Today is George Washington’s birthday. There are very few people (and an even a smaller number of Americans) where you can honestly say that their birth ended up changing the course of human history. Not only did he lead the upstart Continental Army to victory against of the most powerful military power in the world at that time, he also walked away from supreme power when he refused to become king of the newly formed United States of America, and voluntarily gave up his position as our first President. I think sometimes we forget how unusual, risky, and selfless these two actions were at the time. You can seriously argue that if George Washington had not existed, the U.S. experiment with democracy would have never had a chance of taking flight and much of modern history could have turned out differently.
I was talking to my son the other day about his schoolwork and some frustrations he was having. He is a good kid and is in all honors classes. I have noticed though, as the years go on, that school which was once relatively easy and fun for him has become much more of a chore. While not commenting on the varying degrees of teacher quality we have encountered along the way (which is troubling), I believe he is going through something we all go through in life. Rarely is our individual curve always upward sloping and everything comes easy for us. Sure, some people are seemingly blessed in certain aspects of life, but for the most part we all hit periods of frustration, disappointment, and/or low motivation. When you have a passion or care about something it is much easier to marshal the energy required to work through the rough patches. When it is something you have to do rather than want to do, it isn’t always so easy.
During the conversation with my son, we discussed four things that help you get through these difficult periods: Ability, Humility, Effort and Attitude:
There is a famous saying that, “if you aren’t moving forward, then you are heading backwards.” I completely agree. There is no such thing as standing still in life, Time moves forwards regardless. Too many of us spend too much energy getting stuck in our present circumstances or being held back by our past. There is nothing we can do about what has already happened. All we can do is learn from it and strive to become a better person in the process. In terms of the here and now, your attitude and efforts should always be geared towards positive ends. Leave the negativity to others. My mom often used to say, “Make the best of it, whatever “it” is.” As usual, her wisdom is a beacon of light that shines through my life.
I’m very concerned about the artificial reality we are creating for kids today. Everyone gets a medal or award. Disappointment and/or adversity is to be avoided at all costs. We are also teaching our children that they are the center of the family universe and everything revolves around them: their needs, wants, etc. If we let them to think everything they do is exceptional, then ultimately nothing they do will be. We allow them to continually isolate themselves socially and retreat into the comfort of impersonal technological communication without the wisdom of understanding the dynamics of human and social interaction. We worship their youth but then push them to grow up quickly and act more mature than they actually are (or should be). It’s almost as if a whole generation of parents is trying to make up for perceived deficiencies from their own childhood. We are forgetting how to be parents, coaches and teachers and instead striving to become friends, cheerleaders and positive psychologists.
If I had a $100 for every time sometime told me something couldn’t be done by me or others, I’d be a rich man at this point in my life. The cold reality of life is that most people are followers and more comfortable with the status quo than the prospect of changing anything. There is also a big difference between rhetoric and action. I’d be equally wealthy if I had a $100 for everyone I met who talked a good game but then failed to follow-up with any real action. It seems as if a majority of people are content to sit on the sidelines of the game that is their own life and leave their fate to the actions of others and then complain about it. Like most fans, people have strong opinions about what should or should not be happening, but then they don’t have the courage, talent or fortitude to play the game themselves. It is a vicious circle and misery does love company.
At the risk of sounding like an old codger (which I am not), I can’t believe how worked up people get up over common issues these days. It’s almost as if any level of adversity is intolerable. You would have thought the end the world was near the way everyone especially the media reacted to the recent winter storm. We were bombarded with worst case scenarios and impending doom. People raced to stores to stock up just in case they lost power for a few days. My goodness, can’t we handle a few days of discomfort if required? As a friend said yesterday, “Why the huge interest in toilet paper, can families really not survive a few days without TP?” Are they that close to the edge of hygienic catastrophe? I’ve seen it happen in families, businesses, schools, and communities: if you are not careful, weakness and worry is infectious. Like all significant change, it all starts with small symbolic gestures and begins to gain momentum elsewhere.
John Mellencamp has a great line in one of his songs that goes, “you’ve got to stand for something, or your gonna fall for anything…” In my experience working with leaders in both the for profit and no profit sectors, this couldn’t be more true. There is nothing more frustrating than working with someone who is not sure what he/she believes in and/or the difference they want to make in the world. By the way, making more money should be an outcome of doing something else well not the sole objective. I can sometimes quibble with what people come up with but it is very helpful and informative if I know what someone values and where they stand. A ship without a rudder will drift anywhere.
It’s amazing how many of us stress over little things. It’s almost as if we believe the world exists to make us happy and every small obstacle becomes a major annoyance. We lose our sense of proportion and forget how fortunate we truly are that petty issues can even occupy our attention. It’s important not to forget that a large percentage of the world still struggles with basic life/survival issues.
Anyone can scare someone else, but it often takes alot more effort to give them courage. Leaders everywhere need to take the lead on changing this mindset. The greatest leaders throughout time have given people hope for a better future. They pushed individuals, communities, organizations and countries to elevate their perception of what’s possible. Instead of scaring people into action and using fear for manipulative purposes, they encouraged others to find the strength and resourcefulness within themselves to meet any challenge and seize opportunity. To quote Winston Churchill, “courage is the first of human qualities, because it is the quality that guarantees all others.”
I find that leaders often get in trouble when they try to be who they are not. Your job is to be the best YOU that you can be. Trying to be someone else is inauthentic. This doesn’t mean you can’t improve or shouldn’t get better, but never lose sight of who you are, your passions, and what you believe to be right. Everyone needs be true to their own voice.
I attended a youth soccer game and a professional hockey game this weekend and it was interesting to watch how both groups handled frustration and adversity. As would be expected the kids had a much more difficult time with it. With a few exceptions, they were quick to get down on themselves and hang their heads. After a couple of unlucky plays they started to unravel and forget their training. It became increasingly obvious that many of them just gave up on winning well before this should have been the case. The pros on the other hand kept plugging away and fighting through their unlucky breaks. Their hard work and resilience paid off. Eventually things turned around for them and they won the game.
I’m not saying this just to state the obvious that professional athletes have more mental toughness than children, but instead to point out the importance of never giving up.
People are motivated by all types of things and leaders are no different. There are always a few major drivers in an individual’s life that prompt action and focus our activities. Many of these motivators are formed in childhood or young adulthood. They can be good or bad or some degree of both. My personal contention is that living at the far end of any motivational continuum isn’t too healthy. I also believe that what drives you also has a big impact on the formation of your character and your values. We do tend to embody our priorities over time.
In work and life it’s important never to forget that everyone has value and should be treated that way. I find that how someone regularly treats other people, regardless of their status or physical appearance, is a good barometer of that person’s character. In our society we have come to worship fame, beauty, power and wealth much more than we should. In all walks of life results should and do matter, however, they are not all that matters. Allowing a fellow human being to maintain his/her dignity and self-respect regardless of the circumstances is equally important.
I doubt many of us end up in the exact place we thought we’d land as clear eyed confident high school or college graduates many years ago. We were so sure of ourselves back then on who we would become and what we’d accomplish. The path ahead was pretty straightforward and many of the major steps were already identified, then LIFE HAPPENED. All paths are somewhat crooked and bumpy at times. Just like the sea, smooth sailing won’t last forever. Your character will inevitably build over time (or not) as you navigate the rough waters and unforeseen obstacles. You will also uncover beautiful passageways that you were unaware existed and have moments of spontaneous joy and self-assurance that will linger for a lifetime.
Believe it or not I often feel sorry for people who achieve success too easily. If you don’t have to work for something, you tend not to appreciate it as fully as someone else who has struggled to get where they are. It’s a fact of life that we often take those things for granted that come with minimal effort. Luck may have a place in life but it shouldn’t be a personal or professional strategy. Individual character is usually best forged in the fires of adversity and defined by a person’s ability to navigate whatever obstacles are strewn in their path of achieving those things that are meaningful to them.
“Pride does goeth before the fall.” It never ceases to amaze me how many people especially leaders can’t admit it when they are wrong. It’s almost as if the sheer fact of admitting their mistakes will make them weak and vulnerable to others. Our last president couldn’t even come up with one mistake when frequently queried about his handling of two major wars. In multiple press conferences you could tell there was an inner struggle going within him and defensiveness about what to say or not say. The press was quite frankly stunned by his lack of a response. I don’t for second believe he didn’t have anything to offer he just couldn’t be seen publicly doing it.
Going through life without a core purpose is like trying to navigate a boat without a rudder or take a hike without a compass. If you are not careful, you will get lost and struggle to reach your destination.
George Washington truly was a great man. His leadership character will be etched in the annals of history books forever. There is much to study and learn from the man and his actions (or lack thereof). Up until that point in human history, no individual had ever walked away (he did it more than once by the way) from such power and influence.
The goal of any society should be to secure the future of the next generation by providing them with the skills, talents and attitudes necessary for both survival and success. It is a certainty that every generation will have to deal with some level of uncertainty and challenge as they assume responsibility for their own destiny (and that of others).
A well functioning democracy requires the active participation of its citizenry. To be actively involved, one must take the time to become informed and make reasonable judgments as to who best represents their interests and is most qualified to fulfill the needs of their community, county, state and country.