08 Dec “Why not decide now to do something great, something courageous with your one and only earthly life.”
“You only get one earthly life. Why not decide now to do something great, something courageous with your one and only earthly life?” This was the free advice offered by my high school advisor the last time he spoke to students before he passed away in 2018. Tony Jarvis was a middle class kid who invested in himself to get a good education and to see the world. Over and over again he made the choice to get involved in things that made him feel curious and useful. He became an educator, counselor and school leader (Headmaster of Roxbury Latin School, 1974-2004) as well as an author, collector, parish priest (Episcopal) and faithful family member. He chose a rigorous path through which he could feed his many interests and passions and devoted his purpose to the service of others.
I reflect on his example all the time. In retrospect, I was given an extraordinary and irrefutable example of values-driven living. The man had his faults and plenty of critics. After all, a leader leads. And even if he swears by consensus as a guide (he didn’t) a leader is still accountable for making unpopular decisions (he did). Tony made decisions in the very same framework he offered as advice. “Why not decide now to do something great, something courageous with your one and only earthly life?”
One of the great challenges of life is to be mindful of the ticking of the clock. As the year comes to an end, do you feel like you have a plan worthy of the opportunity in your hands? Have you made a commitment yet to do something truly great and courageous? Do you understand the responsibility that comes with whatever choices you have been given?
My colleague René Redwood teaches that our best work happens when we each operate with great purpose within our “span of control” and our “sphere of influence.” None of us alone can reform the jury system. We cannot alone make the internet safe, turn our company around, stop the rising sea level or end racism. We can’t overcome personal tragedy by ourselves or meet our career or professional goals alone either. But we can each without a doubt find purpose and create value. In fact what Jarvis and Redwood are strongly suggesting is that it’s our obligation to do so, no matter who we are. And it’s got to add up to something important. There’s a teaching from Jewish tradition that says “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” What all of these approaches have in common is that with humility they center us as the protagonist – the prime mover – in our own story. How many of us allow others to deny us that sensation? How many of us who have the freedom to act fail to see it and don’t? As British artist Heather Small sings, in a song Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick used for years as his “walk-up” music, “What have you done today to make you feel proud?”
Mikaela Shiffrin is one of the greatest athletes alive today. She is a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist on the US Ski Team, three-time Overall World Cup champion, four-time world champion in slalom, and the youngest slalom champion in Olympic skiing history. On her page inside the US Ski Team website, Mikaela lists this ambition: “to try to get farther than anybody has ever gotten.” Then in 2019 her father passed away suddenly, leaving Mikaela shattered. Nobody knows what goes on inside the human mind and body to allow us to find strength for what we have to do. This young professional took a short break from her mission and then returned, soaring to new heights and inspiring those around her. Shiffrin memorialized her dad with a charity in his name that raised millions of dollars to keep less famous athletes safe and supported during the pandemic. Her effort kept camps and sports programs open and helped people who were struggling. She also took on a visible role in Kindness Wins, an organization that advocates for “stamping out bullying.” A key draw for Shiffrin is social media – a dangerous place where young people are encouraged to attract attention to themselves in ways that can easily lead to bad choices and painful consequences.
Shiffrin recently said for a Reuters piece that her anti-bullying work has roots in her own experience. “I really identify with the kids out there who have an introverted personality in an extroverted world and are not sure how to navigate that.” She wrote in a Kindness Wins piece, “To me, resiliency is the ability to experience something really difficult — hardship, pain, struggle — to experience that, and to get to the other side of it, holding on to some form of strength or purpose. And it doesn’t mean you were the same person that you were before … but you keep that strength, you keep that toughness or that determination you had before.”
It’s probably the right time of year to take a moment and reflect on examples like these. What you also really need is a commitment to yourself to try for more. There is a good chance the people you collaborate with on a regular basis are thinking about getting past blockers, making meaning in their lives and wondering where to go next. With the end of a particularly devastating year upon us, I wish you strength charting a course of rigor and purpose, rooted in the values you treasure most and a clear vision of what to do with your opportunities. Remember – you only get one earthly life.
Andy Tarsy is Principal and Founder of Emblem Strategic and leads the Emblem Network in a wide array of strategic advisory engagements with organizations as diverse as publicly traded companies, higher ed institutions and family businesses. Emblem’s goal is to help turn your vision and values into impact, distinction and advantage. Andy is also a Principal and Founder of Conscious Customers LLC which creates supplier diversity programs for great companies. And he is a trustee at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston.