As we gather with our loved ones during this festive holiday season, I’d like to tell you about my grandfather, Robert Mackay.
Let me begin with a few quick facts: A Scotsman from Aberdeen, he ate porridge for breakfast every day, enjoyed newspaper crossword puzzles and playing chess. He was blind, and he could take his legs off.
As a little boy, I thought the legs thing was super cool. It’s not like he took his legs off all the time, but he would do it occasionally to amuse us grandkids, and I knew that he took them off every night to go to bed. My Granny always said that if thieves ever broke into their house, she would wallop them with one of my Grandad’s legs.
Now, as I look back as an adult, I realize the depth of his resilience and the challenges he overcame. His first wife had died giving birth to my Mom, making him a widower and a single-parent at the age of 26. He married my Granny and had three more children, had a successful career as an industrial scientist but he had health problems. He was diabetic, and lost his sight and had both legs amputated above the knee due to complications resulting from diabetes.
As a kid, of course, I didn’t think about any of that. He was just my Grandad, he was super-smart and I loved playing chess with him.
Playing chess presented some extra challenges for him – as a blind man in the 1980s.
- It goes without saying that he couldn’t see the board. He had a special chess board where all the pieces had pegs in the bottom (like a travel set), so they would stay securely in place as he touched them, and all the pieces were carefully carved so he could easily feel which was which.
- When playing in person against me, he would sometimes use his hands to feel the pieces on the board, to remind himself where things were – but mostly he would just picture the entire position in his head and make his moves based on his memory. I found this very impressive.
- Since this was before the internet, most of his games were played through the mail against other blind people. This was a very slow process: to start a game, he would take a blank cassette tape, and record his first move (verbally) onto the tape (e.g. “pawn to e4”), then rewind it, and mail it to his opponent. He’d then have to wait for days for a reply! When he finally received that padded envelope with the tape, he would listen to it from the beginning, and hear his, and his opponent’s moves, recreate the position on his board, and then figure out what he wanted to do next.
Despite these challenges, I was never able to beat him at chess, but I have fond memories of trying. Sadly he died of a heart-attack in January 1992, when I was eleven years old.
Food for thought
I’ve written all this partly as an indulgence – to honor my grandfather – but more than that I think there are some insights we can all learn from these memories.
- Remember the value of patience. We’re accustomed to instant gratification, but most important accomplishments take time. It takes time to execute on a big project. It takes time to launch a new product. It takes time for a junior team member to grow into an experienced practitioner. Let’s look for progress, but remember that anything valuable is worth waiting for, and worth doing well.
- For those of you leading a team, consider how people’s differences can strengthen the team. In performance reviews we focus a lot on how to fix someone’s weaknesses. Instead, think about how you can help each team member to maximize their strengths, thereby allowing the team to thrive.
- As we recognize that each member of the team is unique, how can we make simple adaptions to the way we work to make it easier for everyone to contribute well? Maybe it’s a special chessboard with pegs on the bottom of the pieces, or maybe it’s a work day that makes it easy to pick the kids up from school. Flexibility in small ways can make a big difference.
- Remember the value of the technology we provide – especially to those who might be isolated otherwise. The ability to connect, interact with people and communicate with people has dramatically changed since 1992 – in a way that has a hugely positive impact on people’s lives. Thank you for the work that you do.
This will be our last article of the year. It continues to be a pleasure to work with you all, and especially our wonderful team at Award Consulting. From our families to yours, we wish you a very blessed holiday season, full of peace, hope and love.