The Paperclip Principle

Back when I was in college I worked part-time as a Lifeguard. It was the greatest job I ever had, I was essentially paid to watch people swim. Another aspect of the job involved teaching, mostly children, to swim. One day my co-worker was teaching a 9 year-old girl the front crawl stroke, when he noticed something interesting. When the child held onto a flutter board, she could perform the stroke flawlessly. However, as soon as the board was taken away, she would panic and sink. Given back the board, she would once again perform a flawless stroke.

Experimenting, my co-worker began to switch out different items for the child to hold. First he gave her a lifejacket, then a ball, and finally a small rubber duck. Every time she held an item, she was able to perform the stroke, and every time the item was removed, she would sink. He then gave the child a small plastic paperclip, and once again she could perform the stroke.

As a child, one of my favorite movies was the Disney movie Dumbo. Dumbo was a young elephant with big floppy ears that soon became a social outcast amongst his immediate peer group. After being kicked out of the circus, Dumbo meets up with a jive bunch of crows that provide him with a ‘magic feather’ giving Dumbo the ability to fly. Dumbo then returns to the circus and proceeds to jump off a platform, clutching the feather in his trunk. As he falls, the feather slips out of his grasp and Dumbo is required (forced) to believe in himself and flight is once again achieved.

Have you ever tried swimming with a paperclip? It is not easy. In fact, it requires a great degree of concentration to avoid dropping it in the water. It is far easier to swim without holding a paperclip in your hands. Yet all of us have ‘paperclips’ that we use day in and out to help us perform various activities. Some of these are practical tools, such as cell phones, computer software, day planners, etc. Other people engage in positive ‘acts’ or ‘rituals’ such as affirmations, physical activity, healthy diet, and getting enough sleep throughout the night. Still, there are those of us that will take on a negative behavior, such as drugs and alcohol, and will still, at least for a short while, gain positive benefits from their use. This will often later present itself in negative aspect for the user.

What are the paperclips in your life? Which ones are beneficial? Which ones are detrimental? When I ask these questions of myself and spend some quiet time in personal reflection, I begin to build awareness around what is causing me to act in a certain way. I also begin to release quasi ‘crutches’, or ‘security blankets’ that may be causing me to avoid ‘claiming’ my own personal power. Once personal power is owned, we can then begin to actively build and create the lives of our choosing. We are then able to release the paperclip and swim, let go of the feather, and fly!

-Wes Paterson

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