• Bob Ewing

#35: What’s the moral of the story?


One Idea. One Challenge. Once a Week.



“You better have a good moral to the story.”

~ John Prine, The Bottomless Lake


The psychologist Gary Klein loves to tell this true story:


There was once a nurse who worked with babies. She spent much of her time in a neonatal intensive care unit. Surrounded by infants with serious problems. The nurse kept a close eye on them.


One day a special baby caught her attention. The machines monitoring him said he was fine, but the nurse didn’t feel right about it. Her gut said the baby was in trouble.


She watched him throughout the day. And then, in a matter of seconds, the baby turned deep blue. A machine sounded an alarm. The nurse’s stomach dropped.


A medical team came rushing in. The problem was obvious to them. One of the baby’s lungs had collapsed. This happens to babies on ventilators, and the computers confirmed it. The team got ready to cut the baby’s chest open.


But the nurse felt something was off.


The problem wasn’t the baby’s lung, she thought, but air inside his chest putting pressure on his heart. She had seen babies die this way.


The nurse screamed out, “it’s not his lung, it’s his heart!” The medical team pushed her aside. One of them pointed to a monitor showing that the baby’s heart was fine, pumping at 130 beats per minute.


The nurse didn’t believe it. She shouted for them to be quiet. She pulled out a stethoscope and put it against his little chest.


Silence.


The nurse was right. The baby’s heart stopped. She began compressions. A doctor used a simple syringe to remove the air around the baby’s heart. The pressure lifted. The heart started beating again.


The baby quickly turned back to a normal color.


The nurse saved his life.


Later, the team realized that the machines monitoring the baby didn’t fail. They were measuring the electrical activity from the baby’s nerves. His body sent the correct signals for his heart to beat. Those signals just got lost along the way.

***


What’s the point of Gary Klein’s story of the neonatal nurse? What’s the moral?


This is it:


We need to give our full attention to what matters most.

We live in an increasingly jarring world. Distractions are everywhere. We must resist them to do our jobs well. Sometimes lives depend on it.


If you find yourself talking about the importance of being fully present, you can share this story to help drive home your argument.


But here’s the thing. If you think about it, this is really a story about acting with courage. We live in divided times. We all feel the push to go along with our tribes. The nurse inspires us to think for ourselves. To be guided by inner strength instead of peer pressure. To act with virtue.


So which is it? A story about being present? Or a story about being courageous?


The truth is, it’s a story about the danger of being overly reliant on technology.


And it’s a story about the importance of local knowledge. And how messages sometimes get lost.


It’s about experts’ gut feelings.


And taking control of the situation.


It’s about standing up to authority.


Here’s the lesson that I’m drawing out today:


A single story may have several morals.

As you build your catalog of stories, don’t fall into the trap of thinking each one must have just a single insight to share. Or that each point you make must be confined to one example.


Stories are flexible. The lessons they share are for you to decide.


***

IDEA

A single story may have several morals.


CHALLENGE

Think about a story that resonates with you. Perhaps a story from work, or a story your family or friends like to share. It can be a story you loved as a kid, or even one from a favorite movie or show.


What are at least two lessons or morals you can draw from it?


***

Cheers, Bob



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