Haystacks and social media


My Dad was a quiet man. Raised as a farmboy in a small mountain farm town in Idaho, he spent a lot of time by himself. At nine years old he spent weeks in a small shack by himself to legally homestead his family’s farming property. Hours were spent in the field by himself tending to crops and fixing the myriad of little things that pop up in daily farm life. It’s not hard to imagine why he spoke little and demonstrated little emotion.

A couple years before he died, he began sharing some stories about his life, and how he actually felt at various times. Although I wish I had heard them earlier, I’m so grateful he finally decided to share his perspective. It helped me finally understand him better. This story that I’m sharing was very meaningful, because it not only described the life he lived, but it also had a tremendous lesson that I’ve applied any time I start to think that someone is out of touch or behind the times. Those times when someone just doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate the way communication and interaction occur these days. But as you will see from this story, it shows that just because someone doesn’t understand a technology or modern norm, they still have valuable knowledge and perspective to share. Just maybe, things we think of as unique and modern aren’t really that different after all.

When my Dad was six (yes, six) he had multiple jobs in the family’s daily life. One of them was walking to a collective silo every morning and guiding a horse attached to a boom that lifted hay off local farmer’s carts and placed it in the silo for storage. As he described it, it was simply a lot of walking back and forth as the hay was bundled, lifted, then lowered and unbundled. “That horse was a lot bigger than I was.” he chuckled.

The hay that wasn’t sold or stored in the silo was kept in haystacks in the field. Not the square or circular bales you see today driving on the interstate - they were the old-fashioned mounds of hay that looked like someone, somehow created a perfectly symmetrical pile of golden straw. These shapes weren’t an accident though. There were people in town that had become experts in building haystacks and there was a certain way they were done. When hay was being harvested, these were the “go-to” people that were called to help get the hay stacked and prepped for winter.

The problem was, weather was unpredictable in Downey, Idaho, not only across the broad farming plain but in small geographic areas. Someone’s hay could be ready for harvest at one point in time while someone just down the road wouldn’t be ready for weeks. Or someone’s harvest happen to come in strong while someone else’s was weak. There was no predictability but the hay had to be cut and stored when it was ready.

The norm in this farming community was that you helped each other. When someone’s hay was ready to be cut, word went out and everyone came to help. The haystack “expert” would guide the activity, carefully stacking the hay this way and that while others tended to the equipment and material. When done, everyone went their separate way. But that wasn’t the end. If you happened to be the beneficiary of a bountiful year, you shared with those whose crops didn’t do well, because in future years you would be in the same boat. 

“Okay” you are thinking, “fun story but what’s so special?” This story really got me to thinking about how we often think that historical actions and knowledge are obsolete, and yet they can provide timeless lessons to make our current actions and knowledge more valuable. Think about the story I just told. It was about:

  1. Getting the word out
  2. Collectively building the haystack
  3. Sharing and contributing.

What do we call this exact same thing today?

  1. Social networking
  2. Crowdsourcing
  3. Open source

We’re merely using more technologically advanced tools to do the exact same thing - albeit much more efficiently. 

My point is this. In the business world today, you are likely using many of these “new” methods of sharing, collaborating and communicating. You can learn a lot, and make much better use of these tools, by seeking out people with experience in your industry and listening to their stories. I’m not suggesting you follow their method, I’m suggesting you discern the basic human truths that exist and apply those to what you do. For example, if you spend a lot of time with social media, find someone seasoned who has a vast, vibrant network (outside of Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.). How did they become that way? What lessons did they learn about people and their nature? What built solid relationships?

Do this, and I guarantee you will discover a treasure trove of insight about how to better apply any of the tools you use today.