Never Achieving Alone

The United States is focused on achievement and success and we use a few basic measuring sticks to compare ourselves to others and to display how successful we have become. Money is our main yardstick, tied to other measures of success such as home-ownership and the size of our homes, the number and types of vehicles we drive, and so on. When we talk about our own success and reflect back on our path we tend to look at the tough decisions and sacrifices that we made along the way. We focus on the obstacles we overcame where others faltered and we create a highlight reel in our minds that emphasizes our good qualities in the face of adversity and downplays the help we received from others or the advantages we started with. When we do this we begin to develop a false sense of what was truly necessary for us to get to where we currently are, and we begin to overestimate ourselves, our importance, and our relation to society as a whole.
In his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats reflects on his life journey and the lessons he learned in a long form essay to his son. He at one point reflects on the poets and writers who were influential to him at college and includes a quick note to his son that stood out to me. Coats writes, “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone.”

 

We often miss how dependent our lives are on those around us. We look at the smart decisions we had to make and praise ourselves for being disciplined, for not getting in trouble, and for being more industrious than those who are not as successful as we are. Money becomes the measure of how well we have done on our own, and fancy cars and houses become the way we display our value as human beings and our self-reliance through tough times.

 

These displays and our memories however, do not reflect the realities of our lives and our interdependence on other people. We never truly do anything alone. Our lives do not take place in a vacuum and we are not born as the amazing all-stars we make our selves out to be. We are dependent on other people from the very beginning, and often times, the success we achieve can be attributed to luck, to meeting the right people, and to having the right support at the right times in our lives. We have a large role to play in along this journey, and our attitudes, decisions, and work ethic greatly influence where we will end up, but we never truly achieve something without the help of others. We do not choose our parents and we do not choose our genetic pre-dispositions to things like disease, addiction, physical height and weight, or mental focus. Each of these areas could be managed and improved through personal decisions, but it is important to recognize that many of us do not start with equal footing and we do not all face the same levels of adversity.

 

In a quote written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.” Great business decisions and adventures can never be undertaken alone, and sometimes the people around you explain more of the success of your business than just your own hard work. We influence the outcome, but we never truly control where we end up. Even the best business idea and the best team focused on reaching smart goals can be taken down in an unpredicted market collapse.

 

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote, “a branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community.” What Aurelius is explaining is that we are connected to others and dependent on others to grow and thrive. Like a branch cut from a tree, we will wither away on our own. We may be able to become successful through smart decisions and hard work, but constantly operating in the background is a society that supports us. Cory Booker in United writes, “our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures.” One of those communal treasures is a society that still manages to support others and create opportunities for others through our connections and collective abilities. What makes us great and has allowed us to grow did not occur on our own, and it is up to us to reflect that support back onto others.

 

Ultimately, our money and wealth say nothing of our value or of the obstacles we overcame to get to the place we find ourselves. Looking back, it is easier to see our sacrifices and hard work, and harder to see the advantages we had. We are dependent on society at the same time that society depends on our best efforts. Being aware of how we benefitted and the advantages we received will help us make better decisions and live less selfishly in respect to others and our society.
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Owning Our Mistakes

Fred Kiel gives a few examples of what it means to be a great leader for a company in his book, Return on Character, where he focuses on the ties between strong moral values, success, and leadership. One of the examples he gives of what it means to be a leader who focuses on ethical and moral strengths involved owning up to our mistakes and being honest and forgiving with ourselves and others when we make mistakes.

 

In his book he tells a story to focus on a fictional character who does not receive a promotion. The character then begins to examine himself through a process of self-reflection to understand how he can change his behaviors and actions to enhance the skills that he had already developed. One area he identified for growth involved abandoning his habit of creating excuses for mistakes and failures, and working to better accept his errors. Kiel uses the simple example to show how an individual can become a stronger leader by beginning to better understand their mistakes and take responsibility rather than pushing blame onto others. Kiel’s character began to see that accepting his mistakes and forgiving himself for his errors made him a leader with stronger character, helping him connect better with those in the workplace. Kiel wrote of his fictional character’s change, “By owning up to his own mistakes, he would communicate to others in a very powerful way that he cared for them as people. He was telling them that he’s no better than they—that he shares a common humanity with them.”

 

By being honest and leading with character Kiel explains that we become more likable as people. Those around us with whom we work, spend time with, and live with will find us to be more complete when we acknowledge our mistakes. If we do not honestly address our mistakes then we put ourselves above others on a pedestal of perfection, and we fail to recognize an important part of our humanity.

 

Kiel also suggests that owning up to our mistakes helps make us better leaders and  more successful individuals. Failures and errors are things we will all experience and being able to recognize those shortcomings in a safe way will help us move forward. This part of his message reminds me of the advice that Bob Schacochis shared with James Harmon for him to publish in his book, Take My Advice. Schacochis writes of his early days working as a carpenter, “When it comes to making mistakes a bad carpenter and a good carpenter is the same. The only difference is, the good carpenter figures out how to correct his.” What he is saying is that we will all have errors along the way, but to truly be good we must recognize those errors and take the time correct them, allowing us to grow.  We can’t expect to be perfect and we can’t expect others to be perfect, but we can expect everyone to own up to their mistakes and to find ways to correct their errors.

Context

Chris Kraus wrote a letter for James Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice. In her letter Kraus writes about being called “an obsessive” and she shares the story of a French poet Antonin Artuad whose poetry was rejected by a revered French magazine editor. She sets up his story to explain what it means to be obsessed by something, and how writing helps us build our dialog and communication skills.  One section of her writing that I particularly liked was a short sentence that brought back my focus of awareness and exploration, “Nothing exists without a source.” Writes Kraus, “It is important to Contextualize everything.”

 

I do believe that sometimes in our lives we can become too caught up in trying to understand the deeper meaning, the hidden thoughts that lead to action, or any ulterior motive behind another persons words or actions, but in general, I think we often view the world through a superficial lens. In our romantic relationships we evaluate every word, text message, phone call, and winky face sent to us as if we were hired crime scene detectives, at least when we first start dating, but we quickly begin to make assumptions about our loved one and return to a comfortable place where we quit looking for the deeper meaning that influenced our actions and those of our companion.

 

In her letter, Kraus used Artuad’s life story to show that we can find deeper meaning in the world when we work to better understand the context of the world around that which we focus on. In order to truly understand something we must know where it came from, what influenced its origin, and what purpose it was supposed to serve.  By taking a microscope to a situation we can make better judgements and begin to see the multiple perspectives surrounding a single event. The better we become at this the more we will be able to connect with others, and the more patience and compassion we can develop for those who deserve it.

Human Speech

The last section I highlighted in James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, was written by writer Chris Kraus who spoke mostly of obsession in her letter to Harmon.  Near the end of her letter Kraus wrote, “Human Speech is driven, always, by the desire to achieve a goal. Realize you are constantly being manipulated.”  When we look at political speeches we are good at understanding that there is a goal or agenda behind the rhetoric used by politicians, but I am not sure we extend that to a lot of other areas in our life. Television and commercials are nothing but influence machines, and speech in the workplace often focuses on what we want or need others to do for us.  I think a big area where I am able to grow from this quote is by reflecting on my own speech.  By building a base of self awareness I can think more about what I say and evaluate what goal lays beneath my speech.

 

Krause also writes, “Nothing exists without a source. It is important to contextualize everything.”  I think this is important to consider when we are looking at the goals behind other people’s speech. The more focus and awareness we have the better we can be at understanding what goals people have, but keeping Kraus’s second quote in mind helps us see that there is a deeper level than just the goals of another person.  We can dive even deeper and start to evaluate where the other person’s goals came from, and just what they will gain when they reach those goals.  Seeing the context behind the goals will help us understand the motivation for others, and will help us react better to the other’s attempt to manipulate us.  If their goal is positive and pure, then jumping on board to help them and follow their goals may not be a bad idea.  If their motivation is purely self serving then perhaps it is better if we shy away from their goals and influence.

The Beauty of Creation

The last section of William Vollmann’s letter in James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, which I highlighted is a section on creation.  The short piece of advice reads, “Anyone can be an artist of sorts.  At the very least, trying to create something beautiful will help you see beauty in other created things, and that will make you happy.” I like this quote because it encourages everyone to do something creative, not because making something beautiful will make you rich, but because it will help you have a deeper appreciation of the world.

I believe that Vollmann’s quote applies to any creative process. This blog has helped me appreciate good writing, trying to create my own podcast (The Blue Pulse Podcast) has helped me appreciate other people’s creative podcasts, and being creative in more traditional artistic ways has helped me find a new appreciation for art.

Vollmann’s quote is a reflection of increased awareness in the world.  Prior to setting off on a creative journey it is easy to take well produced and high quality art for granted.  The creative process does not look so difficult from the outside and it is easy to simply accept the world as it is without peering past the surface to see the hard work and effort required to create the world we see.  Diving into art and creativity gives us an up close and personal view of the effort required to transform ones craft from rudimentary to outstanding.  As one gets started they see how much work is truly required to establish something meaningful, and as each small step or obstacle towards a goal is revealed, the respect for those who create grows.

I believe that this respect for hard work grows as we grow and strive for new goals.  The creative journey is a wonderful example, but as I have left college and entered the working world I have begun to appreciate just how hard others work.  I am truly fascinated with individual stories of reaching goals, and what I have come to learn is that the most successful people often work very hard with seemingly little support and recognition for about ten years before they reach the levels they would hope for.  This is true of career journeys as well as creative journeys, and while I don’t always agree with the paths and goals that people set out for themselves, I can respect the dedication and effort required to reach those goals.

In the end, Vollmann’s observation is powerful in the sense that what you begin to appreciate as you dive into the design world, the world of art, and the hidden world of individual creativity, is the drive and effort of others to produce meaning in the world.  Great art serves more than the creator, but everyone else in society.  By creating something that makes others pause to think, you put additional value in the world.

A Constructive Use of Our Resources

In his letter for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, William T. Vollmann lists as number seven on his list of 21 pieces of advice the following quote, “Don’t buy anything or use anything you don’t need or want.  Try to do constructive things with cash.”  This little piece of advice seems so simple at face value, but if we really incorporated it into our lives we would see that it can have a deep impact on our lives.  Focusing on what we buy and not buying things that could be labeled as junk will help us eat healthier, de-clutter our homes, and even focus on donating to better charities.  Budgeting is one of the clearest ways to limit spending money on unnecessary things, but increased self awareness is a crucial step for anyone who wants to truly identify their spending habits. I just finished reading The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey, and in his book he recounts many stories of individuals and couples sitting down to budget for the first time, and being shocked at just how much money they were spending towards things they did not need or remember.  The big takeaway from the power of budgeting is the self-awarenss that a good budget creates, and the control that planning and budgeting provides for our lives.  Trying to avoid purchasing things we don’t need or use our money in frivolous and mindless ways will lead to more control and security in our lives.

 

It is easy to go to the grocery store and come home with a variety of things that you did not intend to buy, and this is not always a bad thing.  Getting to the store and realizing that you need  sunscreen and throwing some in the cart as you pass the display can be a good thing, while I would argue, throwing an extra candy bar or soda in the cart is not.  In this example I am comparing the impulse to buy a skin protector, something that helps us be health, with a junk food that is not healthy. This argument is a little flawed, but accurately identifies situations where we can be spending money on things that will not help us, and will just leave us with a little less cash.  One candy bar on its own does not mean anything, but combined with soda, cookies, and other junk foods the candy bar can become a dangerous habit that we spend money on each time we go to the store. Self awareness is required to see what you are buying at the grocery store and limit the junk you buy and the excuses you develop for buying that junk.

 

Vollmann’s ideas about consciously spending our money and making sure that we use our money wisely extends beyond simple shopping.  I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Point of Inquiry where host Josh Zepps interviewed Peter Singer about morality.  What surprised me was to hear that the majority of people who donate to charity do so on an impulse basis with little to no thought of the impact factor behind their donation.  Any time we donate to charity we feel better and justified for our action, but we rarely take the time to identify how impactful the charity is, and how our money will benefit the programs or lives of those the charity aims to assist.  Random and unconscious donations to charity may not be harmful and may be one of the constructive uses of cash that Vollmann encourages, but according to Singer we could still be doing more with our resources.  I think that in the end Vollmann, through his quote about money, is speaking about making the most of the resources we have. Singer shows us that even one of our most coveted resources is often misused even when we try to do something positive.  Searching for the most constructive use of our time, effort, and cash can help us feel more fulfilled, and it will allow us to have a grater impact on the planet. I followed the podcast by reading Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, and was struck by the idea of intentionally donating money by consciously saving and making valuable contributions to charities that have the greatest impact on the lives and suffering of the global poor.  One of the biggest surprises of affective altruism as Singer has named it, is the meaning that impactful donations of time and resources provide to those who are wealthy enough to give back.  Affective altruists who make meaningful donations feel more connected with their community and those around them, and feel like they are making a greater difference in the world.

Connecting with Others

James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, is a collection of letters written to him by other writers, artists, and creative people whom Harmon Admired.  William T. Vollmann is one of the writers who submitted a letter for Harmon’s book, and in his letter he lists 21 pieces of advice. Number three on his list reads, “Try to love as many people as you can (i.e., be proud of who they are—don’t transgress their boundaries.” Advice like this is helpful for me to hear every day because it reminds me to be open minded to those around me, and to think of others first.
When we are meeting someone for the first time it is easy to connect with them and be friendly and inviting.  However, as we get to know the other person we start to see things we do or do not like about them, and the judgemental thoughts begin.  It may start out small, but over time our judgments and opinions shift, and in our mind we develop shortcuts for thinking about the other person.  This can be positive or negative, but either way our shortcuts do not encourage us to truly understand and think about the other.  Rather than caring about them and taking the time to have meaningful interactions we skip past them assuming they have not changed since we got to know them and assuming that we understand them.
This can often times be harmless for us and others, but  it can also be hurtful for both of us.  Once we have fixated on how our relationship with another can benefit us or if we only focus on what we dislike about the other, then we are not willing to truly assist them and listen to what they have to say.  In this sense we miss a chance to bring the other person up, and we also miss out on times when the other person could help us.  Nuggets of advice that encourage meaningful relationships and friendships can help us avoid these pitfalls.  I am drawn to Vollmann’s advice because he encourages us to seek true connections with others, and to see the world through their eyes.  In order to adopt the perspective of others we must understand their background and their relationship with us. This takes a lot of self reflection and self awareness for us to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and truly reflect on how our relationship impacts both of us.
The ultimate goal of this type of exercise and self reflection is not to find a secret way to benefit ourselves by being nice to others. Vollmann would argue that the importance is in building relationships that will strengthen both parties.  By connecting with and understanding others we will help them feel more valued and build a stronger sense of community.  Looking only for our own gains in relationships will ultimately leave us lonely, and will damage the overall sense of community and family within our lives. The ideas of Vollmann in this section return to Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s quote from a previous post of mine, “The meaning of life is inherent in the connections we make to others through honor and obligation.”