Category Archives: How do you define success?
In The Philosopher’s Kiss, a historical novel about the French philosophers who created the first encyclopedia, author Peter Prange describes an 18th Century Paris shrouded in impenetrable fog. The fog, mixed with the sooty smoke of that period, hung dense and unmoving between the buildings.
With the city sounds muted and their sight blinded, people bumped against each other in open squares or walked up to the door of the wrong house. Coach men felt for curbs with their hands.
In those circumstances the magistrates called on the blind for assistance. The ones who usually passed their days huddled on the stones crying out for alms were paid to guide citizens safely through the city. In those circumstances Paris was a city that only the blind could see.
The passage in Prange’s book turns the old expression “the blind leading the blind” on its head. That phrase, based on a Bible passage: “Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?” (Luke 6:39) portrays the blind as less able, less than others.
In fact, the blind can lead the blinded. In fact they are the best candidates to lead others who have become over-dependent on only one of their senses.
The passage prompted me to wonder, on what senses have I become over-dependent? What am I missing?
What unexpected resource have I been overlooking?
What is success? Cars? Money? An interview with Oprah?
Or could it be moving a finger, or taking a shower?
The definition of success changes with every person, or even with every person on a different day. We have the challenge of learning to see our own version of success and celebrate it without comparing it to others, to be proud of each accomplishment.
Here is a link to a reflective talk entitled “Let Us Celebrate” presented by my friend, Lynne, who has a mental illness and has had to redefine success for herself. The fact that she stood up and made this talk in front of a large crowd is something HUGE for her to celebrate. Preparing for it and processing it after took a lot of effort. Please do yourself a favour and listen.
And here is the short video she refers to.
My reading material during my ski vacation last week was The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams by Sam Walker. The book had me thinking about leadership and team work beyond the world of sports.
What makes a great leader? How to get the most out of a team?
To write the book, the founding editor of The Wall Street Journal’s sports section examined sports teams that achieved exceptional success and tried to figure out what drove the outstanding accomplishments. His findings surprised him, and me.
He found that the freakishly successful teams shared the same kind of captain, and it wasn’t the glamorous version of captain that would spring to your mind. Instead of the gregarious highly skilled aces, the flamboyant superstars or the squeaky clean idols, the captains were what he called the glue guys, or the water carriers.
- Dogged and focused to the extreme
- Aggressive players who tested the limits of the rules (and sometimes crossed them)
- Willing to do thankless jobs in the shadows
- Low-key, practical and democratic
- Able to motivate others with non-verbal cues
- Courageous and willing to stand apart if it meant upholding a strong conviction
- Ironclad controllers of emotions
His captains achieved success not through exceptionally skilled play, but by never giving up. They didn’t shun the small jobs, but instead did whatever grunt work needed to be done for the good of the team, not themselves. They didn’t deliver flowery motivational speeches, but they held people accountable by looking people in the eye.
It’s easy to quibble with the scientific method Sam Walker used to arrive at his list of exceptional teams, but with hundreds of thousands of sports teams around the world to work with he had to narrow it somehow. He almost excluded baseball which would have led me to shelve the book immediately, but—phew—baseball skimmed through his criteria sieve and I was able to carry on.
I was particularly intrigued by the idea of social loafing, an idea born out of research by Maximilien Ringelmann. Ringelmann tested the amount of effort exerted by people pulling on a rope. He started with low numbers of people and then added on. You would think that the more people pulling on a rope, the more effort would be exerted, but he found that the more people, the less effort each individual exerted. Working as a team caused people to work less strenuously than when working alone.
We’re willing to coast a little when we feel other people can carry a little of our load.
Anyone who has ever been part of a group project has seen this kind of dynamic at play. We assume that the highly skilled star players motivate teammates to work hard and try to excel at the same level, but Walker’s examination of exceptional teams seemed to indicate the opposite. Fellow team members of superstars were willing to let them carry the load.
But when less-skilled dogged captains courageously and aggressively lead a team, individual efforts around them increase too.
Who are the people in the organizations that you work or play in who never give up? Who does the grunt work for the good of the team, not themselves? Who holds you accountable by looking you in the eye?
Who are your water carriers?
“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” —Charles Shulz
The book Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown gave me plenty to think about, but two things stand out.
First, she describes how during her childhood in the southern United States she often didn’t receive birthday party invitations, because when the parents of other kids saw her name on the class list they assumed she was black.
I had to work through that story on several levels. The shock of the overt racism and empathy with the feeling of being alone and left out, of course. But then there was this big cultural difference. I am Canadian and I live in Ottawa where francophone culture thrives. My first thought on seeing Brené was, “How interesting that she has a French name.”
Culture affects how we see the world.
Her name, and other factors in her life, led to times on the outside looking in, and led her to research belonging. The responses she received from a group of eighth graders about the topic stunned me with their profound insight. Here’s what they had to say:
Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere where you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.
Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.
If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.
—From Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown
The most jarring sentence for me was, “Fitting in is being where you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.”
How often do we do that to ourselves? Choose to be somewhere doing something or being something that feels not quite right when the people around us don’t care one way or the other.
It’s a wake-up call to look around and ask ourselves:
- Do I belong where I am or do I just fit in? Who cares?
- Am I being myself or am I fitting myself?
Seven years ago I wrote a post entitled I want to live like Alex. It was a tribute to a man I admired. Last week Alex’s wife, Jane, died and over the past week I have found myself thinking, “I want to live like Jane too.” They were a twosome in so much of the good they did in the world. Together the quiet but powerful pair took action instead of waiting for others to take care of things, they spoke up even when it wasn’t the popular option, and they fulfilled needs.
She died on her ninety-third birthday and, like her husband before her, it was standing-room-only at her celebration of life. Like her husband before her, the church filled with an overflowing multi-faith, multi-generational, multi-cultural assembly of people whose lives she had touched.
All those people were there because, if the world were full of Jane McKeagues, the world would be a peaceful, joyful, love-filled, strong, just place.
If I lived like Jane, I would greet everyone, always, with a big smile and make each person feel that he or she was the most important person in the room. I would travel often and engage in spontaneous, curiosity-driven conversations with people to get to know them and to get to know what I could do to help them. I would speak truths quietly so as to engage, not offend.
If I lived like Jane, I would embrace reading aloud to enrich the experience of books. I would think deeply about what I have read and lived, and I would tell stories to inspire people. I would speak when necessary, but only with the fewest number of the most impactful words.
If I lived like Jane, I would tell people how grateful I am for their friendship. I would challenge my body, my mind and my spirit throughout my whole life. I would honour myself, but care for my family with deep devotion they never doubt.
People have been known to ask “What would Alex do?” when faced with a difficult situation. Now they ask “What would Jane do?”
Because we want to live like Jane too.
Please read my other Alex and Jane stories and be inspired!