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K-State Research and Extension
123 Umberger Hall
Manhattan, KS 66506-3401

April 9, 2019

On Lao Tzu, Paint by Numbers, Magical Moments and Extension

Submitted by Gregg Hadley

Lao Tzu was a Chinese philosopher, writer, and founder of Taoism. He is credited with the following thought on leadership:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

On April 1, an unintentional practitioner of this creed, Dan Robbins, passed away at age 93. Who was Dan Robbins? Don’t worry for not knowing. Not too many people recognize the name or know of his contribution to society.

Before there were coloring books for adults or trendy art studios where people pay to have fun painting parties, there was paint-by-numbers. A paint-by-numbers set consisted of numbered paints and prepared sketches with numbered painting zones. A person would simply take the numbered paint, apply it to the appropriate numbered area, repeat, and soon the person would complete a masterpiece they could call their own. Dan Robbins developed the paint-by-numbers technique.

His company wanted him to develop a technique that would enable them to sell more paint. He wanted to enable non-artists to feel that magical moment when they could look at the work of art they just completed, smile, and proudly say to themselves “Look at what I have just accomplished!” Very few who made that exclamation knew that their enabler and artistic leader was Dan Robbins.

What does Extension have in common with the Dan Robbin’s story and the Lao Tzu quote? As Extension professionals, we all seek to help people help themselves. We seek to enable each one of them through education and facilitation to have that magical moment when they say with pride “Look at what I just accomplished!”

Our mission is to use research, education, and facilitation to create those magical moments. They come when a senior citizen you advised confidently selects their right health care plan. They come when a health coalition you facilitated announces they have developed a plan to develop a better culture of health for their community. They come when a farmer you advised implements her water conservation plan. Those magical moments come when that shy 4-Her you have been coaching confidently, competently, and successfully gives their project talk at 4-Club Days.

Thank you for being what Lao Tzu would describe as the greatest of leaders. Thank you for being creators of magical moments. Thank you for enabling the people we serve to proudly say “Look at what I just accomplished!”