Coaching and Mentoring : Don't Let Them Make You Crazy : Or There is Never Anyone in The Other Boat

Marshall Goldsmith is one of the world’s foremost authorities in helping leaders achieve positive, measurable change in behavior: for themselves, their people and their teams. He is Founder of Marshall Goldsmith Partners www.marshallgoldsmith.com

Marshall is a founding director of A4SL - The Alliance for Strategic Leadership, a consulting alliance that includes over 200 top professionals in the field of leadership development ( www.A4SL.com ). He is also the co-founder of the Financial Times Knowledge Dialogue, a videoconference network that connects executives with the world’s greatest thinkers. He has a Ph.D. from UCLA. He is on the faculty of the global executive education program for Dartmouth, Michigan and Oxford (UK) Universities. Marshall has partnerships with Hewitt Associates and Russell Reynolds to provide coaching for leaders around the globe. He has served on the Board of the Peter Drucker Foundation for ten years. 

Marshall’s fourteen books include: The Leader of the Future ( a Business Week “Top 15” best-seller ), Learning Journeys and Coaching for Leadership.


Think of that one person who drives you absolutely crazy - that one person who really “pisses you off”, makes you feel guilty or sad. Does someone come to mind ?

For almost all of us, the answer is a definitive “Oh, yes !”

We may have spent countless hours reliving events when this person was unfair, unappreciative or inconsiderate. We may have thought, “What a jerk!” over and over again. Even remembering this person may make our blood pressure rise, our pulse race with anger and our minds fill with grief.

Try not to let this person – or other people like him – make you feel so miserable. Their problems are their problems. Try not to make them your problems. Letting other people “get to us” is seldom a good idea for two reasons:

  1. it usually doesn’t help the situation
  2. life is too short to spend all of our time feeling bad

An old Buddhist parable may help.

A young farmer was covered with sweat as he paddled his boat up the river. He was going upstream to deliver his produce to the village. He was in a hurry. It was a hot day and he wanted to make his delivery and get home before dark. As he looked ahead, he spied another vessel, heading rapidly downstream toward his boat. This vessel seemed to be making every effort to hit him. He rowed furiously to get out of the way, but it didn’t seem to help. 

He yelled at the other vessel, “Change direction you idiot ! You are going to hit me. The river is wide. Be careful !” His screaming was to no avail. The other vessel hit his boat with a sickening thud. He was enraged as he stood up and cried out to the other boat, “You moron ! How could you manage to hit my boat in the middle of this wide river ? What is wrong with you ?”

As he strained to see the pilot of the other vessel, he suddenly realized that there was no one in the other boat. He was screaming at an empty boat that had broken free of its moorings and was just floating downstream with the current.

The learning point of this story is simple. There is never anyone in the other boat. When we are screaming – we are always screaming at an empty vessel.

That other person that is making you so angry cannot help but be who he is. Getting mad at him for being who he is, makes as much sense as getting mad at the chair you are sitting in for being a chair. The chair can’t help but be a chair. The other person can’t help but be who he is. If you had his parents, his genes and his background, you would be him.

You don’t have to like the other person. You don’t have to agree with the other person. You don’t even have to respect the other person. Just accept the fact that he is who he is and decide not to let his craziness become yours.

In many cases, the deeper cause of our anger is really not the other person. We are usually mad at ourselves. 

On a recent flight, I was talking to an investor who had bought a small business. He was livid about how the original owner had let him down. In spite of the owner’s positive initial impression, he seemed to lack motivation and had consistently missed commitments. The investor went on-and-on about how the owner had “led him on” and how he had made a poor investment. The investor was a multi-millionaire who lived in a beautiful home in Switzerland and had a lovely wife and child. 

I asked him how long this had been upsetting him. He angrily grunted, “Far too many months !”

I suggested that the real cause of his anger might be that he was incensed with himself for being a poor judge of character and not conducting adequate due diligence in the purchase.

After careful thought, he reflected, “You are exactly right. In hindsight, I was a dumb ass for making this purchase. I usually have a great sense for these deals. I just screwed this one up ! The person that I am really pissed off at is me ! I think of myself as a great judge of character and I really missed this one".

I suggested that getting upset with himself for making one mistake was even crazier than getting upset at the other person. He was just a human and was extremely successful in spite of this one mistake. Beside, in the future he could learn from what he did wrong. By the end of the flight, he decided to sell the business, cut losses, get on with life, buy another business and enjoy his family !

The next time you feel like another person is making you crazy, just smile and say, “There is no one in the other boat.” Accept him for who he is and make the best of it.

Even more important, look in the mirror – the person you are really angry with may be staring back at you. Forgive yourself for making a mistake in judgment. Like my friend from Switzerland, cut losses, get on with life and enjoy your family !


© Copyright Marshall Goldsmith, 2005

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