I've been thinking recently about which forces have been most instrumental in shaping me over the years.
I am (somewhat but not terribly) surprised to report to you that the majority of shaping has been a direct result of primarily negative examples.
This has been especially true in my work. I once, long ago, was a high school English teacher. I came to this path because I was not too strong at math, and didn't particularly care for sciences other than biology and earth science, and I didn't really want to fix hair, and had no military dreams or technical prowess. After blacking out many other possible careers, I was eventually left with English, which is where I felt most at ease. And teaching, which at the time seemed a no-brainer when I considered job opportunities in the field of English. But think about it: I had to make my way to that path by eliminating all those other possibilities.
Then, since I'd focused on education, I considered teachers I had liked. I had blurry memories of my favorite teachers, their adorable mannerisms, their very tough standards which they explained firmly (and with a wink,) the way they genuinely listened to and considered what you said. But honestly? The sparklingly clear memories of teachers, in my mind anyway, were all the teachers I had abhorred. The teacher who addressed the class while facing the board, the teacher who spoke down to us and belittled our individual and collective abilities, the gossipy teacher who spoke inappropriately of others, and especially the teacher who played favorites. Those are the teachers I remember best, because I was daily affronted by their poor performances, their unfair and ineffective practices. The substandard or smug teachers are the ones who made me the teacher that I was; their voices and faces were the ones I saw in my mind—the images and memories that caused me to face the class when speaking, to hide the fact that I liked some students better than others (if a teacher denies this, he is a liar). Those disrespectful teachers are the ones who indirectly helped me bite my tongue when another instructor made me want to speak unkindly.
It was, and continues to be, true in my office work as well. There have been fellow workers who were admirable and dedicated...but they pale in my memory when compared to the silly colleague, the lazy or sloppy worker, the incessant talker who was merely tolerated by coworkers. The slackers were the people who helped me develop my office persona, because I could see so clearly why they fell short; those lackluster employees made it easy to strive to do the opposite of what they did. Even now, I listen to my bosses when they fume about annoying or frustrating employees; I note quietly to myself exactly which behaviors have driven the boss over the edge. I can try to avoid a behavior once I know it's a trigger.
Most often these days, though, it is pathetic parenting that helps me stay on track—in my role as a mother. I observe some moms and dads and the way they struggle to control and follow through with a toddler. I go to work and encounter the often sad results of neglectful parenting—and I see mouthy 'tweens and hear the unimaginable comments made to parents' faces. I am also witness to many well-to-do and weak-willed parents...and the monsters they've created; I watch, shaking my head in disbelief, as kids break rules and fail classes yet are consequently rewarded with technological toys and prizes. I see it all happening around me, and I continue to believe in more discipline and fewer privileges; I stand firm in my mantra that it's always easier to ease up than to crack down.
I've still managed to do a lot of things wrong in every job I've ever held. I'm certain I'm screwing up my son royally. We all are (or so the therapists would have us believe). Yet, I am regularly presented with really feeble examples—of workers, of parents, of people in general—and all of those shortcomings give me something to avoid, a wall from which to steer away. I suppose that many of us are better at remembering the negatives in life—periods of illness, of pain or suffering, of poverty—just as mean and hurtful comments stick with many of us better than kind ones. Yet, two negatives when multiplied make a positive.
I hope that people can make something positive from my less-than-stellar examples in life. Perhaps the indelible and bad impressions we've all left, and have seen others leave, can still multiply in a good way and become positives instead.
Or maybe I really am terribly pessimistic. Your call. ; }