Friday, December 7, 2007

There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are.

I just got this essay by John Gardner via email, and feel the need to repost it in it's entirety. It's long, but hey, you're here already, so just read it. It's vital.

John Gardner: Stanford Business School/Common Cause in 1989

I once wrote a book called Self-Renewal that deals with the decay and renewal of societies, organizations and individuals. I explored the question of why civilizations die and how they sometimes renew themselves, and the puzzle of why some men and women go to seed while others remain vital all their lives. It’s the latter question that I shall deal with this morning. I know that you as an individual are not going to seed. But the person seated on your right may be in fairly serious danger.

Several years ago, I read a splendid article on barnacles. I don’t want to give the wrong impression of the focus of my reading interests. Sometimes weeks go by without my reading about barnacles, much less remembering what I read. But this article had an unforgettable opening paragraph. “The barnacle,” the author explained, “is confronted with an existential decision about where it is going to live. Once it decides, it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock.” For many of us, it comes to that.

We’ve all seen men and women, even ones in fortunate circumstances with responsible positions, who seem to run out of steam before they reach life’s halfway mark.

One must be compassionate in assessing the reasons. Perhaps life has presented them with tougher problems than they could solve. It happens. Perhaps something inflicted a major wound on their confidence or their pride. Perhaps they were pulled down by the hidden resentments and grievances that grow in adult life, sometimes so luxuriantly that, like tangled vines, they immobilize the victim.

I’m not talking about people who fail to get to the top in achievement. We can’t all get to the top, and that isn’t the point of life anyway. I’m talking about people who have stopped learning or growing or trying. Perhaps they feel defeated, maybe somewhat sour and cynical, maybe sore that they haven’t gone further. Many of them are just plodding along, going thru the motions. I don’t deride that. Life is hard. Just to keep on keeping on is sometimes an act of courage. But I do worry about men and women functioning far below the level of their potential.

We have to face the fact that most men and women out there in the world of work are more bored than they could care to admit, and more stale than they know. When some one asked Pope John XXIII how many people worked in the Vatican, he said “Oh, about half.” John was a Pope who liked to shake things up, so perhaps that was more of a prod than a statistic. But speaking seriously, boredom is the secret ailment of large-scale organizations. Logan Pearsall Smith said that boredom can rise to the level of a mystical experience, and if that’s true, I know some mid level executives who are among the great mystics of all time.

We can’t write off the danger of staleness, complacency, growing rigidity, imprisonment by our own comfortable habits and opinions.

Look around you. How many people whom you know well are already trapped in fixed attitudes and habit? A famous French writer said, “There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives.” I could, without any trouble, name a half dozen national figures resident in Washington D.C., whom you would recognize, and could tell you roughly the year their clock stopped.

My observations over a lifetime convince me that most people enjoy leaning and growing. Any many are clearly troubled by the self-assessments of midcareer. Yogi Berra says you can observe a lot just by watching, and I’ve watched a lot of midcareer people.

Such self-assessments are no great problem when you’re young and moving up. The drama of your own rise is enough. But when you reach middle age, when your energies aren’t what they used to be, when it no longer occurs to you to check the remaining acreage on Mt. Rushmore, then you begin to wonder what it all added up to - you begin to look for the figure in the carpet of your life. I have some simple advice for you when you begin that process. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Look ahead. Someone said that “life is the art of drawing without an eraser.” And above all don’t imagine that the story is over. Life has a lot of chapters. The story is still being written.

If we are conscious of the danger of going to seed, we can resort to countervailing measures - at almost any age. You don’t need to run down like an unwound clock. And if your clock is unwound, you can wind it up again. You can stay alive in every sense of the word until you fail physically.

The individual intent on self-renewal will have to deal with the ghosts of the past - memory of earlier failures, the remnants of childhood dramas and rebellions, accumulated grievances and resentments that have long outlived their cause. Sometimes people cling to the ghosts with something almost approaching pleasure - but the hampering effect on growth is inescapable. As Jim Whitaker, who climbed Mount Everest, said, “you never conquer the mountain. You only conquer yourself.”

The more I see of human lives, the more I believe the business of growing up is much longer drawn out than we pretend. If we achieve it in our 30s, even our 40s, we’re doing well. To those who are parents of teenagers, I can only say “Sorry about that.”

There’s a myth that learning is for young people. But as the proverb says, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” The middle years are great, great learning years. Most of you in this room are just coming into what can be your best learning years.

Count everything as a learning experience. Learn from your failures. Learn from your successes. When you hit a spell of trouble, ask, “What is it trying to teach me?”

The lessons aren’t always happy ones, but they keep coming. We learn from our jobs. We learn from our friends and families. We learn by accepting the commitments of life, by playing the roles that life hands us (not necessarily the roles we would have chosen), by growing older, by suffering, by loving, by bearing with the things we can’t change, by taking risks.

The things you learn in maturity are not simple things such as acquiring information and skills. That’s for kids. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety. You learn to manage your tensions, if you have any, which you do. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You learn that the world loves talent but pays off on character.

You learn that most people are neither for you nor against you, that they are thinking of themselves. You learn that no matter how much you strive to please, there are some people in this world who are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.

You can even be unaffected - a quality that often takes years to acquire. You can achieve the simplicity that lies beyond sophistication.

Those are things that are hard to learn early in life. As a rule you have to have picked up some mileage and some dents in your fenders before you understand. As Norman Douglas said, “There are some things you can’t learn from others. You have to pass thru the fire.”

There is one other little question: Did you collaborate in your own defeat? A lot of people do. Learn not to.

One of the enemies of sound, lifelong motivation is a rather childish conception we have of the kind of tangible, concrete goal toward which all of our efforts should drive us. We want to believe that there is a point at which we can feel that we have arrived. We want a scoring system that tells when we can count ourselves successful.

So you scramble and sweat and climb to reach what you thought was the goal. When you get to the top, you stand up and look around and the chances are you feel a little empty. Maybe more than a little empty. You wonder whether you climbed the wrong mountain.

But life isn’t a mountain. It doesn’t have a summit. Nor is it - as some suppose - a riddle that has an answer. Nor a game with a final score.

Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just performance gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.

Perhaps you imagine that by age 45 or 55 you have explored those potentialities pretty fully. Don’t kid yourself.

The thing we have to understand it that the potentialities you actually develop to the full come out as the result of a lifelong interplay between you and your environment. Emergencies sometimes lead people to perform remarkable and heroic tasks they wouldn’t have guessed they were capable of. Life pulls things out of you. So if you want to find out what’s in you, expose yourself to unaccustomed challenges.

I estimate that over your lifetime, even highly selected and privileged individuals such as yourselves make use of no more than half of the talent and energy that is in you.

You know about some of those gifts that you have left undeveloped. Would you believe that you have gifts and possibilities you don’t even know about? It’s true.

There are barriers that we are just beginning to understand. We are just beginning to see that the individual’s potentialities may be blighted by early discouragements, by an early environment that diminishes the sense of self worth, by excessive pressures for conformity, by a lack of opportunity to grow. And we are just beginning to recognize how even those who have had every advantage and opportunity unconsciously put a ceiling on their own growth, underestimate their potentialities or hide from the risk that growth involves.

There’s something I know about you that you may or may not know about yourself. You have within you more resources of energy than you have ever tapped, more talent than has ever been exploited, more strength than had ever been tested, and more to give than you have ever given.

Now I’ve discussed renewal at some length, but it isn’t possible to talk about renewal without touching on the subject of motivation. Someone defined horse sense as the good judgment horses have that prevents them from betting on people. But we have to bet on people - and I have my bets more often on high motivation than any other quality except judgment. There is no perfection of techniques that will substitute for the lift of spirit and heightened performance that comes with strong motivation. The world is moved by highly motivated people, by enthusiasts, by men and women who want something very much or believe very much.

I’m not talking about anything as narrow as ambition. After all, ambition eventually wears out and probably should. But you can keep your zest until you die. If I may offer you a simple maxim, “Be interested.” Everyone wants to be interesting - but the vitalizing thing is to be interested.

Keep a sense of curiosity. Discover new things. Care. Risk failure. Reach out.

The nature of one’s personal commitments is a powerful element in renewal, so let me say a word on that subject.

I once lived in a house where I could look out a window as I worked at my desk and observe a small herd of cattle browsing in a neighboring field. And I was struck with a thought that must have occurred to the earliest herdsman tens of thousand years ago. You never get the impression that a cow is about to have a nervous breakdown - or get stomach upset puzzling about the meaning of life.

Humans have never mastered that kind of complacency. We are worriers and puzzlers, and we want meaning in our lives. I am not speaking idealistically; I am stating a plainly observable fact about men and women. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Old or young, we’re on our last cruise.” We want it to mean something.

For many this life is a vale of tears; for no one is it free of pain. Every heart hath its own ache, as the saying goes. But we are so designed that we can cope with it if we can live in some context of meaning. Given that powerful help, we can draw on the deep springs of the human spirit to see our suffering in the framework of all human suffering, to accept the gifts of life with thanks and to endure life’s indignities with dignity.

In the stable periods of history, meaning was supplied in the context of a coherent community and tradition - prescribed patterns of culture. On being born into the society, you were heir to a whole warehouse full of meanings. Today you can’t count on any such heritage. You have to build meaning into your life. And you build it thru your commitments - whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life’s work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans. Young people run around searching for identity, but it isn’t handed out free any more - not in this transient, rootless, pluralistic society. Your identity is what you’ve committed yourself to.

It may just mean doing a better job at whatever you’re doing. There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are. They have the gift of kindness or courage or loyalty or integrity. It matters very little whether they’re behind the wheel of a truck or running a country store or bringing up a family.

I must pause to say a word about my statement “There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are.” I first wrote the sentence some years ago and it has been widely quoted. One day I was looking thru a mail-order catalogue and it included some small ornamental bronze plaques with brief sayings on them, and one of the sayings was the one I just read you, with my name as author. Well, I was so overcome by the idea of a sentence of mine being cast in bronze that I ordered it, but then couldn’t figure out what in the world to do with it. About four years ago, I finally sent it to my friends Ernie and Kitty Arbuckle, whom most of you knew.

We tend to think of youth and the active middle years as the years of commitment. As you get a little older, you’re told you’ve earned the right to think about yourself. But that’s a deadly prescription. People of every age need commitments beyond the self, need the meaning that commitments provide. Self-preoccupation is a prison, as every serf-absorbed person finally knows. Commitments to larger purposes get you out of prison.

Another significant ingredient in motivation is one’s attitude toward the future. Optimism is unfashionable today, particularly among intellectuals. Everyone makes fun of it. Someone said “Pessimists got that way by financing optimists.” But I am not pessimistic and I advise you not to be. As the fellow said, “I’d be a pessimist but it would never work.”

I can tell you that for renewal, a tough-minded optimism is best. The future is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future. Men and women of vitality have always been prepared to bet their futures, even their lives, on ventures of unknown outcome. If they had all looked before they leaped, we would still be crouched in caves sketching animal pictures on the wall.

But I did say tough-minded optimism. High hopes that are dashed by the first failure are precisely what we don’t need. We have to believe in ourselves, but we mustn’t suppose that the path will be easy. It’s tough. Life is painful, and rain falls on the just, and Mr. Churchill was not being a pessimist when he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." He had a great deal more to offer, but as a good leader he was saying that it isn’t going to be easy, and he was also saying something that all great leaders say constantly - that failure is simply a reason to strengthen resolve.

We cannot dream of a Utopia in which all arrangements are ideal and everyone is flawless. Nothing is ever finally safe. Every important battle is fought and re-fought. Life is tumultuous – an endless losing and regaining of balance, a continuous struggle, never an assured victory. You may wonder if such a struggle – endless and of uncertain outcome – isn’t more than humans can bear. All of history suggests that the human spirit is well fitted to cope with just that kind of world.

I said earlier that life has a lot of chapters. Let me offer some examples. In a piece I wrote for Reader’s Digest not long ago, I gave what seemed to me a particularly interesting example of renewal. The man in question was 53 years old. Most of his adult life had been a losing struggle against debt and misfortune. In military service he received a battlefield injury that denied him use of his left arm. And he was seized and held in captivity for five years. Later he had two government jobs, succeeding at neither. At 53 he was in prison – and not for the first time. There in prison, he decided to write a book, driven by Heaven knows what motive – boredom, the hope of gain, emotional release, creative impulse, who can say? And the book turned out to one of the greatest ever written, a book that has enthralled the world for over 350 years. The prisoner was Cervantes; the book Don Quixote.

I’ve already mentioned Pope John XXIII, a serious man who found a lot to laugh about. The son of peasant farmers, he once said, “In Italy there are three roads to poverty – drinking, gambling and farming. My family chose the slowest of the three.” He was 76 years old when he was elected Pope. Through a lifetime in the bureaucracy, the spark of spirit and imagination had remained undimmed, and when he reached the top he launched the most vigorous renewal that the Church had known in the 20th century.

Still another example is Winston Churchill. At age 25, as a correspondent in the Boer War he became a prisoner of war and his dramatic escape made him a national hero. Elected to Parliament at 26, he performed brilliantly, held high cabinet posts with distinction and at 37 became First Lord of the Admiralty. There followed 24 years of ups and downs. All too often the verdict on him was “brilliant but erratic . . . not steady, not dependable.” He had only himself to blame. A friend described him as a man who jaywalked thru life. He was 66 before his moment of flowering came. Someone said, “It’s all right to be a late bloomer if you don’t miss the flower show.” Churchill didn’t miss it.

Well, I won’t give you more examples. From those I’ve given I hope it’s clear to you that the door of opportunity doesn’t really close as long as you’re reasonably healthy. You just don’t know what’s ahead of you. You may – as Churchill did – become the great leader of your country in time of crisis. You may - -as Cervantes did – go to jail and write a novel. You may become Pope.

Or, if none of those outcomes appeal to you, remember the little plaque I sent to Ernie and Kitty. “Some men and women make the world a better place by being the kind of people they are.” To be that kind of person would be worth all the years of living and learning.


Kat said...

Good post! Actually a great post, especially, this time of year when many do self evaluate themselves.

Robert Payne said...

Word. However, I'd prefer not to go to jail if I can avoid it.

Brian said...

Indeed. Jail is a distant second to just about everything except being locked in a room and forced to listen to the Dolly Parton - Kenny Rogers Christmas's a long story, and one I won't go into here.