Lessons Learned

Schoolyard Influence

By Michael Hernandez

Last Updated: 12/24/17


I was quite the trouble-maker in elementary and middle school.

I never quite did get in trouble for my rabble rousing; It was a difficult task to prosecute someone who had done nothing.

Rather, I exercised my influence on others to cause everything from low-grade mayhem to full-on mutiny.

I did not employ tactics of active rebellion; I more-or-less stumbled upon the subtler tones of subversion by accident.

I learned a lot during that time about how people make decisions, and how their motivations can be leveraged for influence.

I'll illustrate what I mean with a few examples.

Leveraging Motivation

In elementary school, I had been hanging out with my group of friends during recess. This had been in a day of minimal supervision in a some-what rural-minded school.

We had been walking around the edge of the large field where the other children were playing soccer, running around, and generally having fun under the Sun.

One of my friends explained that he had discovered where the sprinkler controls could be engaged by manual override. He opened a plastic cover on the ground and showed us the controls. He even quickly demonstrated a pressure relief valve that sent a small jet of water into the air.

"It would be really cool if someone turned on the sprinklers." I verbally mused.

A wicked grin spread across my friend's face as he reached for the controls and unleashed the full power of the school's irrigation system upon the unsuspecting students enjoying their lunch break.

We ran for it amid the ensuing chaos.

Reflecting on this event years later, I realized something important. One of the easiest ways to get someone to do something can be broken into the following steps:

  1. Determine what they want.
  2. Think about what you want them to do.
  3. Suggest that by doing what you want them to do they will accomplish what they want.

In the case of my friend, he wanted to be cool. I suggested a path to accomplishing coolness. He agreed with my suggestion and followed suit.

This has been the foundation for my personal style of persuasion.

To The Extreme

I had been washing my hands at the bathroom sink in preparation for lunch when I noticed my friend's younger brother laughing up a storm.

"Check this out!" he cried as he proceeded to quickly flush the urinal three times in a row.

It gurgled and kicked water.

I thought it was pretty funny, and made a sarcastic suggestion.

"Why don't you try flushing it six times in a row like that?"

A wicked smile spread across the boy's face as he followed the plan.

The water churned with increased force as it cascaded down onto the floor.

I chuckled to myself while leaving the scene of mischief, a look of horror struck on the kid as he stood at the center of a puddle.

In this case, I learned that it is relatively easy to get someone to do more of what they are already doing.

Challenging Days

Middle school was a bit of an odd time for me.

In seventh grade, my introversion flourished. I had become increasingly shy. I think things got really bad after I let an eighth-grade girl know that I had a crush on her. The ensuing shame was not something that I could handle, and so I withdrew from the world and spent much of my recess time on solo walks practicing my yo-yo skills.

Needless to say, I got to be quite good with a yo-yo.

Eighth grade was interesting as well, for other reasons. I was able to recover after the Summer break from my self-inflicted exile. I resolved to be authentic and genuine to who I was, regardless of what others thought.

This decision placed me into a unique situation.

There were a few kids who tried to tease and make fun of me for various reasons. I truly did not care about what they said. This ultimately impressed them as I let their words roll past unfazed. I ended up becoming a sort of hero to them and somehow earned everyone's trust and confidence in the process.

I had not realized this at the time and I still kept to myself a lot.

I was fairly vocal about the things that I felt strongly about.

One day I received an invitation to the principal's office.

I had no idea what this was going to be about.

When it was my turn to go into the office, I was greeted by the principal sporting a stern smile.

She explained that I was not in trouble for doing anything, and that she wanted to talk to me. She elaborated that a significant number of students had talked to her about an upcoming anti-bullying event. She claimed that my vocal disagreement with the event had caused them to become hesitant and unwilling to participate.

It was a school-wide event meant to promote positive attitudes. I saw it as a one-day thing that would not last long, and a relative waste of time. A lot of touch-feely stuff with hugging, hand-holding, and wallowing in self-pity. I had seen for myself the previous year what it was all about.

The principal felt that if I continued sharing my opinion the success of the event could be placed into jeopardy. She tactfully indicated that my silence on the matter would be appreciated and in my best interest.

I really did not think that my words could have had such a great impact on the people around me. My self-esteem had always been on the low-side, and I did not think that my opinion would have been valued by my classmates.

I learned two things from that experience:

  1. Being authentic and genuine to who you are is one way to earn the respect of others and build rapport.
  2. With great power comes great responsibility.


After realizing that my words and influence could have real and lasting impact on the lives of people around me, I decided to tone things down a bit.

From high school through college, I tried to isolate myself to avoid causing people problems. Looking back, I think it was a mistake moving to such an extreme.

And it was no fun.

I had become too insular, missing out on some opportunities to meet cool people who wanted to be a part of my life.

I decided to study and pursue a career in marketing where I could constructively develop and apply the practices of influence and persuasion.

My education and work has confirmed a lot of what I had discovered on the schoolyard:

I like to think that I have found balance and peace.

I have to keep vigilant as old habits die hard. My introversion occasionally peaks and I will catch myself in the midst of getting people into trouble.

Small trouble, but trouble none the less.

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