Five Life Lessons From Sesame Street

Despite being a veteran of school system (read Grade 2) my son and I still partake in the same morning ritual of yesteryear (2013).  We sit side by side on the couch, nursing our toast and settle in for our favourite show - Sesame Street.

As the familiar opening theme starts up, I am immediately transported to the dusty, weatherboard home I called home, in country Victoria, where my brother and I shared a similar experience.

Sesame Street is an institution. For close to fifty years it has entertained, enthralled and educated children the world over. The show’s combination of loveable but flawed characters and simple yet sophisticated narrative has left an indelible mark on many a child. Indeed, my mother always credited it with teaching me how to speak English – if with a slight American twang (school quickly knocked that out of me).

So recently, while we sat there, simultaneously crunching our way through breakfast, I watched as my son sat transfixed, his toast wavering at the tip of his lips, and wondered what exactly, where these fuzzy muppets teaching him? The world is far more confusing and complicated than it was all those years ago so what were the lessons he was learning and will they the same impact on him that they had on me?

The more we watched, the more I reflected and as the credits started rolling, it dawned on me that some of the things I learned and that my son was learning, will be applicable long after childhood is but a distant memory. Here are some of those lessons.  

One: Never lose sight of your message

Watching an episode of Sesame Street is like going for a walk around your local neighbourhood. You see a bunch of familiar faces doing a variety of things but unlike real life, everything that happens in Sesame Street is consistent.

Despite the characters getting embroiled in all kinds of whacky adventures, each episode has a central theme or message, such as the word of the day, and the characters do their best to reinforce the message in each skit.

As a communicator, this philosophy resonates with me and is something I talk about a lot. Keeping a consistent message, no matter the situation, is critical as it gives people a sense of security and stability. In crisis situations, it gives you a platform to work from, allowing you to subtly add or subtract from the theme, without corrupting your or your business’ core ideals.

So just like Big Bird and the gang, when dealing with colleagues or clients, despite the many different business activities you undertake, keep the message consistent all the way through.

TWO: Speak directly to your audience

One thing I noticed was that every character, from Ernie to Oscar to Big Bird, was speaking directly to me. Their big, glassy, googly-eyes made eye contact through the television and they spoke deliberately and clearly. The impact of this is profound. My son responded to their voices as if they were talking to him and him alone. This wasn’t a broadcast to millions but a one on one conversation.

We spend a great deal of time talking to our colleagues, our leaders and our customers and clients, so in order to ensure they understand your message, you need to understand that each member of your audience, regardless of who they are, is important and just as deserving of your time and respect as anybody else.

The days of broadcasting from on high are long consigned to history. As with products, people expect communication to be tailored specifically to them. To create and keep a lasting connection with your audience, take the time to understand their needs and desires so when you begin that conversation, you’re talking directly to them, not at them.

Three: Don’t be afraid to ask for help

In nearly every episode of Sesame Street, Big Bird or Elmo or some other furry favourite is seeking advice from Mr Snuffleupagus or one of the many humans on the show. The show is actively teaching our children one of life’s greatest, yet hardest learned lessons — that you don’t need to do things on your own and that asking for help is not a bad thing. Problems are always solved and the loveable little characters always ended up feeling better for having relied on their friends.

We talk about the spirit of collaboration almost daily and it is virtually impossible to find a business where the word ‘collaborative’ doesn’t feature in their core values. We encounter numerous situations in our professional and personal lives that can become overwhelming or burdensome and too often we feel like we can’t seek advice or assistance from our managers or colleagues or even family and friends out of fear, shame, or embarrassment.  

A problem shared is a problem halved and Elmo and his crew teach us constantly that sharing your concerns with others is critical to not only solving problems, but it also helps breaks down barriers and engenders trust and a sense of camaraderie among our peers.

The show also serves as a reminder that actively helping others is enriching in a personal and professional sense and improves productivity.

Four: Be yourself

Accepting diversity is a mantra of modern society and Sesame Street reinforces it wonderfully. No one on Sesame Street alienates anyone for being themselves. Big Bird is a giant yellow, neurotic canary, Cookie Monster is a gluttonous slob and Oscar is a generally good-hearted grump. Does anyone poke fun at them? No. Instead, each character’s differences are accepted and in many ways actively encouraged.

It’s natural to feel awkward when you’re different to those around you but it’s also important to not be afraid to show people who you are. The same goes for your colleagues who might have different beliefs to you. If you treat others the way you want to be treated, it will hold you in good stead in almost all facets of life and business.

Five: Honesty and integrity matter

No matter how many times I’ve seen Sesame Street, I cannot recall a time when a character has lied or cheated or stole something without facing consequences. The programme highlights the importance of ethics and integrity by actively showing its viewers that trying to cover things up or doing things the easy way has repercussions, which are often far worse than any punishment faced for coming clean.

The past year alone has illustrated the impact that unethical business practices can have on an organisation, both financially and from a reputation perspective.

The show teaches us that accepting responsibility for our actions and having professional integrity will take you a lot further than trying to pull the wool over our colleagues’ or customers’ eyes. As it is so often shown in that wonderful land of puppets, the consequences of being honest will generally be far less than if we’re not, and can often be beneficial to us in the long run.

These are but a few of the lessons I’ve learned from this stalwart of children’s programming. What lessons has the show taught you?