of my life. When I see people pick them up and use them, that is a much greater reward than anything else I can think of.
Thanks for the keys, BTW! 😉
I opened an e-mail from “key dropper” Elizabeth Potts Weinstein …and I found a key among the many keys she dropped that lead me to this site…thank you Elizabeth…and you Chris for writing/dropping keys… I needed this today!
I have worked with both key droppers and cage builders within organisations and in my freelance work. In every case a key dropping culture has enjoyed more success, in productivity and financial terms as well as more human terms
Chris, Thank you for this dropped key. Sometimes we meander off the path of empowering others and need to be reminded. I try to drop a key everyday and hope that the person that sees it will hopefully pick it up and be free.
I think this is a great tip: “Give away your best work, and think about how you can give away even more of it”.
How do you know when to not give it away for free?
This is beautiful, Chris. I have your site listed in the links section of mine, but I need to check in here more often myself. This dropping keys concept – and poem – is really what we (many of us) are doing. Thanks again.
Sharing these beautiful thoughts on empowerment is very empowering as such… One of my themes lately has been living out of fear (“building cages”) vs. living out of love, with an open heart (“dropping keys”), so your writing feels very inspiring. Thanks a lot!
Another marvelous post; was not familiar with ‘key dropping’ prior to your article. I’m all for empowerment; being a professional in I.T. for many years, I have ‘broken the mold’ and willingly shared information with peers/co-workers. Most times, the looks that I received were a combination of fear and surprise. On rare occasions, some would ask why I did it. My reply – companies tend to be more willing to retain people who are willing and able to train others. It may sound or seem silly, yet many people are STILL afraid to speak in front of others. One great way to get over this fear is by tutoring individuals and then gradually move up to larger crowds.
Excellent poem. I’ve always said I never keep score because I might be losing. If I don’t know I’m loosing I might win anyway.
I hate cages and yet I have probably built a few with out intending.
Fear, the strongest cage of all silences us with invisible cords of steel.
Very lovely. Excellent question: “Will this empower?” Thanks for the empowerment!
Thanks for the inspiration. I love quotations about empowerment.
this is a beautiful, positive, uplifting place to be. thank you.
I probably build many more cages than I’d like to admit. Wow, profound. I am grateful that you have named it, so now I can pay attention to my own cafe building and key dropping behaviors.
I loved this poem so much that I just googled it to see if anyone had made it into a meme. I was so happily surprised to see that someone had and that it was Jolie. Her work is beautiful and it really made my day to discover it.
Excellent post – Speaking of which , if your business have been needing to merge two PDF files , my colleagues used a service here http://goo.gl/zvvcOQ
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