I had the most profound conversation of my life in the same place all great profound conversations happen; at 2 in the morning after closing a bar. An old fraternity brother and I staged a mini reunion and we were laying it all on the line. John was worried and upset, not about our night, but about our lives. He was upset and distraught because his life was not where he thought it was supposed to be. He was having the same doubts that we all do: “We are not making enough”, “we don’t have the job we thought we had to have”, “we need to be somewhere else”… All those things that lean on us, and while they may have a motivating factor, at 3 in the morning they are an anchor on our neck.
As we walked and talked, I had an epiphany. “Do you remember the movie the “The Matrix” I asked? He nodded and I asked him if he remembered the Oracle scene. In the movie, there is a scene where the main character, Neo, is going to visit the Oracle to find out about his destiny. While he is waiting, there are several young kids sitting around doing mystical things. One young boy is sitting crossed legged and is bending spoons with his mind. Neo bends down and looks at the boy in awe. As he is sitting there, they have this conversation:
Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon boy: Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
John looks at me and says “yea, so?” Well that is the key. We keep looking at the world like it is our spoon to bend. Like we have some imaginary person that is telling us what life is supposed to be like. What mile markers we should be hitting in our lives and when. That there is a “should be” or a “normal” that we are always judging ourselves against. I don’t know if it comes from tradition or the media or what, but there is some invisible standard that we are always up against. And for whatever reason, we are always coming up short. It beats us down and keeps us in place. It is only in stepping outside that idea that we can be what we are destined to be. We should realize, there is no spoon.
That was the answer we had been searching for; that we need to make our own destiny, and not always do what we are told. Think of all the great people who struck out on their own. People embrace the idea of entrepreneurship because of the nagging notion that we can do more. That we are best being our own boss and judging ourselves against the traditional model is a recipe for disaster. Even in business, we come up with a new idea, sales package, or technique because we see a better way. We need to face the challenges of our personal lives in the same way. “I’m 30 and not married”, “I’m still in the same place and everyone is moving on”, ‘I’m not happy with what I am doing and it is killing me” and the statements go on and on. These questions come, not from a manual that says what life should be like, but from our perception of what “normal” is. It is only in realizing that there is no “normal” that we can succeed. Sounds easy, but to somehow hold ourselves up to this “imaginary perfect life” is a mistake that we all fall in to.
Beware the dark side
I am not trying to some Tony Robbins worthy statement here. I am acutely aware of the one thing we tend to forget. When we set out to blaze new trails or stand up to how it “Should be”, pain and loneliness are all too real of a reality. We celebrate the inventors: Edison, Jobs, Ford, Hershey, and the rest. We marvel at all they create. But what we forget the pain and humiliation that goes into forging the new way. Milton Hersey, Henry Ford, and Henry Heinz all went bankrupt several times before making their way to the top. Every singer or comic who became an overnight success spent night after night wondering if they will ever be able to make it on their own. They sat around while every well-meaning relative and friend had insight into how it should be. And most of all, they kept beating back that beast that was whispering in their ear that what they were doing was a mistake and that they were letting not just themselves down, but their families and friends as well.
Starting out on your own, especially later in life is a scary thing. Our egos are formed early, but when they take a beating, we fall pretty hard, pretty fast. When we think of those titans of industry, we often fall into the trap of thinking only of their success and not what may be their greatest trait getting themselves up off the mat after they had been knocked out.
Every solid parent and teacher has told their kids that the secret to success is doing their own thing. Finding the thing that makes them happy and go off and do that. We tell them to be their own person and hold their heads up high. While that is great advice but we sometimes don’t set them up for how cold, cruel and tough the world can be. When all we talk about is the wins, we run the risk of letting them think it will be too easy. We repeat the line that the secret to success is showing up. Well here is a news flash, it’s not. The secret is hard work, determination, and that spirit to get up off the ground when you are knocked down.
This is all too real a story for me. My daughter was in a serious car accident in her late teens. She was hit by a drunk driver and spent six weeks in the hospital. Eventually her body healed, but it took a long time for her spirit to rebound. The scars on the outside are the easy ones to see. The other ones, well they can be harder to heal. It was after a particularly emotional night, she and I had a had a talk. I told her that she is right that it is not fair. That what happened to her was wrong, and she didn’t deserve the pain and scars. She thought her life was going one way, but now it is not. But also, that there was nothing that we could do about it. I told her it is okay to be depressed. It is fine to go to a dark place and sit there for a while. But eventually, she is going to need to get out of that place. That eventually she is going to need to move on and make her world her own. She can visit this bad place and maybe stay for a while, but don’t live there. Stay as long as you need, but not a minute longer. The world is a great place if you make it that way. And most importantly, it is going to be up to her to get there.
She stayed down for a bit longer, but she got out of it. She is a tough kid, and that toughness is what we need. All those entrepreneurs, leaders of business, sports stars and singers share one common trait, they are tougher than a $2.00 steak. We talk about hard work, but more importantly, we need to talk about grit. The toughness and determination that makes this country great.
When I was a classroom teacher I worked with some of the poorest kids you can imagine. Migrant kids who would often spend the entire night working in the fields only to come to school the next day to try and learn and graduate. Teen moms who were up all night with a crying baby and still trying to write a five-page essay. Those kids had grit. They worked hard and didn’t think anything should be handed to them. They were going to succeed, because success is their only option.
One of the most popular things to criticize in the media lately is the new millennial generation. Millennials enter the workforce looking for value and worth in their work and don’t mind leaving if they are not getting what they want. We tend to dismiss them as young and inexperienced, because they are. But to write them off is a huge mistake that we can’t afford to do. These young people have been raised in a lifetime of a war on terror. They have mountains of debt and a grim view of authority. They come from a time when questioning everything is the rule, and they are convinced they can remake their world so it fits them. They are not into bending to what tradition says we should do. Their future, while tough to attain will be amazing. That is because they realize at an early age what so many of us struggle with. There is no spoon.