Hand(held)…Hand(ful)…Hand(some) …Hands(up); consider the hand!

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Scrunched in that awful seat B between two huge pot-bellied men on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles last week, I decided to study my hand. Seriously. I kid you not. With no elbow room for a nap, newspaper, laptop, or anything else, my options were few.

What an amazing study in engineering and medicine, the hand. As adroitly as it can paint a beautiful picture and thread a needle, it can fly airplanes, perform delicate surgeries, go upside someone’s noggin in the form of a slap, or play a musical instrument.

And like other parts of the human body, the hand has amazing powers to heal itself. For example, I sliced my thumb recently while fileting a catfish, and here it is almost two weeks later and there’s nothing left but a scar. So I wonder if we sometimes take the hand for granted.

Back to – and midway through that flight to California between my snoring seatmates – I started to think about how a hand can offer some important lessons about life. It can teach about teamwork, innovation, creativity, culture and human diversity; the former three probably obvious, the latter two maybe less so.

On culture and diversity, just imagine how difficult your life would be if your hand was comprised exclusively of thumbs. Or middle fingers. Or pinkies.

Worse still, imagine what your life would be like if you lost any or all of your fingers. Point is that although all are different, they are each extremely valuable, and each plays different roles in the overall function and operation of the hand.

As an African American male, many of us learned very early in life to always keep our hands visible if – strike that, when – we get stopped by the police, and teach that to our sons as well. (pardon the departure, but even so, that’s no guarantee that we won’t get shot multiple times in the back these days, unfortunately).

Let’s go deeper into this narrative.

A month or so ago I was among hundreds of folks in an audience where the speaker used the hand at the core of his message about faith. Here’s what he said about each finger, beginning with the thumb. I’ve added some additional perspective with my comments in italics.

The thumb is out there alone from the rest of the fingers on the hand as reminder that you need to be free, lonely sometimes and hang out all by yourself sometimes. The message is never to always try to blend in, be yourself at all times and celebrate your uniqueness.

Be yourself because everyone else is taken.

“Thumbs up” tells you and others to stay positive, everything is going to be okay. Tough to think negatively when your thumb is up. So maintain a mental thumbs up, since it will trigger positive optimistic thoughts and thinking.

The pointing finger – index finger – beckons you or points you to the door. Wagging it from left to right signals “no.” Casting it into the air means number one, or wait I’d don’t want to be interrupted.

Placing it next to the nose and tapping it has a negative connotation in some cultures. Note too that although connecting the tips of the index finger and the thumb can mean “A-OK” in some cultures, it may translate to you’re, eh, an “a-hole” in others. 

The middle finger connotes the middle of a situation, mid-life, mid-career, mid-life crisis, a reminder of where you are now and the road ahead, that you did not start here and don’t have to end here.

In some cultures, the middle finger is akin to the ‘F word’ and showing it to someone may lead to some disastrous consequences, i.e., broken nose, missing front teeth, etc.

The ring finger signals commitment, marriage and beyond in work relationships, customer relations and trust building. It is the 4th finger on the hand, a reminder that whatever happens in life continue to “March forth.” The best revenge is to move forth.

The pinkie is a reminder that little things can make a big difference – the small kindnesses, gestures, little doors are levers to bigger doors, one stone at a time, meticulousness, every great achievement is done by doing the small things. The pinkie is the one finger that’s small enough to get into your ear.

Back in the end now to my flight to Los Angeles. My hand served another useful purpose; I was able to cup it over my nose to shield out the frequent bouts of, ahem, flatulence that flowed from the sleeping fellow in seat C.

So, consider the hand…consider diversity…and don’t take either for granted, ever!


(1) We sometimes hear the expression that he/she sticks out like a “sore thumb.” What are the potential consequences, risks, and rewards of having a “sore thumb” on your team?

(2) Although this article focused primarily on culture and human diversity, what can the hand teach us about leadership, engagement and trust?

(3) How could one possibly use this article as the centerpiece of a small or large group discussion, leadership training, etc.?

©Terry Howard is a writer, story teller, trainer, and senior associate at Diversity Wealth www.DiversityWealth.com He can be reached at wwhoward3@gmail.com. Feel free to contact Tasnim Benhalim at Diversity Wealth, (469) 360-8102, to learn more about how our powerful “7 Steps to Cultural Agility” can be used in your organization.

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