By Ron Culberson. With a master’s degree in social work, Ron Culberson spent the first part of his career working in a large hospice organization as a clinical social worker, middle manager, and senior leader. As a speaker, humorist, and author of "Do it Well. Make it Fun.The Key to Success in Life, Death, and Almost Everything in Between", he has delivered more than 1,000 presentations to associations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporations. His mission is to change the workplace culture so that organizations are more productive and staff are more content. He was also the 2012-2013 president of the National Speakers Association and is a recognized expert on the benefits of humor and laughter.
I’m a vanilla kind of guy.
Now, I’m not referring to the pasty color of my skin nor am I suggesting that I am a groupie for the rapper known for “Ice, Ice, Baby.” Instead, I call myself vanilla because my approach can sometimes fade into the background.
Let me explain.
When I was a kid, the extent of the ice cream diversity in our freezer was vanilla, chocolate, and occasionally, butter pecan. That was it. No cherry lewis, no mocha almond fudge, and definitely no pistachio. The way I understood it, pistachio was the flavor of the upper class. Anytime someone ordered pistachio ice cream on television, they always seemed sophisticated. I never once heard anyone in rural Virginia order pistachio.
Now that I’m an adult, I’ve eaten many different flavors of ice cream. And yet, I still don’t feel worthy of pistachio. “Nuttin” personal, I just haven’t gone that route.
When it comes to my career as a speaker and writer, I’m believe I’m quite solidly grounded in a vanilla existence. In other words, I don’t particularly lean towards the strong flavors of edginess and controversy. Some might call this approach bland. Some may say it’s boring. And others may say that I’ll never stand out with a vanilla approach. Yet, I wonder if it might just be more universal. Vanilla, for instance, is the most popular ice cream according to frozen dessert aficionados. And when it comes to accompaniments, I think vanilla ice cream compliments most cakes and pies better than anything.
So, maybe vanilla can be just as a powerful as pistachio or even basil jalapeño.
For me, the choice of vanilla has to do with the flavor of the world these days. It’s a bit overwhelming. I’m not particularly interested in adding seasoning to an already spicy atmosphere. Instead, my taste is for a milder approach. But this is not what gets the most attention.
Consider the world of talk shows, for example. Most successful hosts achieved fame because of flavorful comments. Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Dr. Laura Schlessinger rose to the top of their profession because the things they said were controversial. The controversy got attention. The attention attracted listeners. And the more listeners they got, the more successful they became. But, their comments also alienated people who found the approach distasteful.
I once heard a speaker say that you can’t make an impact on people unless you make them uncomfortable. Similarly, one of my graduate school professors said that people won’t change their behavior unless the stress in their lives is so high that it forces them to change.
I understand this perspective and appreciate the intent. But then I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. who embraced a philosophy of love and non-violent resistance. His approach suggests that we can influence people by caring, and perhaps the very act of caring will move them towards change. That’s quite a different paradigm.
Several years ago, I wrote a column for a well-known online news site. One day, a seemingly innocuous article sent one reader into a rage. The man made assumptions about my perspective that were just not true. He criticized my article and judged me as a person. His comments were so intense, some of them were removed for violating the site’s etiquette policies. The experience left me quite rattled.
After that, I began using a more vanilla approach to my writing and speaking. I did not purposely seek to be bland but instead sought to avoid being the person who created ill will or brought out the anger in others. I wanted to put out positive ideas even if it was not as flavorful as the ideas of people who are more controversial. My assumption was that if my positive vibes spread among both my audiences and readers, perhaps I could counter the negativity that seems to be so pervasive in the world today.
Will I be famous if I’m vanilla? Most certainly not. But my goal has never been fame or fortune. It has always been to simply to do what I love and to spread a little goodwill along the way.
Maybe we don’t need to be famous to have an impact. Maybe we don’t need to be noticed to serve others. Maybe we don’t need to be the national leader of a radical group to influence the world. Maybe, instead, we can make a radical difference for our families, our colleagues, and our community through daily acts of vanilla.
There is a quote by Confucius that says, “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
Some people seek to move mountains all at once. Others, stone by stone.
As I sit here eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream, I realize that it’s quite delicious. And, it compliments so many other foods. So, if the most neutral ice cream ever made is also the most popular, then maybe we vanilla types really can make an impact on the world. We may not wake up everybody’s taste buds like a big dish of chocolate caramel cookie dough crunch, but we just might make a bigger impact than we realize.
And that’s the scoop.
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