Learning from Mr. Li

Many years ago, when I was a student in Accountancy, I went on a month-long revision course to give me the boost to get over the intermediate qualifying line in my
chosen profession. It was, for me, something of a last chance saloon – “Pass and move on; Fail and you cannot take this exam again.” Passing was my only ticket to becoming a fully-fledged Accountant.
There were around sixty of us on this classroom-based course, representing a cross-section of working students in our field. Some worked in London, in the City, for the well-known firms; others from further afield, but still in big practices in the provinces. I was a rarity – for I came from a very small firm out in the sticks. While others worked mostly in big audit teams, I worked alone on accounts of small businesses, with incomplete records. I did my fledgling accountancy work from the start to the finished article – which I then handed over to one of the partners for them to liaise with the client.
The course was run by two Indian gentlemen who were as different as chalk and cheese. One was a wise old bird, nearing retirement and who talked with a very thick accent. He was the course principal. The other was in his late twenties, spoke with an Oxford accent and had passed his Accountancy Finals with honours as a national winner for his year. Their teaching styles were also chalk and cheese – and most of us realised after the first day that the principal would ask a question and choose someone from the sea of hands that went up, whilst the young tutor had the names of all the students always to hand. He would ask the question and then say who he wanted to answer. These differing class-tutoring styles elicited equally different levels of concentrated engagement from Us. With the young guy’s questioning style, we ALL had to have an answer ready – whereas with the principal, if we weren’t keen to answer then we just didn’t put our hands up.
We had a fellow student of oriental extraction – called Mr. Li. We never knew his first name. Mr. Li liked questions because, it seemed to the rest of us, he knew all
the answers. No matter which tutor’s class it was, his hand went up at every question asked. And if the tutor paused, to either pick or say a student’s name, Mr. Li would wave his hand vigorously, begging attention.
“Me, sir, me sir! Please pick me!” he seemed to say.
Needless to say to the rest of us – long since out of school – this was more than a shade comical. Yet we were polite young professionals, so Mr. Li’s classroom
demeanour continued right across the four weeks of the course.
After the two examination days, we all met up in class for our final get together with each other and the tutors. There was light hearted conversation and plenty of banter throughout the room, and then our tutors wished us well. Just before we dispersed and went our separate ways, one of our fellow students went to the front. He thanked the tutors on our behalf and then announced a special award for the student who had made the biggest impression upon the rest of us. It was a bit like a “mini-Oscar’s”. He mentioned a couple of his city colleagues as nominees and then announced the winner – it was Mr. Li.
We all laughed, shouted and cheered as Mr. Li went up to collect his award … a Wooden Spoon.
Wherever we go, ‘e goes with us
One of the dangers in all learning is to assume that we have arrived. Or in other words, that we know it all and there is nothing more to learn. Believing “I can do it now,” is one of those times when life bites us in the butt.
A young lad came to his first cricket club session with us and I admired his considerable, yet raw, talent as a bowler. It was his first encounter with my coaching style, and I gave him some technical advice which he applied well, and we both saw an improvement in the outcomes of every ball he bowled. After about fifteen minutes I spoke to him with a high degree of praise, for I really was well impressed. I wanted to make an impression on him – as he had done on me. The next ball he bowled was so wide it hit the side of the nets and never even reached the batsman.
“Oh No!” I called out as I went to give him the ball back. “I shouldn’t have said all those things I’ve just said!” We both laughed and he went back and carried on bowling impressively.
Part of my lifelong learning as a coach is that I have seen this happen so often and with players of all ages. I knew that the praise would be a distraction; and the distraction plays out because of the EGO. The EGO, his ego was awakened by my praise and all of sudden his mental state as he went back to bowl the next ball was more focussed on my words than the next piece of action. In the lapse of time between hearing my words and letting go of the next ball he bowled, his ego was saying to himself “I can do it now – I know it all – There is nothing more to learn.” In reality, he had discovered the complete opposite.
Now my little ruse, the trick I’d played, had worked a treat for him. Why? Because he had both laughed at himself and then returned 100% to bowling as well as he had done before the praise. In that moment, he had conquered his Ego. If he had not laughed, let’s say, then Ego would have held sway, and would have continued to distract the rest of his action. And I see this all the time too. We utter words of disappointment, we breathe deep sighs, we get cross with ourselves, we beat ourselves up verbally, we blame it on something or someone. These are all examples of Ego holding sway. Keeping us from what we should REALLY be doing.
So, what are the parallels here between my young cricketer and Mr. Li?
Mr. Li is Ego by another name.
In order for you to get the point here, you need to forget the real person in Mr. Li. All the character Mr. Li wanted to do was to let the tutors AND everyone else
know that he knew the answer AND it was imperative that he was recognised as knowing so. His hand waved at every question – “Me, Me – Ask Me for I Know!
Of course, Mr. Li’s only true reward was the Wooden Spoon. And thus it is, also with us, as we play out the various actions in our lives, whether at our sport, our work, our social interactions, our relationships, and with our selves. We have the propensity to garner a lot of wooden spoons.


As Ryan Holiday says in his book, “Ego is the Enemy” when our attention is distracted – “Do I need this? Or is it really about ego? Am I ready to make the right decision? Or do the prizes (the praises) still glitter off in the distance?

To BE or to DO – Life is a constant roll call.”