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The Greatest Tool I’d Never Used.

Teaching internationally is a challenge.  I remember my first time teaching with a translator in Afghanistan.  It was a train wreck.  Communication had always been as easy as taking a breath, it now felt like breathing through a straw.  The volume of concepts that flowed to my audience was now restricted by a nozzle.

A thought would form, I’d express it, realize it needed translation and then pause as my unfortunate interpreter worked to make sense of it in Dhari.  Standing there waiting for them to accomplish the impossible, I’d lose my next idea.  Even worse, I got to stare into the confused “unengaged” faces of my classes while I waited.  Listener engagement had always been my specialty.

I relished reaching the back of the room when on stage.  Closing the distance between listener and speaker closed the gap between message and meaning.  My bridge of choice was always stories and humor.  Do you know the two most difficult things to translate?

I would offer up an anecdote intended as an appetizer only to realize it became a three course meal for my translator to digest.  They did their best.  The information was expressed but it was excruciating for me and my Afghan students.

I eventually developed other tools.  I’d build connections during breaks.  The currency the new relationships created would then be exchanged when I spoke, but it was never a robust economy.  Over the years I learned to refine my thoughts.  Distillation and cultural experience became potent resources. I’ve hunted over the years to find a quicker way to connect with my international audience but it has elluded me, until this week.

It was an accident.  I didn’t know it would have the impact it did.  I was oblivious that it would be so potent a moment.  But this week, I’ve discovered a bond of human connection that is more powerful than anything I’ve known before- The Selfie.

Waiting to speak to a class my first day in Kendal, Indonesia, I quickly pivoted from my seat of honor in the front of the room to frame up the ubiquitous cell phone self-portrait.  As a solo traveler for many years, the selfie was a requirement for appearing in photos you showed your friends long before it was a cultural phenomenon.  My hope was to capture the moment without anyone realizing it.  The laughter revealed my folly.

Getting an emotional response so quickly is speaker gold.  I had no idea they would like it so much, so I mugged and did it again.  They roared.  In retrospect, a tie was formed between us.  We had a starting point.  We did our Q&A and then the crowd swarmed.  The students wanted pictures with the team.  And while many got their friends to frame a landscape photo by cellphone, many more would come back and ask for a selfie.

With the next three groups of students I taught at secondary schools and universities here on the island of Java, I started every group by taking a couple selfies from the front.  By the time I got to the last university it was creating connections enough that I could use it to even motivate participation.  At the end of every session the crowd would gather like bees wanting an arms length picture of our smiling faces forced together by the little square screen.  I’ve never experienced anything like it.

This selfie hunger gives me hope.

The selfie is many things, most of which are are generationally misunderstood, but at the heart of it are reminders every leader needs to hold.

*We want to share our stories.*

We want others to know what we’ve seen.  We want to share in the excitement of the place that we are.  We want the image to become part of the narrative of our lives expressing something our words can never say.

*We need the affirmation of people that we think matter.*

We long to be valued.  We long to have someone of note give us their seal of approval.  We hope that association with others will translate to value in ourselves.  Employees want to know someone cares.  They want the leaders approval of the value they provide.  Children need the permission of parents to dream their dreams.

*We don’t want to be alone


We want connection.  We want to be close.  We want to share in emotions and feelings.  The proximity the selfie demands reflects our deep desire to want to be with others.  Amazing that the length of a persons arm can suddenly change our relational boundaries.

The selfie is indulgent.  It can be fraudulent.  It can reflect the unhealthiness of our culture.  But the selfie also reflects the truth.  The truth is, despite global change and in the face of isolating technology, the human needs remain.  The future belongs to those who can meet those needs.

~Michael D