Rocks and Water

To wrap up 2014, we’d like to share a pair of stories that all leaders would do well to keep in mind. “Rocks” addresses the importance of prioritization, and not letting unimportant stuff crowd out the important stuff. And “Water” is an eloquent argument, quite relevant for this time of year, about how and why we must seek to see the world through others’ eyes.

All best wishes from Nevins Consulting for a wonderful holiday season!


The end of the calendar year is a time of rituals: we light the menorah, decorate the Christmas tree, sing special songs, spend time over good meals with family and friends, and engage in lots of traditional activities.

One year-end tradition at Nevins Consulting is taking some time to think about “Big Rocks.” You probably know the parable, which is generally attributed to the effectiveness guru Stephen Covey, but in case you don’t you can find it here in our Newsletter Archive.

“Big Rocks” is a critical concept for business leaders. Many of our clients even use the term in their strategic planning: “These are our Big Rocks (or Boulders, or Big Things) for the coming year—if we don't get these right, nothing else matters.” Effective leadership demands that we keep our focus, even in times of change, and ensure that our people expend time and energy on what’s most important. We live in a world where everything happens quickly and most people are becoming increasingly reactive: “responsiveness” is a virtue, especially in a customer/client-facing role; but if you find yourself constantly “reactive” you’re probably not making meaningful progress on executing your strategy.

The end of the calendar year (or the very beginning of the new year) is a great time to take stock of your Big Rocks. Do so yourself, and engage your team as well. How did you do in accomplishing your most important goals over the last year? How does your team feel they did? For the things that went well, is there anything that can be learned and better leveraged in 2015? For the things that didn’t go so well, why didn’t they? And what can you do differently next year? And, of course, what are your Big Rocks for the upcoming year? (Surely you’ve already established those, right?) And how will you ensure that you and your team don’t spend too much of your precious time and energy shoveling sand and gravel?

Also, don't forget your personal Big Rocks. What’s important to you outside of work? Family, free time to learn new things, contributing to your local communities, staying in shape? To be a successful person as well as a successful leader, we need to recognize that our personal Big Rocks are not luxuries or indulgences, but mission-critical. What’s your plan for fitting them in?


Over the last year, several of our clients have reminded us about David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water,” and we wanted to share it with our readers. Wallace was a professor of English, essayist, and novelist; a thoughtful and to some extent uncategorizable writer, his Infinite Jest is recognized as one of the great English-language novels of the 20th Century. In 2005 he was asked to deliver the Commencement Address at Kenyon College, and for the occasion he produced the remarkable “This is Water.”

(“This is Water” was published as a book in 2009, and is still in print. The complete text of the speech can also be found on the Internet, for example here. There’s an audio capture of the actual speech here. And a group called The Glossary produced a lovely video based on an excerpt from speech, which you might be able to find here—or maybe not, since the video was made without permission from Wallace’s estate.)

“This is Water” is a small masterpiece. Wallace manages to touch on, and at the same time question and subvert, all of the usual kinds of good advice one expects from a commencement address. He makes his readers/audience think and question: about education, learning, life, and growing up.

But the real power of the speech comes from how Wallace engages in the question of empathy, and how hard it can be to get out of our own heads in order to see and understand what our fellow humans are going through and how they are experiencing life. Wallace challenges us to think about what’s really important; to question where “meaning” really comes from; and to face the tough reality of “the essential lonesomeness of adult life.” (Postscript: Wallace took his own life in 2008, which makes his Kenyon address even more poignant.)

While he never uses the term, Wallace’s speech serves as a reminder of the importance of emotional intelligence in our roles as leaders. Being smart, hard driving, and knowledgeable are important characteristics for leaders, but they are merely necessary, not sufficient. Great leaders are able to understand, engage, and motivate others, which first and foremost means being able to put ourselves into their shoes. Our colleague Kristina DiStasio often notes that “leadership is really about relationships,” and you could do worse than spending some time over your holiday break thinking about “Water” and how you’re interacting with the people in your life.

We’d love to hear your reactions to Big Rocks or “This is Water” and any related experiences from your work as a leader. Please drop us a line at

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
—Albert Einstein