Becca Balint: Lessons learned from three-legged dogs


There's a dog we sometimes see when I drive my kids to school in the morning. It's a tenacious, adorable mutt, and somehow it deftly maneuvers on just three legs. My kids marvel at how the dog isn't slowed down by its disability, and they venture guesses as to what might have happened to the pooch that left it in this condition.

I recently mentioned to them that when I led backpacking trips with kids on the Long Trail, I once summitted Mount Abraham and felt both proud and exhausted. Then I noticed a three-legged dog summitting right behind me. That little scamp put my own success and self-satisfaction into stark perspective.

I am not a dog owner, due to allergies. (Although my kids are lobbying hard for a hypoallergenic dog, so a labradoodle might just be in my future.) But I think about the human/dog relationship a lot. Dogs, unlike felines, seem relatively comfortable with a "give and take" relationship. They're not resentful nor do they cop attitude when they realize that they actually need help from their owners. It's just part of life. Sometimes they are strong, competent three-legged dogs, and sometimes they understand that it's time to accept assistance.

A friend recently recounted for me an experience she had that highlighted how difficult it is for her to ask for help. As part of a leadership training course, she was blindfolded and led to a course in the woods that was marked out by ropes. The group of blindfolded men and women were asked to solve the rope puzzle. They were not allowed to speak and needed to keep their blindfolds on the entire time. But they were allowed to ask for help by raising their hands.

Once a trainer came over to help, a participant could choose to take off her blindfold to observe the group. Or she could elect to stay blindfolded and try something new. My friend was determined not to need help; she thought requiring assistance would be an admission of failure or a sign of weakness. She repeatedly declined the offered help, and as a result she was one of the last remaining blindfolded folks. When she finally removed her blindfold, practically everyone else stood near the rope puzzle, watching. It wasn't really a puzzle at all; the solution was to ask for help. Leaders often must ask for help.

As difficult as it can be to seek assistance, it can also be very challenging to face failure. Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, author of "Mindset: The Psychology of Success," started something of an education revolution a few years back when her researched showed that students' mindsets played a key role in their achievement. Students who believed that their intelligence could be developed consistently outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed.

Dweck recently published a series of articles to clarify her research, as many well-meaning educators missed some key components. She cautioned teachers not to equate the "growth" mindset with effort. Although Dweck agrees that effort is key for students' achievement, she stresses it is not the only thing nor is it the most important thing. She writes, "Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they're stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches — not just sheer effort — to learn and improve."

We make mistakes. We fail sometimes. But bouncing back (while getting input from others) contributes to both resiliency and leadership. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, nor is competency a sign of invincibility. Keep that in mind next time you spy a three-legged dog.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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