I love this book since its first paragraph. I mentioned about it in Po’s blog. Thank you to write the stories of “real” ordinary people with their “real” unique struggles and triumphs. Hey, Po, you look cute. *smile*
Po structures this book into eight broad themes: That Sense of “Rightness”, In Another Class, Temptations vs. Aspirations, Destination vs. Journey?, Know Thyself, Changes of Scenery, Relationships and Family, and The Appropriate Time Frame. Cover to cover it consists of 50 true stories of people who answered the ultimate question… well, 51 stories including Po’s own true story.
Among those 51 stories, I could relate most to Heidi Olson (The Boom Wrangler Has Many Reasons to Live – Change, for some, Keeps Them Alive): there’s no need for an ultimate destination. We like to be permanently restless, do constant reinvention, having to rewrite org charts and business plans. I do believe that change keeps any institution and any individual full of life. This kind of people don’t live up to their resumes – hop through many careers yet give each of them the time to pay off; get heavily involved in everything they do, strive to make a difference—make an impact—before moving on. There are quite a number of other true stories that I can also relate to.
I suggest you to buy the book and read it – it’s a really fascinating and inspirational book. Well, below I quoted Chapter 57 of this book: Closing Remarks – All Stories are Unique. (The highlights are mine.)
There will always be those who say it’s impractical. I respect that we have to be practical in our approach, and we have to live up to our responsibilities. But to call it impractical is a cliché, and ignorant of the economy we live in today.
While writing this book, I was invited by Michael Dell, of Dell Computer, to be on a panel at a gathering of the Business Council, a group of over one hundred CEOs from some of the biggest companies in the country. Together, they pretty much are the economy. Or a huge chunk of it. It was an honor to be invited to address them. My panel would last an hour, and I was one of five participants, so I would probably only get one shot to deliver a coherent message. I might never again speak to such an influential crowd. This was my chance. If you had a few minutes to address the leaders of the economy, what would you say?
We had a great lead-in. Before our panel, the podium was turned over to Dr. Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard and a noted economist. He reviewed some frightening demographics for any CEOs in the audience who were bullish on the economy. He asked the question, “Where will the economic growth come from, if at all?” In the preceding twenty years, we’ve had the wind at our backs. The number of prime-age workers (ages twenty-five to fifty four) increased by 54 percent. The percentage with a college degree increased by 50 percent. In other words, the economy has grown since 1980 largely because the number of people participating in the economy has grown.
Looking ahead to the next twenty years, during which many baby boomers are expected tor etire, we can expect no growth in the number of workers. The percentage that are minorities and immigrants will increase by 50 percent, and there will be no change in the fraction with a college degree. In other words, unless these trends are changed—or unless there are unforeseen boosts in productivity per worker—the economy won’t grow much, if at all.
In other words, audience, if you sell John Deere tractors, there will not be people with lawns to mow. If you sell Boeing airplanes, there won’t be people to fly in their seats. If you sell Tide soap, there won’t be people who need their clothes washed.
It was a pretty intense moment as this sank in.
Could the most powerful CEOs in America change something about that? That’s what this conference was for. The entire next day’s schedule was devoted to education reform. The notion was, it would be up to the educational system to transform the unproductive and uneducated into productive consumers.
The question our panel was asked to address is, “What do employees want?” What would it take to get more commitment out of them, more ideas out of them, more value out of them? The panelists chipped in with their ideas about benefits, flex-time, day care, free M7Ms on Wednesdays, stock options, small companies versus large ones, cubicles versus private offices, and various methods of showing standout individuals a little extra appreciation. At this point, the conversation was passed to me.
I leaned forward in my seat, “What do people really want?”
They want to find work they’re passionate about. Offering benefits and incentives are mere compromises. Educating people is important but not enough. We need to encourage people to find their sweet spot. Productivity explodes when people love what they do. We’re sitting on a huge potential boom in productivity, which we could tap into if we got all the square pegs in the square holes and the round pegs in the round holes. It’s not something we can measure with statistics, but it’s a huge economic issue. It’s a great natural resource that we’re ignoring.
The tone in the room shifted. One by one, CEOs stood up and shared anecdotes that concurred with my thesis. The value in their companies came from the employees who were passionate about being there. The extra effort came from them. The new ideas came from them. They took it upon themselves to teach and lead others. Was it just that they were driven? Was it just that they were well educated? No, and often those traits were distractions. Often these dedicated people weren’t executives. They could be at any level of the company. They were the company’s sustaining force. Every CEO wanted more of this kind of employee—if only there were a magical way to recruit them. Vague? Yes. Impratical? Not at all.
So it’s time to define the new era. Economic growth will not come from one particular sector, or from companies that adopt whatever management method is in vogue—this will not be an era of blanket solutions; instead, growth will come one company at a time, from companies that focus on doing what they do, and doing it better.
And in the same way, individual success will not be attained by migrating to a particular “hot” industry, or by adopting a particular career-guiding mantra (your metaphor pollution is no good here); instead, the individuals that thrive will do so because they focused on the question of who they really are, and from that found work they truly love, and in so doing unleashed a productive and creative power they never imagined. The organizations that fuel this growth are as likely to be in shipping, defense, or education as they are to be in technology. The individuals that power this growth are as likely to be truckers, lab technicians, or teachers as they are to be MBAs.
Those who are lit by this passion will be the object of envy among their peers, and the subject of intense curiosity. They are the ones who, day by day, will rescue this drifting ship. And they will be rewarded. By money, sure, and responsibility, undoubtedly, but there is no reward more gratifying than enjoying a job well done.
I live in a different world now. Or one I perceive differently, thanks to the openness of the people I’ve met. I feel like I’ve re-discovered my awe. Let me explains what that means. I used to look at the world through the eye of a magazine writer, filtering out the ordinary while waiting for the sensational and buzz-worthy to trigger my muse. There were so many people I didn’t listen to, so many stories I passed on, because I cou
ldn’t imagine them grabbing the attention of my news-hungry editors.
By writing this book—as a book, not as a series for magazines—I have opened up my filter and learned to see the extraordinary in the once cast-away ordinary. Good stories used to be rare; now they’re everywhere, and better than anything I used to find.
Largely, the stories herein are of people who’ve learned to do what’s right. At the hardest turning points of their lives—suffering from layoffs, divorce, and illnesses—they discovered the courage to build something better. Whether their initial instincts were logical or mystical, their story soon became anchored in deeply felt experience. They’ve left the world of money and status behind to find a more genuine connection to other people. They didn’t let conventional notions of class restrict their options. Their responsibilities didn’t keep them from their purpose—they were part of their purpose, often the most important part. Combined, they make the world a better place, one encounter at a time.
I don’t think of the people in this book as having the best stories out there. Rather, they’re the ones that came into my life. Once I heard a story, I was willing to get on a plane, and I was willing to be honest. In order to know people personally, I might have gone to great lengths, but I didn’t got to great lengths to discover them.
If some of the stories are amazing, it suggests to me that amazing stories must be everywhere. If the stories are inspiring, the inspiring stories are everywhere. If the stories are ordinary—which is how I think of them—then many ordinary people, everywhere, are daring to be true to themselves.
I began this book with nothing more than a glimmer. I was sitting in my office, staring into space, unable to write, when I asked myself: What was on people’s minds? A lot were wondering what to do with their lives. That big, obvious, threatening, looming question. Without thinking, I got up and knocked on my friend Ethan Watter’s door, threw myself down on his mini-sofa, and asked him what he thought of the idea. “How would you do it?” he asked, naturally. I didn’t know. I had one instinct: Writing about my own friends would be cheating. I needed to sample real people from around the country. “How would you find them?” he asked. I didn’t know. I secured votes of confidence from my agent and my ex-editor (who had left publishing, but I trusted his opinion, and it turned out he came back to books two months later). I set to work trying to figure it out. I didn’t know where I was headed, but this seemed like what I needed, to plunge into the unknown, guided only by my muse.
I didn’t know that I would meet so many wonderful people. I never expected how honest they would be with me. I didn’t know that I would learn so much from them. I didn’t know that this book would become a vehicle for me to express a new voice. I didn’t know that my desire for this book would survive my son’s birth, or the catastrophe of September 11, or our parents’ failing ill. All that unfolded for me later, like a reward for trusting my instincts.
Here’s my point: Usually, all we get is a glimmer. A story we read or someone we briefly met. A curiosity. A meek voice inside, whispering. It’s up to us to hammer out the rest. The rewards of pursuing it are only for those who are willing to listen attentively, only for those people who really care. It’s not for everyone. If we are the victim of injustice, it is up to us to find a meaningful way to channel our anger. If we suffer a terrible crisis, only we can transform this suffering into a launching pad for a new life. These are the turning points from which we get to construct our own story, if we choose to do so. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick. Finding what we believe in and what we can do about it is one of life’s great dramas. It can be an endless process of discovery, one to be appreciated and respected for its difficulty. Don’t cheat. Theat this as the one true life you get.
Now, an admission: Conducting my research in a haphazard, grassroots, word-of-mouth style has its faults. We all start somewhere, and my starting point was heavily steeped in the perspective of techies and MBAs, whom I used to write about. This book has taught me so many other ways of looking at the world—I’ve outgrown that old mindset, thankfully. I worked hard to expose myself to as many viewpoints as possible—but! … But when I began, I didn’t know how universal this question was. And so my pool of nine hundred interviews was only ankle-deep in some areas, and I now wish I had more diversity, more working-class stories, more stay-at-home parents, more couples. Please don’t condemn me. We all start somewhere. I’m juts one person, with a family to take care of, and I can’t be away from home too much. So I recognize my wish for more, and I hear the Call in that wish, and I’m propelled by that Call. And I know what to do. Be assured that while you’re reading this, I’m out hearing more stories, doing my work, hammering out the rest.
Never enough money, never enough time! This threat hangs out there like a veto. And I recognize the book’s not much practical help on this front. I know some readers would prefer a careful audit of each subject’s finances to discern exactly how they made a dollar stretch. As hard as it was for the people in this book to make it work, I recognize that it always looks so much easier in retrospect. There’s a natural inclination to put some distance between yourself and those here—they’re not like me, they don’t have my problems. Part of that inclination is to forget just how tough it really was, or maybe not forget, exactly—maybe ignore. Don’t ignore Rick Olson’s bankruptcy. Don’t ignore that Chi Tschang lived in a housing project. Don’t ignore that Mary Ann Clark had five children to raise. Don’t ignore that those who have college and postgraduate degrees had to earn them grade by grade. Don’t look for a story just like yours—there is no story just like yours. Open up your filter and you will recognize that all stories are unique and all stories are worthy. Your story is unique. Find your story. I hope this book helps people find their story. It helped me find mine. Until I met these people, I never thought I had a story.
Never enough time? On the contrary—the saving grace is time. The people in this book didn’t fix their situation overnight. For most, it took many attempts over many years. When I began my research, I thought this was a weakness in their stories; I wished they had exhibited more commanding control over their changes. Now I admire their patience, and I find it more interesting that they’ve made their changes despite lacking control.
Now I wonder—why was it supposedly more admirable for someone to have made their change cleanly and overnight? Why did I ever want stories that weren’t clouded by luck, pain, and ghosts? Why was that the kind of story I thought I wanted to hear? Answer: Because that’s the storytelling convention. The Self-Made Person. We’ve been boxed in that myth. We’ve edited our lives to sound more like that myth. We’ve judged ourselves negatively because we haven’t measured up to that myth. We’ve stopped trying because we know we don’t have mythic strength.
I’m glad I never found stories I was originally looking for. Instead, I found true stories, full of messy complications, with wonderful outcomes nevertheless.
I hope the stories in this book have broken that myth’s grip on what stories are supposed to sound like.
When you tell your story, embrace your luck, pain, and ghosts.
I hope this book has challenged how you categorize yourself (and others). Perhaps you identify yourself by your age, your gender, your race, the number of kids you’ve raised, or where you live. Perhaps you identify yourse
lf by your profession. At one point, I considered organizing this book by all those supposed categories. I hope what I’ve done has portrayed another way to think about it. We’re not identified by what we do—our identity is anchored in what we’ve had to overcome to get there. And we share those challenges with far more people than just those who talk like us or share our occupations. We all share this human experience. We are all looking for “rightness.” We are all struggling to transcend the way our class has defined us. We are all trying to know ourselves. We are all looking for an environment that nurtures our soul. We are all trying to balance the needs and desires of our families. We are all trying to keep the Big Picture in mind. This unites us, not divides us.
So finding your calling is not “the answer.” Callings are vehicles that help us let our real selves out; callings speed up the process. You can find your calling, or you can find your people, or you can find an environment that nurtures you—they all lead to the same place. Many people get there without ever finding their calling. Head in that direction. Seek, adjust. Seek, learn. We grow into our true selves, our whole selves, overcoming our fears and the limits that once trapped us.
So many good things happened to me on the way to pursuing my dream.
Writing a little every day taught me to pay attention and not sleepwalk through life—it made this a richer experience. My dream helped me to resist temptation when I was young, and I have been better at resisting temptation ever since. My dream gave me direction during my divorce, and forced me to overcome my shyness. My dream led me, eventually, to this book, and to finally figuring out how to connect to others.
Not all dreams come true. But this very real transformation is available to everyone.
Now I’m walking with Carl Kurlander in Squirrel Hill. Now I’m walking with Chi Tschang through Jamaica Plain. Now I’m walking in the snow with Nicole Heinrich through Logan Square. Now I’m walking with Ashley Merryman through Culver City. Now I’m walking in the rain with Ana Miyares through Little Havana.
I keep my memories of these people close by. I want to hang on to their influence on me. We write and call each other. Sometimes I reread my notes taken during our conversations. Inevitably time will erode memory and I will be left with only fading highlights, and then only fond feelings. There’s no way I can remember it all. So, for my sake, in order to have it in one place, I’ll repeat some of the most important things I learned:
A calling is not something you know, it’s something you grow into, through trials and mistakes. Work shouldn’t just be fun. Work should be like life—sometimes fun, sometimes moving, and defined by meaningful events. Attack your fears, rather than shy away from them. Bring what you do in alignment with who you are. Freedom is the confidence that you can live within the means of something you’re passionate about. Failure’s hard, but success at the wrong thing can lock you in forever. Don’t be seduced by artificial love. Be open to defining experiences. Don’t mistake intensity for passion. You don’t find your purpose above the neck, you’ll find it below the neck, when you’re transformed by what you have witnessed. You can get good at what you need to to serve what you believe in. Get your mind 80 percent of the way there, then go looking for the catalyst. Look backward as much as forward, inward as much as outward. Nothing helps like knowing you’re not alone. There’s a powerful transformative effect when you surround yourself with like-minded people. Create an environment where the truth is invited into your life. If you develop the character, the odds are pretty good you can succeed. Success is defined as when you’re no longer held back by your heart, and your character blossoms, and the gifts you have to offer the world are apparent. Don’t cling to a single scenario, allow yourself many paths to the same destination. Give it a lifetime to pay off. Things you work hardest for are the things you will most treasure.
I used to think life presented a five-page menu of choices. Now I think the choice is in whether to be honest, to ourselves and others, and the rest is more of an uncovering, a peeling away of layers, discovering talents we assumed we didn’t have. I used to treasure the innocence of first love. Now I treasure the hard-fought. I used to want to change the world. Now I’m open to letting it change me.