Perspective is everything. It is perhaps the most important ability to cultivate since life assaults us intensely and regularly, dragging us down into the details that can be discouraging. Thus, we must discover unique ways to find emotional space to recapture the bigger picture despite the press of the immediate. After all, there are only a few things really worth fretting about. Many things are challenging but can be overcome with the right outlook. A wise man once said that life is 10% of what happens to you and 90% of your reaction to it. How true.
I’d like to share with you some stories that illustrate the importance of perspective.
1. Over the years, I have become friendly with the Tebow family whose youngest son, Tim, is the Denver Broncos quarterback who constantly amazes with his incredible comebacks…seemingly ‘miraculous’ comebacks. He is supposedly now the most popular professional athlete in the world. Imagine that! Yet the pundits routinely declare him dead, then alive, the best, then the worst. And so it goes. Yet talk about perspective. Timmy, who is a fine young man, when questioned about his ability to make it as a big time quarterback deflects the question by providing context and perspective. He simply responds to the hype -good and bad- by telling the questioners and critics that while he loves football, it is hardly important in the big scheme of things. Once you have seen third world suffering, or spent time in orphanages in the Philippines, football is relatively unimportant. How disarming and utterly true. Does the Super Bowl really matter when put up against the suffering in Darfur, Egypt or Libya where millions are being routinely slaughtered, trafficked, raped and imprisoned? Tim is able to maintain perspective since he has been up close and personal with real people with unimaginable challenges which make trivial the pundits’ inquiries.
2. One of the greatest gifts ever given me was to be exposed to the ancient nation of Ethiopia when I was 24. Living among the poorest of the poor gave me a different take on what I wanted my life to look like. I have now taken all three of my boys to Ethiopia. It puts lots into perspective. My hope was that exposure to real need would be freeing, particularly from a form of peer pressure that can be so destructive here in America. To my delight, it seems to be working. They are, as Harvard sociologist David Reisman observed, ‘inner directed’, pursuing things they think important rather than what others deem important for them. I think that Ethiopia contributed to their freedom.
3. The following is a story told about our sixth President, John Quincy Adams, and his son Brooks. As the story goes, the busy President took a day off and went fishing with his son. We have an insight into that particular day since each recorded their feelings in their respective diaries. Brooks noted in his, ‘I went fishing with my father. A truly wonderful day.’ President Adams, by contrast, wrote: ‘A day away with son Brooks. A wasted day.’ A shared experience, yet one that each perceived very differently.
4. I heard recently of a documentary about happiness. It is a fascinating global exploration of what truly makes people happy. The producers interviewed individuals both in abject poverty as well as those of great wealth and accomplishment. One story was quite stunning. A supermodel who had the perfect family and great public acclaim had a freak thing befall her following a violent altercation with her sister. After an intense argument, the model fell. The sister proceeded, quite literally, to drive over her fallen sister, rolling over her beautiful face. And while the model miraculously survived, she was grossly disfigured. Shortly after, her husband left her, adding insult to injury. This once stunning lady was now robbed of her physical beauty and quite alone. Operation after operation only compounded her new cruel reality. In this documentary, the producers asked this once beautiful supermodel about her personal view of happiness. Her response was shocking. After working through the emotions of losing all that she prized, she had an epiphany and a quiet peace came into her life and thinking. She began to recalibrate the meaning of her life. And for the first time, she was really happy. How’s that for a fresh perspective. Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis put it this way in his children’s book, The Magician’s Nephew: “What you see depends a good deal on where you are standing.
5. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled starts with the words, “Life is very difficult.” We all need reminders to keep everything in perspective. One for me is a photograph of Heather Wimmer and her two young daughters. The photo was taken shortly after her diagnosis of brain cancer. The shot is from behind as the three gaze out at the ocean. Heather died not too much later. She was a lovely, caring woman. This picture helps me remember what truly matters.
6. One of my ten favorite books is a short one by psychiatrist Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl found himself in a German concentration camp during World War II. His observations are striking. Those who survived the hellish ordeal were rarely the physically strong, but rather those with an internal core, an interior spiritual life, something or someone that provided them meaning. I often remember a quote by Nietzsche that I memorized in college: “He who has a ‘why’ can endure any ‘how’.”
So the question for us is how do we maintain perspective. Each of us needs to find those things that cause us to get out of our own way and to again see the big picture. How do we find and hold onto a transcendent vision of life? The brilliant metaphysical poet John Donne kept a scull on his desk to remind him of the brevity of this life. (Pretty sick…but it seemed to work for him.) So discover something that reminds you of the larger vision for your life. It could be a shell from the ocean, a picture of your grandfather, a cross, a note from your daughter, (please no sculls). In the utter intensity of this life, we can lose our way if we don’t have triggers that remind us of all that truly matters.
About a week before Christmas I went into our local Rite Aid in McLean, Virginia. As you might imagine, the place was packed with shoppers frantic to buy things and exit as quickly as possible. The checkout line was long and people were‘testy’, lots of impatient frustrated shoppers anxious to get on with their ‘to do’ lists a week before Christmas. And there in the midst of the hustle and bustle stood Liz, the ever present Rite Aid checkout clerk. As each frustrated and impatient customer came under her gaze, something quite extraordinary occurred. Liz lovingly told each of us quite personally that she was so very sorry that we had to wait. Several simple words and yet they possessed a power that was jarring. Remarkably, each customer visibly changed when his or hercrankiness was met with her quiet plea for forgiveness. To experience the force of forgiveness and observe its effect is quite something. It is the exact opposite of what we are schooled to do and be in life … strong, seldom vulnerable, not admitting mistakes, and fearful that others might detect our humanity and uncertainty.
It requires vulnerability and interior self assuredness to ask forgiveness. The object of your request for forgiveness just might say no.
Today I’m pondering the hymn written by John Newton in 1779 in London. Newton, as you might recall, was an 18th century slave trader and rebel who started his rebellion at the ripe age of 10, running away from a military school. In his own hand, he said this about himself, “ By and by, through a process of time, I slowly gave over to the devil. And I determined that I would sin without restraint, the righteous lamp of my life had gone out…but my spirit would not break, and I became increasingly a rebel and common criminal…I was the epitome of the degenerate man.” And then, steering through a violent storm at sea, at the end of his tether, he cried out to God. The rest is history with his tombstone reading: Born 1725, died 1807. A clerk, once an infidel and libertine…restored and pardoned…to the faith he once long labored to destroy.”
The most ubiquitous and powerful anthem of all time, Amazing Grace, written by Newton, speaks to the profound sense of forgiveness experienced by this former slave trader. “I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.” Such a sense of forgiveness and release not only transformed and freed a life, but transformed his times by participating in the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.
Forgiveness is transformational when given or received. It changes everything.
As I waswriting this musing, my cell phone rang. It was a former colleague from Goldman Sachs. A huge talent with a large personality. I was surprised by his random call but more surprised by the message he delivered. “I am calling to apologize.” He went on from there to share some personal thoughts. But imagine my shock. So rare that someone would humble himselfand make such a call. Crazy. Remember, I am writing about forgiveness and out of the blue comes this call asking for forgiveness. At the conclusion of this rather remarkable call, he wanted assurance from me. “So, you forgive me?” “Of course,” I instantly replied. Is this man on a short list of people who actually apply their personal faith to real life? Absolutely–and how novel. I was stunned and so grateful. He has inspired me to look within and ponder whomI need to reach out to in such humility. And the crazy thing is this, we all fear that if we show weakness and admit the obvious, others will recoil and reject us. Yet quite the opposite is true. My admiration for this man soared.
America is a nation of second chances. In some measure this can be attributed to the important role that faith has played in the shaping of this unique nation. So many who came to our shores as immigrants in the earliest day had escaped from debtor’s prison or persecution. They needed a new gig. Very unusual that woven into the fabric of our culture is this imperative to be gracious and give others a ‘second chance’. When the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was released from prison, the overwhelming majority of Americans truly wanted him to succeed after his release. Even the president called the Eagles owner thanking him for giving Vick another act. The owner, Jeffrey Lurie, said he was “happy that we did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.”
Years ago, one of my mentors, Judge Bostetter, a federal bankruptcy judge,spoke in an eastern European country about U.S. bankruptcy law. Like many other countries, this nation was extremely punitive when it came to business failures. To make his point that American law gave second chances, he placed a Hershey chocolate kiss on the desk of each member of parliament prior to his remarks to them. When it was time for Judge Bostetter to speak, he mentioned the chocolate kisses and pointed out that without the ability to declare bankruptcy and start over after a failed business venture, Milton Hershey could never have built his chocolate empire. This new start for Hershey enabled him to fund an orphanage and many other worthy causes that changed countless lives for the better.
We all need forgiveness, a fresh start, a second chance.
As we begin a new year, perhaps it is time to reach out to someone who has disappointed or hurt you. Aformer friend, family member, a colleague, a child or spouse. Life is short.
Decades back, when many of us boomers went off to college, the purpose for that four year experience seemed two-fold. First, get ‘credentialed’ by securing an academic degree from a good university. This was paramount. The other aim, while not always celebrated or articulated by parents, was also quite clear. This was a period of discovery, a time to explore who you are, and to get the craziness and wanderlust out of your system. Following graduation, things would starkly change: you were to be automatically responsible and mature, evidenced by landing a solid paying job with a long term career trajectory, probably getting married and having kids, in essence, on with ‘life’. The occasional rogue, like yours truly, went to Ethiopia and Paris to explore the world beyond. But for the most part, the way for young people, as well as the metrics for success, were very structured, predictable and widely understood. But my, how the journey has changed.
70 percent of 30 year olds in the 1960s had accomplished certain specific benchmarks, financial independence, married, and likely children, etc. Looking at the year 2000, the picture is quite different, with less than 40 percent of 30 year olds similarly positioned. Some scholars see this as a reaction to the tightly structured and controlled childhoods where choice and decision- making on the part of children was at a minimum. Once ‘launched’ in their 20s, they often appear bewildered, much to the consternation of parents. Often ill-equipped to face a global world fraught with perceived danger, intense competition and uncertainty at every turn, they can appear ‘lost’, at least in the view of some parents. This extended discovery phase of life’s journey, now named ‘the odyssey years’ is an extended period of launch.
So the question becomes, is this a troubling trend or is it merely different from the boomer approach?
Put differently, what does it mean to be moving toward that illusive goal of success, particularly in these times? I have been curious as to what motivates and challenges those in their 20s. Having three boys in this age group, I have a unique window into this wonderful yet quite confusing period of life. Happily, the elder two, who went to school in Manhattan, continue to pursue their passion for music. Their rock creative duo, BlueBrain, is at the nexus of music and technology and has met with real critical acclaim. Our one consistent prayer for our three was that they would find a passion, something that excites and motivates them. This seems to be happening not just with our musicians but with our youngest as well who loves all things sports, and played NCAA D-1 golf. He is working on a sports app, has a college sports blog, coaches JV and varsity basketball, and is teaching part time. And while I celebrate the achievements of all three, their journeys and metrics for success are quite different from anything I knew following my own college graduation.
I buy the notion that life is, at its essence, a journey, not a destination. Whether you read Hesse’s Siddhartha, Homer’s Odyssey or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, you notice that we human beings are always in search of something, of a place, an idea, an experience, a relationship. Something that will complete us and help us understand who we are and for what we were created. Part of what keeps us alive and growing is this desire to go deeper, to be better, to find things which make us come alive. My observation is that when we stop questioning, we die. So, I return to the thought: should we be concerned about this odyssey phase for our young people?
New York Times columnist, David Brooks, sees it this way:
Yet with a little imagination it’s possible even for baby boomers to understand what it’s like to be in the middle of the odyssey years. It’s possible to see that this period of improvisation is a sensible response to modern conditions…you can now see the spirit of fluidity that now characterizes this stage…Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.
Perhaps our ‘problem’ with understanding our young people and their version of the life journey lies within us.
Often when I speak to college students or an MBA class, I ask a simple question: ‘has the light gone out for your fathers?’ In other words, are your parents going through the motions, lacking passion, meaningful relationships and purpose. A stunning number of the students nod their heads in agreement. My next question is to ask, ‘what will be different about your journey so that you don’t end up in the same cul-de-sac?
Is it possible that what is happening with young people today is a reaction to what they have observed of our generation? After all, modeling-for good or ill- is how we learn. From their perspective, the accumulation of things, the failure of marriage and the illusive, often empty, quest for ‘success’, seems in question for their generation. So some conclude that they should chart a quite different course, where means are more important than ends.
When I left the State Department in 1987, I interviewed in New York for a position in finance. I recall one specific interaction at Morgan Stanley in midtown Manhattan. At the end of my interview with a highly educated and accomplished investment banker, he surprised me with his candor. “I have made a lot of money, yet in the process, lost my family. I am in prison. It is a very nice prison, but I am trapped nonetheless.”
For whatever complex combination of reasons, many young adults seem to be yearning for more and for less. More time for friends, experiences, life enriching activities and some freedom from feeling trapped. And yet less desire for material things for the sake of accumulation and keeping score. So if the desire for the Hermes tie or rollex goes away, a simpler life style is far easier to support. Defining success for this crowd is a bit more complex than in the boomer era. While seemingly virtuous on its face it is still complex.
So perhaps the odyssey generation is on to something by challenging us boomers to consider what matters most in life, the end or the means. It was Gandhi who observed that “the ends are the means in the making.” Yes, the actual journey in its day to dayness and its relationships are what truly matter.
The famous Chicago social critic, Studs Terkle, did some research on 90 year olds, asking them the question: if you could live life over what would you do differently? The top few responses by a large margin were spend more time with family-friends and work to leave a legacy that matters. Curious that what’s most important in life is difficult to measure. Some of these older friends seem on a page quite similar to the odyssey generation. Curious.
Note to self: enjoy the journey.
By J. Douglas Holladay
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” mused humorist Mark Twain upon learning of his premature obituary in the New York Journal. On another occasion, a decade later, the New York Times declared him lost at sea yachting from Virginia to New York. Again untrue, Twain issued a wry statement: “I will make an exhaustive investigation of this report…I sincerely hope that… judgment will be suspended until I ascertain the true state of affairs.”
In our own time, the combination of human error coupled with the speed of technology compounds this problem. Such mistakes are often cause for humor, but in the following errant story involving Alfred Nobel, the Swedish munitions manufacturer, they totally changed a reputation for generations to come.
By J. Douglas Holladay
A very special man and mentor, Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, died earlier this month at age 89.
Senator Hatfield was a revered and grounded public servant. We met during my college years. The senator first impacted my life as the author who inspired me with his words. Later, he was the engaging politician to a young and passionate intern. Finally, he became a friend.
By J. Douglas Holladay
Legendary slugger Babe Ruth is rightly remembered for his prowess as the all-time home run king. What’s not as well known is his other notable achievement: 1,330 strike outs, by far the most in major league history. In another instance, in 1905, the University of Bern in Switzerland rejected the doctoral dissertation of a young German physics student. They called his work, “irrelevant and fanciful.” Albert Einstein, while bitterly disappointed, was not ultimately defeated.
Our culture has traditionally celebrated great achievement yet has not rightly understood the larger story – the role of pain, defeat, and failure in shaping greatness. Achievement and setback typically walk hand in hand.
By J. Douglas Holladay
Occasionally, when speaking to business students, I ask an unsettling question about their parents in the workplace. Has the light gone out?
I purposely keep the question vague and direct, yet they know exactly what I am seeking to understand. Not surprising, a majority of these young people register concern that their parents are drifting, sad, and frankly, lost. As a recovering New York investment banker, I’ve interacted with both incredibly fine high-minded grounded professionals as well as the other sort….selfish, mean-spirited and striving types. Both exist in the same universe with identical pressures and temptations. The former needs others while the latter uses them, eventually reaping the result of such behavior, isolation.