When you ask people what they’re most proud of, people usually mention about the same types of things: their kids, a career accomplishment, or how they lived their life.
But it’s an unfair question that totally catches people off guard and they usually blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. It’s like when you see somebody blindsided on a talk show by being asked, “What’s the funniest, most hilarious thing that ever happened to you?” or “What’s the most amazing, incredible, phenomenal experience you’ve ever had?” You’re just not going to get the real answer with 1.2 seconds of thought. But what’s interesting is when people voluntarily say what they’re proud of or what their most amazing, incredible, phenomenal experience was. When they volunteer this out of the blue, it means they’ve given it a lot of thought.
There’s an famous man at the University of Chicago and who’s a legend in academia in the area of how people make decisions. Let’s call him Adam. We became friends and during a late dinner Chicago a couple years ago, our conversation turned to parents. Although Adam’s parents had passed away long ago, he said – out of the blue – “What I’m most proud of in all my life, is how I was there for my parents in their later years.”
What? That’s what he’s most proud of? I don’t even know what that means.
Here’s a guy who’s published libraries of stuff, whose work has changed at least one industry, who has two successful kids, and what he’s most proud of is “how I was there for my parents in their later years”? This wasn’t a “tell me the funniest thing that ever happened to you” kind of answer. He had clearly thought about this a lot.
Taking care of aging parents is particularly very emotionally hard. It’s good if you can see it as a blessing, but even a saint can’t see it as a blessing day after day while they are trying to juggle the rest of their life. Having both a wife and brother who do this daily, I can see the grinding burden it can have even on very strong people.
What’s interesting about Adam’s perspective is that it is very forward looking. It says “Regardless of how I feel today, how will I look back on this moment in the future?” If the answer is “With great pride in how I handled it,” that’s powerful to keep in mind. It even goes beyond “no regrets” thinking.
Right now it’s 4:08 AM, and for the next week, I’m sleeping here on the couch in my 92-year old Dad’s room in the retirement home (or trying to). Although I’d rather be staying and eating with my brother, I think it means more to my Dad that I’m staying here.
If someone asked you today what you’re most proud of, what’s a nonobvious answer you might answer?
It's useful to also think about how this looks down the road. If you think about what going to do today, or this month or this year, what will you be most proud of having done in five years? It’s a great set of farsighted glasses to try on.
I retire from Cornell tomorrow, two days after I turned 59. My Mom and Dad both retired from their union jobs within days of their birthdays, and I never remember them saying much about their jobs after they retired. Someone else took my Dad’s place on the production line, and someone else took my Mom’s place filing papers.
But academia is different. It’s one profession you never really have to retire from. A lot of us have a lot to say, and we’re passionate about saying it even when we’re officially through with our job. Many academics imagine themselves retiring in their early 70s, and then transitioning to half-time until they pad-lock our office door shut to keep us out.
Even retirement parties are somewhat pro forma. If you feel you have a calling, you don’t feel any different the day after retirement except you're just no longer being paid. I just had my retirement party last month, and it seemed like a birthday party, except that people gave speeches and gave me a nice, cherry wood Cornell captain’s chair with a metal plaque on the back of it.
In 30 years of academia, I only once went to a retirement party that didn’t seem like a birthday party, and it had a striking effect on me. It was about 15 years ago and I was asked to be one of two faculty speakers at the annual Spring meeting of the university’s Business Advisory Committee.
What excited me the most was the other faculty speaker. He was one of the most notable economists at the University. He had won a boatload of awards and occupied a rare niche at the intersection of economics, real estate, finance, and law. He was widely published, widely influential, and people—even his economist colleagues—often spoke of him in awe. This year was his retirement year, and his speech would perhaps be his Last Waltz in front of a group like this. We got to know each other throughout the day and at the closing reception.
On the rainy long ride home, we sat next to each other in the back of the chartered bus. I asked him which of his many accomplishments he most proud of, and which had the most impact. At one point, however, I asked a question that was not met with the same warmth and candor. I asked, "In light of all of the remarkable things you’ve accomplished so far in your career, what’s your biggest professional regret?"
Silence .Then he said, I don’t have any regrets. If I had to do it again, I would do everything pretty much the same way. After another much longer pause he said something like this:
“Well, maybe I have one regret. My work lies at the intersection of four areas – economics, finance, real estate, and law. I have a very complete picture of how these interact and how they influence everything from real estate prices in ghettos to land speculation prices in the middle of nowhere. The problem is that I’m the only one who sees the big picture. My papers are published in econ journals and finance journals, while others are published in real estate journals and law reviews. Nobody else sees the big picture because they only read one type of journal.”
I said, “Would it be easier for people to see the big picture if you were to write a book that pulled all of this together? That way, everything would be in one place and you could connect all the dots.” He chuckled and immediately dismissed this, “I don’t know about marketing, but in economics they don’t reward books.” After 45 years of research, he was retiring with one needless regret. This was unfinished business that he would now have the chance to finish, but he was still letting a now irrelevant barrier get in the way.
The metaphor of an "unwritten book" can be a useful metaphor for us who are feeling that our routine is getting too predictable, who are feeling restless, or who find themselves retiring with a feeling there's something more to contribute.
Most people have at least one metaphorical book that would take our ideas or interests to a new level of expression. Importantly, it doesn’t need to be writing a book. It might be starting a website and blog, or teaching an adult ed course we’ve wanted to teach. It might be mastering a musical instrument and joining a band, starting a photo travelogue, moving to that lake house you always dreamed of, or starting an online business.
What’s interesting is that most of these “unwritten books” probably wouldn’t even have to wait until you retired. They were something that could have been started much earlier if we would have removed our make believe barriers.
Time to start the next chapter.
It's been said that the most frequent last words of adventurous, partying males are probably:
1) “Hey, watch this,” or
2) “Here, hold my beer.”
If we heard either of these, we'd probably yell “STOP, Don’t Do That!” But giving well-intended advice in less obvious situations is trickier, so we've grown more hesitant to do so. We’ve all been burned by giving advice and having someone stare a hole through us.
As a result, even as mentors we can we be hesitant to giving a young person advice about their future. We might say “I will give them advice if they ask.” Yet even if they us ask "What do I do?" we can be too carefully non-committal in giving them any advice that's useful (“Well, what do YOU want to do?”).
Last month I had an interesting conversation with a person who said his son had been adrift in high school. It all turned in the right direction for him one day when an adult he casually played chess with said, “If you work hard, you could be a high-school chess champion.” He focused, and it happened. The Dad then said something similar had happened to him 50 years ago. He had been adrift in high school – good grades but adrift – when a someone told him “If you work hard, you could be on the debate team.” He focused, and it happened.
These two mentors (even if they didn't know they were mentors) had each given these young people a specific vision of what they could be: A chess champion and a debate champion. They just didn't say “You’re sharp,” or “You talks good.” They gave a specific direction that an adrift student could paddle toward. They decided to Be the One who pointed at an island the students could paddle to.
It can be easy to say “Good job,” or “You’re creative,” to a young person. Those are compliments, but they don't give useful paddling directions. A student might be earnestly good at school but not see where to take their life other than in the general direction their parents, friends, or placement office talked about.
Suppose we took the risk that those two mentors took, and we told a younger person “You’d make a great ________,” or “Have you ever considered ____; I think you’d be really good at it.” They might feel a bit flattered, but they might also feel a bit motivated to paddle in a direction they hadn’t thought of. Even if they went in a totally different direction, if we motivated them in a hopeful way, we accomplished more than if we would have said, "Well, what do YOU want to do?"
Let’s circle back to last month’s conversation about the two mentors who laid out specific visions to the guy and to his son. Things worked out for both of them. Ten years later, the son had graduated from college, started his own business, and was coaching chess champion hopefuls on the side. Forty years later, the dad had retired as a Fortune 500 CEO to produce a movie. Partly because two mentors decided to "Be the One" who gave them direction.
There's a reemerging movement around this Be the One notion. Although it's sort of aimed at teachers, a surprising amount of it still applies to any mentor who takes the extra effort to say the right words at the right time. You can check out Ryan Sheehy's Twitter for a booster shot.
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I'm Brian Wansink, and I've been lucky to work with lots of wonderful researchers to discover insights on how to help people become more effective, happier, and more meaningfully connected with each other.
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