April 2009

Good afternoon!

I’ve been pondering the question lately: How much of life do we really control? We tend to think that we are in charge of lots of things. And then our teenager starts acting bizarre, a parent develops memory issues, we see our net worth cut in half and so forth.

If we are truly honest with ourselves, we are amazed at how little control we actually exert upon much in our lives. Yes, we plan things. We do things that give us the feeling that we are making progress on our list of objectives in life, but it always seems that at every corner there is something that will force us to recalibrate success or think through what is truly important, all reminders of how vulnerable we are. Occurances that randomly say to us: "sorry, you don't have the power you thought you had." I am thinking this morning about a couple, life long friends from days of study together in Switzerland and Oxford. Recently, both of them have faced serious battles with cancer, repeated challenges of virulent mold in their house requiring them to vacate, and job uncertainty, just to name a few of their array of difficult problems. These are wonderfully kind and intelligent people wanting to make a difference in our crazy world. So why them? Why now? What control do they actually have over anything happening to them?

One of my favorite books is Man's Search for Meaning, penned by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl. His thesis, formed from observations acculmulated during his time in Nazi death camps, was that man has little if any control over circumstances. But—and this is a big but—you do have control over your attitude toward what is happening to you. This observation about one’s attitude became Frankl’s means of survival. Attitude and mindset are a part of one’s interior landscape, safe from intrusion.

So back to the initial question: how much of life can we really control? The answer is… I am not totally sure. Upon consideration, one could conclude that the best strategy when facing challenges is to hide until the storm passes. And yet it doesn't seem to work that way. So we get back to Frankl's notion of attitude and mindset.

All of us have met people who are living with incredible challenges and yet seem to be at peace, grateful and forward-looking.

Thanks to good friend and former Congressman Don Bonker and Ambassador Erlan Idrissov from Kazakhstan we recently screened the film, A Gift to Stalin. This quite remarkable independent film demonstrates the truth that great humanity and deep human care can indeed exist in the very midst of the most awful of circumstances. The film artfully shows how all of us are tested and are forced to make decisions that require us to consider who we are and what we believe. Many circumstances are not of our making (some certainly are), but all must be lived into and sorted out. Will they destroy us or make us better people? The film highlighted how beliefs influence attitudes and ultimately actions. The key figures in the film repeatedly faced and dealt with situations that could break the human spirit, and yet, just like my two friends struggling with cancer, these people kept looking forward, thankful to live another day.

So how do we develop a mindset that enables us to withstand the inevitable storms of life? In my view, drawing upon a solid belief system rooted in a living faith is usually a good starting point. As the philosopher Nietzsche mused: "He who has a why can endure any how." So the question for me and for you is this: What is our why? Why are we living? Why are we giving? Why are we caring for family and friends? Why are we building companies and giving money away? Why do we forgive others? Why do we try to help those in need? I recall former Senator Mark Hatfield asking Mother Teresa how she remained hopeful with the daunting challenge of working with the ‘untouchables’ in Indian society. Her reply was rooted in her own why: Because every human being is a child of God and deserves to be cared for if only for a few hours before they fade from life.

Mother Teresa had a clear why. How about the counterpoint to such a 'highminded' why? If you recall any of the writings of the 15th century political theorist Machiavelli, you will remember his notion that the "ends justify the means". He and Mother Teresa would not be happy with one another if they were to share a glass of wine. He had a very cynical approach to politics and many see his work The Prince as the basis of modern politics. He had a much debased view of character in opposition to the classical affirmations of humanity and goodness that were found in Plato and in the Hebrew scriptures. His perspective was rooted in a view (or why) that efficiency and success were the true goals of governing, and he saw leaders as cunning and self-centered with an eye toward their own self interest. His conclusion was that virtuous character is totally irrelevant since it can (sometimes) stand in the way of desired results. Whew! That is hard to take in. I suspect this guiding philosophy works well for a season. Imagine then trying to live with yourself in the aftermath of such a self-centered approach to life…and then consider your end drawing near and leaving such a self-centered legacy to your heirs?

Many of us have a theoretical why that is based upon personal histories and experience yet have never actually been tested real time. Typically a wake-up call occurs (you name it...health issue, child or marital issue, financial crisis, depression, etc.) It is then in our terror that we look for a worldview or set of beliefs that helps us make sense of our new circumstance. The why question is no longer academic but vital and deeply personal. And frankly, this is often a good thing. How many times has someone said, "I would never have wanted to go through what I endured, but having survived it, I am no longer afraid and think I am a better person." Ironic, huh? But at such moments we discover the real why of our lives.

The following poem written by a young, unknown Confederate soldier demonstrates a quite amazing capacity to see the value in understanding that once we go beyond what we can see and control, there is a solid why that carries us. carpe diem. Doug

O God,
I asked for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for help that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men most richly blessed.

 

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