Crucial Skills®

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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Wild Mushrooms

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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I’m not sure how old I was when my mom taught me how to find wild mushrooms. I know she held my hand as we walked into the woods that day. I can still feel the warm touch of her delicate fingers. That would put me at around seven years of age. Any older than that I would have stopped holding hands because, according to my older brother, it wasn’t “cool.” What a shame.

It was springtime in Bellingham, Washington and if you knew where and how to search you could find delicious edible mushrooms in the woods behind our home. However, as Mom soon taught me, it took some first-class hunting. (Toadstools were easy to find, but they would kill you.)

After trekking through the woods for nearly an hour Mom eventually dropped five mushrooms into our brown paper bag. I had found one. We eagerly took our bounty home where Mom quickly fried it and popped the tender morsels into an omelet. This ritual went on for a couple of weeks—the two of us searching hand-in-hand and eventually returning with a half dozen or so mushrooms.

Then one Saturday morning my world changed. Driven by some genetic, time-released code hidden deep inside my cells, I sprung to my feet, grabbed a brown paper bag, and went in search of the fungi on my own. I still remember how frightened I was as I walked into the thick, dark woods behind our house. I hadn’t read about the “wild things” that lived there (the book wouldn’t come out for another decade), but I certainly had heard their occasional growls and howls. I had even seen their tracks. Plus my older brother had filled my head with tales of moose, cougars, and bears (Oh my!) that routinely mauled anyone who dared enter their domain. And I was about to enter their domain.

The prospect of being gutted by a beast frightened me right down to my socks, but it wasn’t enough to keep me home. Not that day. My desire to prove my mettle outweighed the fear that normally kept me close to home. It was my time to step up to the table. It was my time to provide for the table. So, I plunged into the darkness, eyes pinned to the forest floor—dead set on bringing home the bacon.

It was hard work finding mushrooms that day. The woods were wet from an overnight rain; the underbrush scratched my arms, burrs stuck to my pant legs and socks, and stinger nettles rubbed against my exposed neck and ankles—leaving behind tiny mountain ranges of welts. All the while, the mushrooms hid. They were masters of camouflage. With no effort whatsoever, they magically disappeared into the forest floor—nature’s Waldos—perfectly blending into the background.

After over an hour of fungi-less searching, and just before I trudged home in utter defeat, I eventually stumbled into a small grove that offered the first mushroom of the day. As I bent down to gather it up, there next to it I saw another—and then another. Startled by the find, I jumped to my feet, gave my eyes a second to adjust to the diminished light, and there, peeking their heads through the loam and leaves, I spotted dozens of edible delights. I’ll never forget that glorious moment. I had stumbled on the mother lode of mushrooms. I would return home the victor.

I soon gathered up every single fungal gem and dashed home with my brown paper bag filled to the top. (These were the honeycomb variety of mushroom and as such, easy to spot—so I wasn’t running the risk of bringing home deadly toadstools.) Mom beamed with delight when she saw what I was carrying. My brother gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Dad slapped me on the back, carefully inspected my bounty, washed it, and fried the lot in butter. Then the four of us sat down at the family table and feasted on a delicious breakfast that I, a seven-year-old boy, had hunted and gathered all by myself.

Some kids go through a formal rite of passage into manhood. They do it at church or during a tribal ceremony or maybe even at home when Dad tosses them the keys to the car or their first laptop computer. Not with me. I was only seven that day I brought home the mushrooms—about half the age most people think it takes to spring into manhood. But for me, I’m pretty sure I made part of the leap right then and there. After all, as everyone could plainly see, I was now a member of the select group of people that helped feed our family.

And feed our family I did. From mushroom gathering I soon graduated to berry picking, clam digging, and fishing. We were dirt poor during my childhood years, but we always ate well. Imagine a dinner comprised of wild mushrooms, butter clams, trout, and hot blackberry pie. It’s the kind of fare they serve at a fancy restaurant nowadays. We Pattersons ate such stuff because it was free and, more often than not, I had brought it home.

I hadn’t thought about this part of my life until last week when two of my granddaughters invited me to a fashion show. At age nine, the two of them had taken a sewing class from one of our neighbors and now they were going to model the blouse and skirt each of them had made. They had picked the patterns, selected the material, and after hours of work and meticulous care had sewn an outfit that they’d soon be wearing to school.

As each granddaughter paraded around the church auditorium cum runway, I nearly burst with pride. Imagine that, making their own clothes—and only in the second grade! Later that evening as we talked, each child stood confidently wrapped in clothes of her own making. As I looked closely into their eyes I could tell that both girls had changed. I had seen them perform ballet, gymnastics, cheer leading, piano, violin—you name it—they had taken the lessons and performed at the recitals. But this was different. They were different.

Most lessons are about improving yourself, performing, and then taking a bow. And while I believe in such personal training and the skills, confidence, and discipline it develops, it’s not the same as producing something the family can use. It’s not the same as adding to the country’s gross national product. It’s not the same as picking mushrooms or sewing your own clothes. Do that, and you’re part of the group that feeds and clothes your family. Do that, and you change.

I suddenly saw the value of teaching children and grandchildren (while they’re still young) ways to help feed and clothe the family as well as how to care for the home. Perhaps you think I’m grasping at straws, but I think the difference between performing and providing, although subtle, is substantial. Praising a kid for taking three minutes to draw a crayon picture is one thing. Praising a child for bringing home the bacon is something both memorable and worth shouting about.

And now for the organizational take away. Within companies we often put people through training and other educational experiences that help them improve in some way. But we don’t always teach what it takes to “put food on the table.” That’s because we don’t take the time to identify and teach skills that can make a difference to the bottom line. We’re driven by catalogues and what’s currently popular or even what’s politically safe more than we’re driven by our actual needs. Besides, it’s hard to discover what you really need. It can take real research. You have to talk about problems. And that can be awkward.

In a similar vein, we only rarely teach complex interpersonal skills (skills that can affect the bottom line) because it can be difficult. People don’t follow rote paths. You have to be prepared for all kinds of different responses, and who wants to do that? We don’t practice until we’re competent and confident because that can be repetitive and require touchy feedback. In short, we frequently avoid the nettles, burrs, and bears (Oh my!) and do what’s easy and comfortable instead. We walk to where it’s safe, light, and comfortable, not where we need to go to find the mushrooms. Then, of course, we come home un-scraped, un-prickled, un-stung, and empty handed.

But that’s okay. Because in today’s world we’re likely to get a high-five and a rowdy cheer—just for trying.

I, on the other hand, want the mushrooms.

26 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Wild Mushrooms”

  1. Cathy Parsons

    Dear Kerry:
    Thank you so very much for this wonderful childhood memory and the brilliant way in which you linked the lessons learned to application in the workplace. It truly is story-telling that can put the power behind the message. Not only did your story trigger a memory of my dad and I searching for morales (not morals, but another kind of fungi!) but I totally know what you mean about kids doing something that contributes to the ‘survival’ of the family. I wish I had realized this more as my children were growing up. My husband and I assumed that we should take care of all of the needs, and in doing so, we limited the opportunities our children had for discovering meaning and purpose. My kids are now in their late teens, early twenties and since I believe it’s never too late to learn, I’m going to have to get creative about how to help them with this now! I will also be thinking about how I can do this more within my facilitation and training role in the workplace.
    Sincerest thanks Kerry!

  2. Young-Hee Lewis

    The best article (Kerrying On: Wild Mushrooms) so far I have read!!!
    Real stories make so much difference for the world – such love, encouragement, support, and memories for you and all of us.

  3. Debbie Cox

    Thank-you for sharing this story. Next week I will be taking a group of 3rd and 4th grade girls out to a local park for time in the woods. I have built in a time slot where they must be alone in the woods (we’ll be in sight of them but they don’t know that)with only a notebook and a pencil for an extended period of time. Today’s children also need the chance to encourage and practice the art of observing. That is what I saw in your story you learned how to use your senses to find the mushrooms. We look but we do not take time to see. I spent a great deal of time in nature in my youth, lived in front of a swamp and it was where my brother trapped muskrat to start his first business and I spent long afternoons skating around the cattails. The next generation needs time in nature. Keep on Kerrying on!

  4. Tressa springmann

    Kerry –

    Great article. I think sometimes we leaders lack the confidence mom had in guiding the way to the mushroom rather than the toadstool. There must be some great analogy you might provide that better to step out and try than hang back and lose the teachable moment?

  5. Mary Beth Nibberich

    That article brought so many memories of my childhood back to me. My mother did not bake but her best friend next door could turn any fruit we picked into wonderful pies. So the kids (19 between 2 households) would do all the peach, apple, blackberry, raspberry picking, and our dear neighbor did the baking. As we got a little older, we were invited to help with the baking. To this day, my specialty is pie baking as a result of knowing the effort and love that went into those pies so many years ago. You have such a wonderful way of telling a story. And I agree, too often we do not give our employees and children the tools and the opportunities to make their own pies! Great article.

  6. Kay Hougan-jones

    Dear Kerry –
    Having grown up slightly North of Bellingham, I can relate so well to this article! By the way, my Grandmother lived on Garden Street, so I may have even walked by your childhood home. That strawberry picking check at the end of the season made one feel so good, especially when it materialized into school clothes. One very important job I had to provide for the family at a young age was to keep the cookie jar full! This was no easy task with a very large father and two older brothers. And we all packed lunches back then, too. It was because of this responsibility that I grew to love baking and made me feel important to see the appreciative looks from others.
    Thank you for a warm and meaningful article.

  7. Karen

    Bravo! I learned to hunt mushrooms late in life, but I grew up on a farm and learned other ways of helping provide for the family at a very early age. As an adult mushroom-hunter, I get a huge thrill from finding rare and delicious food out there in the wild, using skills quite different from walking down the grocery-store aisle and shelling out serious money for the most choice varieties. I had been thinking that urban kids don’t have much chance to provide for their families, but you make the good point that it’s really worth looking for ways to teach those skills and lessons because it’s an incredbily rewarding feeling and one that builds pride and self-esteem for making a real contribution to the well-being of those around you.

  8. Adam Tonnos

    Dear Kerry,

    Your letters are always appreciated in my inbox and this one is no exception.

    I have just been blessed with a new baby daughter (June 8th) and I am watching by two older boys mature by the day. My youngest especially. It’s like he knows he isn’t the baby anymore and is ready to take on the new responsibility. The way he holds his sister (I a very controlled environment on my lap…he’s only turning 3 in August!!) shows me that he is fully accepting of the new role. He even decided to go to bed by himself the other night and if I were to describe some of our evening events this is nothing short of a miracle.

    All this to say that without focusing on the role that kids will or won’t play (the middle child, the athletic child…) or skills at which they will or will not excel (reading, playing with other kids well…), there is a lot that is inherent and when given the opportunity to bloom they take it.

    Although my now-middle son hasn’t brought home the bacon yet, he has brought a new level of understanding to the household that was not as obvious before.

    Thanks for the opportunity to share this.

    All the best,

  9. Kathleen

    Dear Kerry,

    What a wonderful memory from your childhood. This is something that you’ll always hold on too. I have no children, but tend to have my nieces and nephews a lot and we try to show them the simple things in life along with the amusement or pricier things. But, they always seem to remember when we took a walk, brought them to a park, had a picnic. Children don’t necessarily need to have the pricey events, they’re just happy to have us spending time with them. Of course that could be because we don’t have as many rules as they have at home, but I think it’s because we’re giving them our undivided attention and thats what they want more. The day is all about them.

  10. Brittne Nelson


    This was such an engaging story and the tie-in was spot on. Thanks.

  11. Arthi Sairaman

    What a great way to relate delivering value (company or personal life)through a simple childhood example. You stand out by taking a risk and making a difference. You are motivated by fulfillment and recognition of the act!

  12. chris

    This is wonderful! You have such a gift for weaving the tale, and then bringing out a relevant lesson for today’s workplace.

  13. Nina


    I love all of your stories, and after this one I felt it is finally time to write. Thank you for your lovely, funny, engaging and most important of all, instructive, tales from your childhood. When I see an episode of Kerrying On in my inbox, I head straight for it every time!

  14. Vickie Cussins

    Today’s message really hit home. I remember fondly hunting mushrooms with my grandparents near where I grew up in Oregon. I learned to sew my first garment when I was about eight years of age. From financial necessity, our generation learned life survival skills, pride, and a strong work ethic. In today’s world of abundant and rapid information, it often seems easier to give an answer or provide material possessions rather than teaching others how to earn and create for themselves. The scrapes, prickles, and sometimes failures we experience are a valuable part of learning and ultimately provide the ability to achieve more than we thought possible. Your article is a reminder of the values we need to pass on to our families and co-workers and to stayed focused on delivery of quality training in the areas that impact the bottom line. I too want the mushrooms.

  15. Joel Erickson

    Thanks for sharing the experience. There are so many lessons from what you described–in addition to the ones you focused on. The one that struck me was how you were just about ready to give up, and then with just a little more looking around found the mushroom grove. This is a lesson in persistence, and has application (of course) in a lot of areas. So many times I have seen people (myself included) unwittingly get so close to a goal and quit before realizing it. Great stuff.

  16. Tammie

    This article is endearing. To me, it is a great way to show that as employers – it is hard work to provide a workplace and as employees to appreciate the risk of going through nettles, burrs, and bears. This is a good place to start to appreciate the other persons point of view.

  17. Marwa

    Thanks alot for sharing such thoughts & for weaving it in such a delightful way..I always enjoy ur lessons as much as I enjoyed ur book “crucial conversations” & look forward to reading more…

  18. Liz Matthews

    Dear Kerry,

    I am an artist and art teacher. My paintings hang in my home and in the homes of some of my children. I’ve sold a few paintings but not enough to support my family or even my art interest. So, I’ve turned to teaching. It is thrilling to open a child’s eyes to her/his natural artistic ability, even if she/he will never make a dime selling art. I do not agree with your negative view of the value of a child’s drawing. Can you imagine a child who hasn’t had the chance to draw? Or a mother/father who looks at a child’s drawing attempt and responds with when you can earn money with that talent I’ll appreciate it. The attitude you have expressed could create that kind of horrifying childhood experience.

    Can you tell me that your writing talent that created this beautiful story about your childhood has only one purpose which is to earn a buck? Are you just trying to sell me something? To say that every effort has to have a bottom line even in childhood is unbelievable and Marxist. In these lean times, learning to develop talents and enjoy the simple beauty of things is both vital and smart.

  19. John Froelich

    Great article and a lesson well worth sharing woven into a most engaging and delightful personal reflection.

    As a business person and leader of groups as large as 300 people, I know how difficult it can be to allow your employees/children to grow up. I struggled with the same issues many times as I sought to position my leaders for growth by trusting them to do the right thing. And, most importantly, letting them fall down while doing it.

    In today’s hypercompetitve environment, too many managers are afraid to let their teams “fail forward” and learn. Failures are seen as bad, and they are, if we don’t learn from them. But if we alwasy take the safe road and never try something new, then, good news… we won’t fail. Bad news… we will never advance ourselves, our people or our business.

    Thank you for a great article. Keep them coming.

  20. Jeff

    This was a lesson I learned at a young age. I grew up on a dairy farm and we all had to pull our own weight. You did what you could depending on what you could do. As we grew older our tasks became harder and more complicated. But mom and dad made sure that we understood that they were no more important than the simple ones we did when we were younger. Waiting by the gate and opening it for dad so he did not have to stop each time was just as important as plowing the back 40 or milking the 50 cows we had. We learned it was not about the money that the family earned from our work, but about worjing together and learning that any honest task is important.

  21. Beverly

    I always enjoy reading Kerry’s articles and this one was the best. It would be a great addition to the ‘Chicken Soup’ book series. It brought tears to my eyes as I visualized a young boy overcoming his fears and trepidation on his journey in growing up and spreading his wings. It made me think again about how important it is in my quest to be a perfect parent to allow my children to have the opportunities and experiences for them to grow. This lesson is also applicable to our workplaces. For us to be truly effective and productive in any industry, we need to harness the power of learning communities to affect change. We are much stronger collectively than individually.

  22. Brian Taylor

    I think your point, Kerry, about what people are taught and know (or do not know) about business is one reason why I often find it very frustrating dealing with some client staff members.

  23. JA

    Love this article, both as a parent (thinking about how my 9-year-old acts when he is doing something helpful to the family) and as a person (thinking how I myself need more “mushroom hunting). Thanks!

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  25. Jerome the Gnome

    This was a masterful retelling of a childhood memory, Kerry. I felt as if I were there with you when you discovered those tantalizing mushrooms on the forest floor. Thanks for sharing a wonderful adventure!

  26. Wild Mushrooms | ezgrowmushrooms

    […] Source: Thanks to Crucial Skills Newsletter, “Kerrying On,” originally published Jun 16 2009 at […]

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