Encore: Learning my 9 Boxes

6th grade was a big year, come to think of it.

After sharing the story about my dad, and how he helped me appreciate my schooling more, I thought you might enjoy some true Sunday Mālama time meeting Mr. Lincoln.

A bit of encore backstory: This post is one I originally wrote for Joyful Jubilant Learning. We were “Learning the Joy of 9” at the time, in a playful month-long exploration of the 09-09-09 palindrome. These were our posting prompts:

What does 9 mean to you?
How can 9 trigger your learning, adding to your learning pleasure in a 9-fold way?
What exploration of 9 will you challenge yourself with in the month to come?

This was one writing assignment I didn’t have to think twice about. So here is Learning my 9 Boxes with a few updates for this new spot on Talking Story.

May there be a Mr. Lincoln in every student’s life.

Shadow stripes
Waikoloa School

Learning My 9 Boxes

Growing up I did well in school; I liked being there, and quickly discovered my joy in learning. It was obvious to me that what I liked was relatively easy (English, History, Social Studies) and what I didn’t like as much would surely prove more difficult (Science and Math) — just like Kirsten says!New Learners for the New Economy So I tried real hard to find some favor in those things I didn’t like.

However all through my lower grades I could not come to grips with numbers. With every advancing grade it seemed to me that math got worse, in blatant, unreasonable defiance of that surely-sacred law that “practice makes perfect.”

Mr. Lincoln

Then by some divine intervention, Mr. Lincoln became our math teacher in the 6th grade, just in time for Algebra. It had to be a miracle of some kind, because I was in Catholic school, and all our other teachers were nuns. I would soon learn that was but one small reason Mr. Lincoln was miraculously different. Very different.

The nuns were specialists. Each grade had a homeroom teacher, but you’d have the same nun for each subject of the curriculum from kindergarten all the way up to the 8th grade, so unless she stopped teaching for some reason, you had to learn to like her too; the subject itself was but the half of it. Well, something happened to Sister Margaret Alice, who’d been our math teacher, during the summer after the 5th grade. Not sure what; when you’re only 10 or 11 years old you aren’t given many reasons for things happening, they just do, and you accept them knowing you don’t have much choice in the matter anyway. So when we walked into our math class at the beginning of my 6th grade school year, there was Mr. Lincoln, a regular man ”“ he wasn’t even a brother or priest! And he was our teacher!

From the very beginning we knew he’d be temporary, only there until they found another nun to replace Sister Margaret Alice, and sure enough, by the 7th grade Mr. Lincoln was gone. But we had our full 6th grade with him, and for me, that was enough: Mr. Lincoln was going to be the one to finally help me learn to love numbers ”“ in Algebra no less.

The Breakthrough

All these years later, Mr. Lincoln has become larger than life in my memories of him. He’s become a math god, commanding all the happy numbers of the universe. I’ve freely given him the credit in silent prayer with every corporate balance sheet or profit & loss statement I have had to reconcile, and every business plan or pro forma I’ve had to write. I’ve blessed his memory each time I’ve managed to get my income tax returns to be at zero (versus paying or getting a refund) because my withholding was right. Whenever I gave a training class in financial literacy to my employees having figured out the best way to present it to them, I’ve imagined Mr. Lincoln playing chess or poker in heaven with Dean Pennington (my high school class advisor, and the one who convinced me to take Business Law in college), again winning both game and debate on why good business strategy should not be overly complicated. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that I would not be an entrepreneur and principal of three businesses today if Mr. Lincoln had not been my 6th grade math teacher.

Yes, he was nice. Yes, he was kind. Yes, he was patient. Yes, he was very, very good at explaining the mysteries of Algebra. However my breakthrough came the day that he explained something extraordinary to us. He said that math and numbers are two different things which happen to work together well, and we could use numbers for more than just math. It sounds incredibly obvious, but back then this was like a pronouncement of permission thinking sent straight from heaven.

Mr. Lincoln said something like, “Put aside math for now; don’t even think about it. Let’s figure out how you can learn to like numbers.” It was like reinventing all of numerology all over again, and doing it any way you wanted to. Even as a lowly, do-as-you’re-told, be-seen-and-not-heard 6th grader.

Folding Paper

One of the first things we did in class was fold paper. Mr. Lincoln gave each of us a blank piece of paper and said he wanted us to fold it any way we wanted to: We could make columns, we could make boxes, we could make triangles or a pie —we could even rip a piece off if we wanted it square instead of rectangular.

He then explained that whatever we ended up with would be our template: When we counted up how many spaces our folds had created, we would know what our favorite number was —naturally, because our spirit said so. From then on, every time he gave us a homework assignment, we could apply it first to some patterning or iteration of our favorite number, deciding if we liked our pattern or not, and jogging a happier trail toward the answers he would eventually teach us to find.

“A process of achieving a desired result by repeating a sequence of steps and successively getting closer to that result.”

In other words, we could make our own math rules. Mr. Lincoln was either crazy (and the nuns didn’t know it) or he was brilliant. As you can guess, I think he was brilliant.

The 9 Boxes

As I sat in Mr. Lincoln’s class that day, I folded my paper in 3 equal columns and 3 equal rows, and got 9 boxes. It was the day that I instantly and magically stopped being intimidated by the number 9. I learned to embrace it, and get it to work for me. It’s a template I use even today.

And just as Mr. Lincoln said I could do, I use my 9 boxes for way more than just math. The first homework assignment he gave us was to think about the special things in our lives, and collect them on our templates within the spaces we created so they could be at home with us in math class too. I don’t recall what they were, but I do remember that my 9 boxes each had a single word in them (all in English, no Hawaiian). It remains a way I will teach managers to dream, and drill-down from their most compelling values words to articulating their vision.

As you can see from this picture, I use my 9 boxes every single week to do my Strong Week Planning: The arrows are normally not there, but are drawn in for you to see my process. When I do my Weekly Review I write my project management in each square and pattern my work flow.

The flow arrows were there on the 9 boxes I used to decide what order the 19 values of Managing with Aloha should appear in the chapter progression of my book: The arrows did the double duty of segmenting each box into two, with Aloha naturally starting in the middle as fertile ground and centering. Number 19 is my Epilogue, and as Ka lā hiki ola, the value of hope and promise, it is my “dawning of a new day” (the literal translation of the value) and on a brand new page of 9 boxes as the page title   —the one which would become the 9 Key Concepts of my business model. Yep” The resulting grid morphed my book into a business.

I teach managers the fine points of the Daily 5 Minutes with 9 questions knowing their understanding will be complete once they fill in their own action plans for it in the template: They will move from having 9 questions to 9 incredible answers which value their employees and make them feel exceptionally confident as their manager and partner.

Iteration Drill Down

Best of all, 9 was simply my beginning.

I now LOVE 5. Do these ring any bells?

  1. The Daily 5 Minutes ®. Definition and story, and full category. If you’re not giving your staff the gift of the Daily Five Minutes, you’re not Managing with Aloha „¢
  2. 5 Things Employees Need to Learn—From You. I am fond of saying that we learn from people, for I fervently believe that we do.
  3. Performance Reviews: There’s a much better way. Turn your mandates into a positive and highly useful process in 5 steps.
  4. Getting back our Practical Wisdom. “Change talking” in 5, and the power of our language of intention.
  5. And focus-significant last year: Take 5 in 2010: A Game-Changing Ho‘ohana.

As a writer I’m a fan of the number 3, and I use the Rule of Three in every keynote-length speech I give (Copyblogger explains it well: How to Use the “Rule of Three” to Create Engaging Content):

  1. 3 Ways Managers Create Energetic Workplaces
  2. The 3 Secrets of Being Positive
  3. The 3 Sins of Management

The number 1 makes me focus (though this one is a bit of cheat, for it expands to 3 columns): Improve your Reputation with 1 List.

But for me, learning by numbers all started with the number 9 —and with an incredible teacher named Mr. Lincoln.

Tell me what you love about 9. How you might impulsively use the 9 boxes if faced with a blank template of them? I would love to get more ideas, and have a ream of printer paper just waiting to be folded, so I can continue to learn —from you.

As Brad Shorr shared with the original JJL posting:

Rosa, I wonder where you would be in your career and life without Mr. Lincoln. It’s amazing when we trace back to the roots of what we have become. A while back I had a cartoon strip project (that may be coming back to life!) where we were telling a story in sets of three three-panel cartoons. I found the structure of 9 very conducive to storytelling: a set up, a twist, a result. It was the first time I ever took a mathematical approach to joke writing, and the client and I were both extremely happy with the result.

We can probably all relate to what Cody Robert shared: I love what he says about “math as a language.”

For me Rosa, it was quite the opposite in that I had no trouble learning math in school at all. But, the application is what became vexing. What use were all these rules and theories outside of simple scribbles on paper? In reality, it seemed, all someone had done was make up these systems and rules of “math”.

It wasn’t for many years later until I began understanding the quiet importance of all the math I had learned. How it is a most efficient means of describing what was previously indescribable in our world. It then does me no surprise to hear that you learned its application at such an early age! Math, as a language acts not only to describe what we see around us, but what we envision and plan. Thank you for sharing this sweet revelation with me yet again.

Saturday stillness at the schoolyard swings
Saturday stillness at school

Archive Aloha

  • Numerology for Managers: Great video in this one on the Magic of 9.
  • Leadership Needs a Numbers Breakthrough: We have long given each other such awful, negative connotations to numbers in business. On the one hand, numbers are revered as supreme; they are the measurement metrics of our universal business language. They are pragmatic. (Hear the sighs of all your CFOs and CPAs?) However let it be known (or surmised) that you are at all “bottom-line driven” and you strike fear in the hearts of all your employees and their families. Shifting context can help.
  • The 30-70 Rule in Leading and Managing: A manager will both manage and lead. They will be most effective at achieving results which matter when 30% of their time is dedicated to leading, and 70% of their time is devoted to managing.


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