“I do not live my own life, there is something stronger than me which directs me. I suffer; but formerly I was dead and only now do I live.”
Leo Tolstoy, “The Cossacks”
Listen carefully. It surrounds us, pervasive, consuming our conversations, at work, at home, and within our own heads. The stark contrast that divides our desire to be: a title, a position, a member, as compared with our aspiration to do: make change, contribute, and learn. Those who want to be at the top, be part of a club, be part of a university, be in a specific office hold a very different quality of gravitas from those who need to do something in particular in order to achieve their greater purpose. We confuse having authority with being an authority, and use position, title and awards as a substitute for success.
If you are under the age of 25 a focus on being is understandable, life’s experiences may not have exposed them to mentors whose quiet humility provide models of real influence and expertise. Positional power and title for the young is a proxy for success – over time we come to learn to identify those with genuine influence, and how their focus on task, often to the exclusion of promotion or rewards, is what elevates them to positions of authority. Teaching the young the difference between “poise” and “pose” can be a difficult but valuable lesson. Remember this when filling in your university applications, start with what you need to do, achieve, and learn, and not with an empty desire to simply be.
We may also apportion some sympathy for those over the age of 50 who remain hypnotically drawn to the allure of title, position and status. It remains one of our most prolific systemic societal mind-sets, supported by popular culture, media, and social norms. We are so easily trapped into professional hierarchies of importance, focusing first on the letters after the name on the business card and not on the person directly in front of us. Ego, as author Ryan Holliday reminds us, is almost always the enemy, pulling us toward the bright and shiny glimmer of positional success and avoiding the hard yards toward substantive, humble, and selfless contribution. Holliday reminds us of Col. John Boyd’s roll call to action and the daily decisions we need to make in our lives.
When panning for gold miners wash away the lighter, more buoyant hollow material, discarding in back onto the river as slough: common, generic sand and mud. Gravity holds the heavier, denser material in the pan. It preserves the substantive and more valuable gold to be easily singled out and put to use. Leaders and educators need to develop, within others and within themselves, our substantive statement of purpose, identifying what we are here to do, and not what are we here to be.
Holliday, Ray (2016) Ego is the Enemy, Penguin Publishing, New York.
Tolstoy, Leo (1863) The Cossacks – translated by David McDuff and Paul Foote, and republished by Penguin Classics (2006) London, England.