dies, but not every person lives.
other day I built a fire in my fireplace. I placed the logs in such a
position to make the air between the logs flow just right up the
chimney. The logs were so exactly placed that they formed channels for
the draft. When the draft blew, yellow flames licked and jumped up the
logs. Each log glowed with full intensity. When the fire died, it
burned to nothing. There was nothing left but a pile of dust.
was a world of difference between this fire and other fires that I have
made which were just piles of burning logs, which had to be stirred and
poked continually to keep it burning. You might say one fire was alive
and the other fires were dead. Yet, we both know that fire is not a
living thing. If pressed to explain why one fire was alive and another
dead, I am at a loss to explain the difference, except that I can feel
In the same way, Beethoven’s last quartets are alive, so is
the poetry of Emily Dickinson; so is Edison’s light bulb; and so is a
candle flame. When you look at the notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci and
Thomas Edison, the sketches and ideas seem to take on a life of their
own. We all know that some business products such as a Mont Blanc pen
or a Rolex watch are more alive than other products. Even winning
physicist, Richard Feynman made quantum electrodynamics, a dry lifeless
science, come alive with his famous diagrams.
I am, of course,
speaking metaphorically when I say some fires are alive and others are
not and that some products are more alive than others. The metaphor
makes us believe that we have found a word to grasp this quality of
life. There is the same sense that some people are more alive and
creative than others. In the world of humanity, a person who is
talking, walking and working can be alive and self-creating or lifeless
and miserable. This is something we all know yet cannot find the words
to express it.
What makes some people alive and others lifeless
and drab? I once found a cocoon of an emperor moth. I took it home so
that I could watch the moth come out of the cocoon. On that day a small
opening appeared, I sat and watched the moth for several hours as the
moth struggled to force the body through that little hole. Then it
seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as
far as it could and it could go no farther. It just seemed to be stuck.
In my kindness, I decided to help the moth, so I took a pair of
scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The moth then
emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. I
continued to watch the moth because I expected that, at any moment, the
wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which
would contract in time.
Neither happened! In fact, the little
moth spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and
shriveled body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly. What I
did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the
struggle required for the moth to get through the tiny opening was the
way of forcing fluid from the body of the moth into its wings so that
it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the
cocoon. Freedom and flight would only come after the struggle. By
depriving the moth of a struggle, I deprived the moth of health.
Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our life in order to be
truly alive. When I think of people who are alive and joyful, I think
of Richard Cohen.
You may not know Richard Cohen. He is the
author of "Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness" (HarperCollins).
He lives a life defined by illness. He has M.S. , is legally
blind, has almost no voice, suffers chronic pain which makes sleeping
difficult leaving him constantly exhausted. Two bouts of colon cancer
in the past five years have left his intestines in disarray. And though
he is currently cancer-free, he still lives with constant discomfort.
worked as a producer for CBS until he was physically unable. Being
precluded from many activities because of his chronic illness and
physical disability initially left him feeling worthless. Friends and
relatives encouraged him to seek professional help from psychologists,
but he refused. He felt psychologists always focus on what’s wrong with
you and explain why you feel worthless. Like the emperor moth, Richard
decided to use his struggles to become truly alive.
realized the inevitable consequences of his illness, but he also
realized that he and he alone controlled his destiny. Cohen says, "The
one thing that’s always in my control is what is going on in my head.
The first thing I did was to think about who I am and how I could
prevail. By choosing my feelings on a conscious level, I am able to
control my mood swings and feel good about myself most of the time.” He
cultivated a positive attitude toward life by interpreting all of his
experiences in a positive way.
He said his life is like standing
on a rolling ship. You're going to slip. You're going to grab onto
things. You're going to fall. And it's a constant challenge to get up
and push and push yourself to keep going. But in the end, he said, the
most exhilarating feeling in the world is getting up and moving forward
with a smile.
Richard Cohen is the subject of his life and
controls his own destiny. People who live as subjects are wonderfully
alive and creative. Once, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, in a café in Old
Montreal I saw a woman rise from her table and for no reason started to
sing opera. She had a certain smile and I knew she was perfectly at
home with herself. She was wearing a great wide hat, her arms were
flung out in an expansive gesture, singing, and utterly oblivious to
everything but what was in her and around her at that second. Even as
you read this, you are thinking of people you know who are alive and
people who are lifeless.
This woman was wonderfully alive and
self-creating. When you meet people like Richard Cohen or the woman in
Montreal you get this vague feeling inside you that you “ought to be”
something more. You already know this feeling. We get this feeling when
we recognize the thing in others that we long to be. This feeling seems
so trivial, so fundamental that we ought to be like that, that we dare
not admit it to others. We long to become more alive and creative in
our personal and business lives. The feeling for it is the most
primitive feeling which a person can have. The feeling for it is as
primitive as the feeling for your own well being.
It is not
easy to put this feeling into words. The person who believes she is the
“subject” of her life is frank, open-minded, sincerely going ahead,
facing situations freely and looking forward to each day with a smile.
The person who believes she is the “object” in life is inhibited,
pushed, or driven, acting by command or intimidation, powerless and
can’t wait for each day to end.
Years later I went to St.
Bonaventure University to visit Father Tom one of the wisest men I
know. At the time, I felt shackled by chains of responsibilities,
family obligations and expectations of others. I asked Father Tom for
advice. Instead of answering me directly, Father Tom jumped to his feet
and bolted to a nearby tree, flung his arms around it, grasping the
tree as he screamed, “Save me from this tree!” Save me from this tree!”
I could not believe what I saw. I thought he had gone mad. The shouting
soon brought a crowd of people. “Why are you doing that?” I asked. “I
came to you to ask for advice because I thought you were wise, but
obviously you're crazy.”You are holding the tree, the tree is not
holding you. You can simply let go.” Father Tom let go of the tree and
said, “If you can understand that, you have your answer. Your chains of
attachment are not holding you, you are holding them. You can simply
Take a moment and imagine you are a mountain climber and read the
are climbing one of the largest mountains in the world and are very
close to the reaching the peak, which is a goal you’ve had all your
life. You’ve prepared yourself physically and mentally.
beginning the final stretch to the peak, when you decide to rest on a
small ledge which juts out about three feet from the mountain. You see
another climber approaching you from below. He lifts himself up and
joins you on the ledge. He’s wearing a rope tied around his waist and
holds the loose end in his hands. He holds out the end of the rope and
says, “Pardon me, would you be so kind as to hold the end for a
You take the rope. “Thank you,” said the man, who
then added “two hands now, and remember, hold tight.” To your surprise
the man jumped over the side of the ledge and yelled, “Don’t let go!
I’ll fall a thousand feet if you do” You hold on with all your
strength. The man is suspended over the ledge, and sure to die if he
fell. You try to pull him up but he is too heavy. You offer suggestions
about how he could climb back up the rope hand over hand. The man
shouts back, “Hold on. Don’t let go. If you let go, I’ll die.” you tug
and pull but nothing works. The afternoon is beginning to fade and it’s
getting cold. You have to do something otherwise you’ll not reach the
peak which you can see through the mist and clouds.
You think of
a way the man can wrap the rope around himself and eventually pull
himself up and shout the instructions. The man replies, “No, please,
please don’t let go. I’ll fall to my death if you do.” You coax,
wheedle, scream, and yell at the climber all to no avail. You realize
you are running out of time, and if you don’t do something, you will
not reach the mountain peak. You shout the instructions one more time,
“Listen carefully. I mean what I’m about to say. I will not accept the
position of choice for your life, only for my own. If you
help yourself while I’m helping you, I can do no more. If you don’t do
this, I’m going to let go of the rope.”
The man responded, “No,
hold on. If you let go, I’ll die. Just hang on tight.” You wait and tug
and the man does nothing but hold the rope. He makes no effort at all.
You let go of the rope and climb to the peak of the mountain.
take a moment, and think about the scenario. What is it in your life
that you are holding on to that is represented by the climber. What is
it that you are holding on to so tightly that it is keeping you from
getting on with your life? Think about that thing at the end of the
rope and think about what it would mean to let go of it? Was it worth
staying stuck in order to keep that thing at the end of the rope alive?
What really would happen if you let go of it?
Once you can
imagine yourself letting go of the climber, you feel a tremendous
emotion. The power of metaphors lies in the fact that they speak in the
more primary process of the unconscious mind. Metaphors encourage
unconscious processing of information. This will make it easier for you
really “let go” of your fears and traumatic experiences by visualizing
this story over and over.
You have to take chances in life and
let go of things that are holding you back. You cannot connect the dots
in your life looking forward; you can only connect them looking
backwards. You have to trust yourself and move forward toward with your
hopes and desires. As a child I was taught to seek security in fixed
positions and prearranged strategies. One day, while approaching a
stream with some friends, I, as usual, planned out my moves by
visualizing in my mind how I would use the rocks as stepping stones,
putting down each foot on each stone in order to cross the stream. As
soon as I began to cross the stream I realized that if I stopped for
only a moment on a stone I would fall into the water. The only way I
could cross was to keep moving rather than make a series of transitions
between fixed stopping points. At that moment, I realized that security
did not lie in grasping fixed positions but in continuous movement and
Many of us who work in a corporate environment feel
restricted and confined by its bureaucratic nature. If we let go of our
fears of being fired, ridiculed or demoted and followed our instincts
what would happen? One person who did let go of his fears was 3M’s
legendary Richard Drew. Stories about him and his incredible creativity
and drive are often told at 3M gatherings to inspire new employees.
Former 3M Chairman and CEO, Lewis Lehr, said that if Dick Drew had not
worked at 3M, 3M might not exist today or, at best, it would be a lot
smaller than it is.
Drew was a consummate risk-taker,
constantly pushing to and beyond the edge of the envelope. He
ignored his boss when he was summarily ordered to quit working on
masking tape and get back to work on improving a brand of Wet-or-Dry
sandpaper. That Drew ignored management and wasn’t fired,
volumes not only about Drew but about 3M’s management philosophy even
back then. It tells you that Drew would pursue his belief in
face of any obstacle, and it tells you that 3M’s management genius
included an intuitive understanding of the need to let creative talent
alone and to gamble on their ideas.
After creating the initial
version of masking tape, Drew asked an executive for permission to buy
a thirty-seven thousand dollar paper maker. He said it would
improve the masking tape, which has a crepe-like paper
The executive, Edgar Ober, told Drew to hold off for a while because
finances were tight, and he didn’t feel the paper maker was worth the
expenditure. Six months later, Drew took Ober into the
and there was the paper maker, working away productively, turning out a
vastly improved backing for the masking tape. Ober was
flabbergasted and angry! He asked Drew where the hardware
from. Drew explained that he simply submitted a blizzard of
dollar purchase orders over a six-month period of time. The
machine was paid for in the small amounts in petty cash he was
authorized to spend on his own. The paper maker helped make
masking tape into a phenomenal commercial success for 3M.
also encouraged his own workers to attack their goals as relentlessly
as he pursued his own. One day, one of his subordinates went
Drew with an idea he was very excited about. He presented his
idea enthusiastically and sat back to wait for Drew’s
Drew paused thoughtfully and then he replied, "Your idea leaves me
colder than a Billy goat in hell." Before disappointment
set in, however, he told him, "You obviously believe in your idea so
strongly that I’ll fire you if you don’t continue to work on it,
regardless of what I or anyone else here think."
CEO of Apple Computer, is another example of letting go and living in
continuous movement. His biological mother was a young, unwed college
graduate student, and she decided to put him up for adoption. She felt
very strongly that he should be adopted by college graduates, so
everything was all set for him to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and
his wife. Except that when Steve was born they decided at the
last minute that they really wanted a girl. So his parents, who were on
a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: "We have
an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?" They said: "Of course." His
biological mother later found out that adoptive mother had never
graduated from college and that his adoptive father had never graduated
from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She
only relented a few months later when his parents promised that he
would someday go to college.
And 17 years later Steve did go to
college. But he naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as
Stanford, and all of his working-class parents' savings were being
spent on his college tuition. After six months, he couldn't see the
value in it. He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and no
idea how college was going to help him figure it out. So he decided to
move on with his life and drop out. He said it was pretty scary at the
time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions he ever made.
The minute he dropped out he stopped taking the required classes that
didn't interest him, and begin dropping in on the ones that did.
slept on the floor in friends' rooms, He returned coke bottles for the
deposits to buy food with, and he would walk 7 miles across town every
Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple.
And much of what he stumbled into by following his curiosity and
intuition turned out to be priceless later on.
Reed College at
that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the
country. Because he had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal
classes, Steve decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do
this. Steve learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying
the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what
makes great typography great.
None of this had even a hope of
any practical application in his life. But ten years later, when he
designed the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to him and he
designed it all into the Mac. And since Windows just copied the Mac,
it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If he had never
dropped out, he would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class,
and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that
Steve Jobs was able to let go of the expectations of his
parents, his biological mother and his peers and move forward driven by
his curiosity and restlessness for something more.
of how you are living your life. Imagine your life, as you
live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and
infinitely times more with nothing new in it. Every pain, joy, every
thought and sign must be relived in the same sequence and succession,
even this very moment of reading this paragraph. The eternal hourglass
of existence is turned over and over and over. Would not this thought
change you as you are or perhaps crush you? The question in each and
everything, “Do you want this more and innumerable times more?” would
weigh upon your actions as the greatest stress. Or would reliving every
moment over and over be the ultimate confirmation of your life.
Crawford thought about how he was living his life. Matthew finished his
doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Chicago and was
hired by a prestigious think tank in Washington, D.C. After
months, he could not see the rationale for being paid at all for what
he did. He was always tired and said he lost all self respect working
in a job that had no discernible product or measureable result.
Basically, he said he was managing information and his self-esteem
depended on the opinions of others. Despite his income and title, he
felt he was no more that a “clerk.”
Matthew quit his job and
started doing motorcycle repair in a decaying factory in Richmond, Va.
His journey from philosopher-intellectual to philosopher-mechanic is
the arc of his book Shop
Class as Soulcraft
Crawford believes that the office, at best, is a “place of moral
education” with managers acting as therapists, concentrating on making
workers into “team” players. The individual begins to believe he is
alone, he is without any effect. He becomes passive and helpless and
has difficulty imagining how he might earn a living otherwise.
was the massification of higher education that has created this bleak
scenario where everyone must go to college or else be viewed as
suspect, stupid, and/or unemployable. After you get a degree you
must take a job where you are doing smart, clean, fun, and
well-paid work. Except for “clean” the other adjectives no longer
apply. Matthew decided on doing something that was “meaningful” for him
and became a motorcycle mechanic and ignored the expectations people
had for him and his Ph.D. All his happiness took was his willingness to
get his hands greasy.
Physicist Stephen Hawking can hear but
can’t talk. He only has movement in two fingers of his left hand and
communicates by typing and a computer screen. Yes despite his appalling
disability which isolates him from the world he has figured out how to
juggle the universe in his mind and make conjectures about infinity
from his wheelchair.
There is an awareness of the beauty of
human potential that lies in each of us. This is what we see reflected
in the lives of Stephen Hawking, Richard Cohen, Richard Drew, Steve
Jobs, Matthew Crawford, and that wonderful opera singer in Montreal.
People agree to a remarkable extent about these people being among the
best examples of people realizing their human potential.
only do we recognize this quality in people, but we also see it in
objects which are more or less like our whole selves. Surprisingly, it
appears this judgment is independent of person to person differences,
and independent of culture. See how you do with the following thought
one of these two objects (the salt shaker or bottle of ketchup)
represent you as you are and as you hope to be? Which reflects
everything, both your weakness and your happiness, your vulnerability
and your strength? Assuming for a moment, that you believed in
reincarnation and that you are going to be reborn as one of these two
things, then which one would you rather be in your next life?
of us has an awareness of what our “essence” is. If we seek a thing
which reflects this essence, it is entirely different from choosing a
thing which merely metaphorically represents the one-sided imperfection
of the present idea we have of ourselves (such as “this looks like me,”
or “this looks like the way I feel,” and so on).
likes and dislikes, if one is better designed than the other, or which
one is the more aesthetic, simply look and look until it becomes clear
to you which one comes closer to you as you are and as you want to be.
Which one comes closer to being a true picture of you in all your
weakness and humanity; of the love and hate in you; of the good in you
and the bad; of your past, present, and future, of what you hope to be
as well as what you are? Once the question is understood, an
overwhelming majority (90%) of people, in this example, choose the salt
shaker as being representative of the essence of life.
Godfather John Haffich was a kind, sensitive gentleman from the Ukraine
who always engaged me in conversations about life when I was a young
boy. He would pick a wildflower and then tell me that if I looked at it
in the right way, I could see heaven in the flower; or he would pick up
a grain of sand and tell me that the whole world was no more than a
grain of sand in the universe.
He was a poet who tried to
encourage me to write poetry, which I did for a while. Some of it was
published but I never felt my poems were good enough for me to
seriously consider myself a poet. When he was in a nursing home and
dying, I visited him and told him my thoughts about my inadequacies as
a poet. He could barely whisper at the time and asked for a pencil and
paper. He wrote the following poem and gave it to me with a smile.
carry that piece of paper with his poem in my wallet to this day as one
of most treasured possessions. It was one of those little things that
changed the direction of my life.
talents you have.
The woods would be silent
if no bird sang
except those that sang best.