A Project Manager’s Game Plan for Dealing with Incurable Cancer

Segment Forty-Two— The Power of Common Context (And why I have a dozen copies of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations)

Common Context

You and I share a common context. We both read English. We know who our political leaders are. On other areas of interest, we may or may not share a common context.  If you have ridden a bicycle, been to the beach, sat in an airport waiting for a delayed flight or enjoyed a good laugh with a significant other, then we share common context on those items as well.

Our lives are, in many ways, built on context.

Many people consider movies and the theatre as context-builders.  They are, but there are fewer parties who share context in those areas than you might imagine. In class, I’ve often asked if there is anyone who has never seen any of the Star Wars movies.  In most classes, I have at least one or two.  I follow that with the question if there’s anyone who has never seen the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz. It’s rare that anyone acknowledges a context shortcoming when it comes to that movie.  So people are more likely to relate to flying monkeys than to Darth Vader.

Oddly enough, this is where John Bartlett comes in. The title of his book is Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.  It’s not Bartlett’s Quotations.  They’re supposed to be Familiar. Bartlett had his own context for what’s familiar and what’s not.  The tenth edition (1919) was the first published after Bartlett had passed away.  The editors strove to achieve Bartlett’s original goal of including only “familiar” quotations, but they went to the fringes for the differences between the ninth edition (1891) and the tenth.  They went out on a limb and included newer authors and speakers.  Speakers like Whittier, Longfellow and Poe got a much deeper treatment in the tenth edition.

Editions in the mid-1960’s had only one or two quotes from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By the late 1970’s, he was quoted extensively.

It’s about context.

I’ll get you my pretty.  And your little dog, too.

Some of you hit that little non sequitur and took it in stride. You may have even “heard” the voice of Margaret Hamilton in your head or seen the vision of the Wicked Witch of the West.


Lesson Learned: One of the most difficult things about moving into a new position, a new environment, a new relationship, a new neighborhood or any new situation is the lack of context. While the situation is new to you, it’s not new to everyone. If you want to build alliances with others you can play either of two roles—context conveyor or context creator. Any time I’m teaching a class, I seek out analogous stories to open the training. The story ensures that everyone has a common context. If the story is about an accident with a deer, the word “deer” itself takes on new, insider, meaning. Stories are a powerful means to create context.

In many environments, there are already established elements of context. Everyone knows that Bill hates coffee. Roy starts every meeting with a joke. Jenna has tried every diet fad to lose ten pounds, even though she really looks fine the way she is. The front door always sticks in cold weather. People often mistake JP’s office for a mop closet. Those may seem completely inconsequential, but for someone from the outside trying to fit in, those little tidbits of information provide a sense of comfort through common context.  Let those from “the outside” in on the story. Not only will they see you as a conduit for valuable information, they’ll feel closer to you and those around you.

I’ve had virtually every job that you could possibly imagine.  As a cook, I learned that you can readily peel the skin off a well-boiled potato with your hands—no knife required.  Working at WSME, I found out that even people with journalism degrees and high aspirations (not me) can be insanely lazy about their jobs. Living in New Hampshire, I found out that no income tax actually meant no income tax. I learned about the cooking from another cook. I learned about the news guy from his boss (who fired him and gave me his job). I learned about New Hampshire taxes experientially. In each case, my context expanded. And if someone could have explained it to me sooner, I would have been in their debt.


We can build context from whole cloth.  How about the weather?  Children?  Pets? Traffic? Cultural references? TA-DA!  You have context. The crappy shade of green someone painted the hall with?  You have common context.

Once you have common context, you have an emotional play. People enjoy a good laugh over common bonds. People appreciate hearing that someone else empathizes with their concerns and their pain. People come back for more when you give them something new and different, yet affirming of their world view.

Lesson Learned:  When I started sharing the insights of becoming a Stage 4 cancer patient, I was surprised to find how many people had common context. They understood the uncertainty, the hours spent in doctor’s offices, the frustration of a half-dozen different treatments and… well, you get that there are a lot of “ands” in there. Because I had a long history of understanding context, I strove never to brush off their opinions or queries. I welcomed them. And it began a cascade of context. The more I was willing to be even a little vulnerable about my condition and situation, the more I found those who could provide comfort, support and friendship in a serious time of need. Context provides a whole new set of reasons to bond.  And that’s a crazy-wonderful blessing.

Bartlett strove to find familiar quotations. John Bartlett found them. And when they weren’t familiar, they still rang true.  Prior to collecting Familiar Quotations, I had never heard of Nixon Waterman.  His quote?

A rose to the living is more

than sumptuous wreaths to the dead.

I’m grateful for the roses.  Every day.

Up next?  What’s on the Agenda? Let’s Keep It That Way!

If you want to review the previous elements of this e-book or blog, they’re all posted at www.carlpritchard.com/blog If you have insights you’d like to share or comments or conversations, my e-mail is the best way to reach me at carl@carlpritchard.com.  I’ll always get back to you within 24 hours.  Always.  And if you think I missed the mark?  Check your spam folder.  Thanks for joining me on this journey.