It was a weekday morning in class 3 (Grade 3) in Ghana when our gorgeous English Teacher began the class session with a poem. We all loved Mrs. H., she exuded poise, calmness and professionalism. She was the epitome of all things beautiful. The rhyme she had in mind was about St. Ives and the instructions were simple, “Read the entire rhyme and provide me with the answer of how many people were going to St. Ives”. Being the enthusiastic and curious 9-year old’s we were at the time, we turned this assignment into a competition and a race against time; we just couldn’t wait to see who would be the first to answer the question correctly. Indeed, one felt a sense of pride and instant gratification in those days when you were the first to publicly answer any question correctly. The exact rhyme is noted below:
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?
May I remind you again that the question is “how many were going to St Ives?”. We brought out calculators, plain paper, etc. to execute all the mathematical formulas we had learnt. From addition, to subtraction and multiplication, we tried to make sense of this elusive problem. Based on our “sophisticated” yet erroneous calculations, we shouted out numbers ranging from 7 to 200 but none was accurate. For a moment, our class looked like a bidding scene at a car auction in Philadelphia, what with numbers being yelled out. After some frustrating minutes of trying, we all gave up hope and begun calling out random figures in the hope that one of such responses might be accurate. This strategy proved futile. Sensing our desperation, she began to explain the answer. I remember her saying “the answer is 1”. How, this is not possible, countered the entire class, how about the wives, sacks, cats and kits, what happened to them? The final answer cannot be 1. In her calm yet firm voice, she explained, I did not ask you to count any of those, my instructions were to identify how many were going to St. Ives. You made your calculations because you assumed they were all going to St. Ives, but judging from the poem, the only person identified as going to St. Ives, is the narrator of the story; so the accurate answer is 1. There was a moment of silence in the classroom as we all reflected on our “silliness”. Call it a lesson in logical thinking or critical analysis, we had glossed over the most important detail of the story and as long as we did that, we had eliminated any chance of ever getting the answer right. Indeed, if we had paid attention to the requirements of the task and not focused on competing against each other, we could have responded accurately.
Fast forward to 2011, I was teaching Sunday school in the US and I gave the 3rd and 4th graders a worksheet. It contained at least 20 questions, but there was a trick. Each question required the children to perform specific tasks, however, the very last one instructed the children to hand over the paper without answering any of the above questions. Tricky huh? Yes, very tricky. To teach them the importance of obedience, I repeatedly asked them to read through to the very end before attempting to respond to any of the questions. I watched and waited patiently as some of them preceded to answer with first reading through the instructions as asked. Out of a class of 35 children, no more than 3 of them handed over a blank sheet to me. Those 3 were the only ones who listened, the rest began answering because they thought they knew the answers and therefore did not need to follow instructions.
So why is it necessary to pay attention to detail? Well, from the 2 real life examples given, you notice that paying attention to detail would have saved us from a lot of unnecessary trouble. We would not have endured all that frustration and displeasure if we simply paid attention. Paying attention to detail helps simplify one’s life while increasing productivity/efficiency. One will know what to pursue and what to relinquish when we pay attention. Many have failed important tests not because they did not know the answers but rather because they failed to follow instructions. Many have missed their flights because they ignored the flight details. Some made it as far as the airport but waited at the wrong gate and subsequently missed their flight. How about relationships? We have made wrong decisions and found ourselves in sticky situations because we ignored the important details at the beginning of the relationship. Sometimes, we don’t pay attention because we feel we already know the answers, or we can solve the problem. Other times, we are simply in a hurry and it appears easier to gloss over things. It is expedient to note that no matter the urgency of a situation, one can only take 1 step at a time, I bite at a time and 1 breath at a time. So pay attention, simplify your life and let each step, bite or breath count.
PAY ATTENTION TO DETAILS