“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are built for.”
Grace Hopper, Rear Admiral, United States Navy
A life can be enriched in two different ways: by happenstance and by choice.
In my case, I happened to be born in the United States of America. This has enriched my life beyond measure, though I had nothing to do with it.
I have also been greatly advantaged by the family I was born into – a family of modest means and varied cultures that permitted me to gain exposure to a wide range of values and experiences. I didn’t choose membership in the family that gave me so much. I just happened to get lucky.
In a similar way, my Caucasian race put me in a position to pursue the life/work paths of my choice without the hindrance of prejudice. Yes, I’ve worked hard, but I haven’t had to face the obstacles of racial bias in applying for jobs, obtaining mortgages, or acquiring socio-economic status.
I played no part in choosing my American heritage, my family membership, or my whiteness. These strokes of fortune came by chance. While I reap the benefits, these advantages required no effort and therefore I can take no credit.
Enrichment Through Choice
In contrast, the second kind of enrichment comes through choice: Choosing to set goals instead of wandering, choosing to work hard, choosing to associate with people who contribute to one’s enlightenment and well-being.
Choice sometimes requires clarity, excruciating effort and self-determination, but its rewards can be life defining.
Although the groundwork for my own choices was laid by circumstances of country, family, and race, I have tried to make the most of the good hand I was dealt. In doing so, I’ve noticed that, more often than not, the most meaningful enrichment in my life has emerged from choices involving discomfort.
During my early teens, I took a seasonal job for a landscaper selling Christmas trees outside in Western New York. The weather was often cold and biting, and my lunch break was short. It wasn’t a lot of fun shaking the snow off tree after tree so fussy customers could inspect what they were buying. Among the lessons, I noted the different ways couples make buying decisions, knowledge that served me well later on as a business owner.
In the summer, I dove into ponds on golf courses to retrieve golf balls. I thought it would be lots of fun. I didn’t think too much about the pollution and pesticides in the ponds until I developed skin rashes. I didn’t anticipate getting cut by glass, or nipped by snapping turtles. I made good money, and felt a sense of satisfaction, even though the work literally made me sick. That job introduced me to the value of sacrifice.
In my early 30’s, I accepted an offer to join a discussion group composed of “lifers” inside the Attica Correctional Facility , a maximum security prison near Buffalo. The stated purpose was to help inmates understand themselves; I didn’t realize at the time that the visits would greatly improve my own growth.
The smell of the prison, the demeanor of the guards, and the stories the inmates told often made my head spin and my stomach weak. I almost never wanted to make the trip to Attica on those Wednesday mornings, but I did so for 20 years, and the gains were huge. One stands out: Witnessing the positive effects of direct and challenging conversations, which later became a defining dimension of my leadership coaching.
In 1991, one of the most intense cyclones on record hit southern Bangladesh, among the planet’s poorest nations. Ten million people were left homeless, and 140,000 perished. I wanted to do something to help, so I arranged a visit there through a relief agency. I was hit hard by the sight and smell of mass graves, and by the desperate faces of survivors. The trip turned out to be a graduate course in suffering, compassion, and perspective.
From Familiarity to Discomfort
Looking back on these and other choices I’ve made, I’ve noticed that my most enriching decisions required a movement from familiarity into discomfort.
We’re all addicted to comfort. Left to our emotional reactions, we’ll do anything to preserve familiar surroundings and hang around with people who look, talk, and believe just like ourselves. Like the ship that stays safe in the harbor, we underachieve by turning our backs on unknown waters.
Growth-oriented leaders challenge themselves to wade into unfamiliar seas, expand their horizons, and vary their experience. They know how easy it is to become stuck in a customary and comfortable cocoon. By stretching their legs they reduce the distance between themselves and the unknown.
If you count yourself among those leaders but don’t know where to start, here are some ideas taken from other adventurous leaders:
1. Engage in conversations with individuals whose views are opposite your own. With genuine curiosity, ask them how they arrived at those beliefs. Really listen.
2. Seek out opportunities to interact with people whose belief system, race, or sexual orientation differs from your own. Instead of pretending you know what you’re talking about, display sincere curiosity. See what happens.
3. When planning to get away for a vacation, eschew resorts and cruises in favor of carefully planned visits to less popular destinations. Push aside imaginary fears and embrace a cross-cultural adventure. Use your time off to experience something new, and bring your family with you.
4. Volunteer at an urban soup kitchen, homeless shelter, or school for disadvantaged children. Attend a service at a religious institution affiliated with a faith other than your own. Take your children or go with a good friend. Notice any flutters of trepidation, and do it anyway.
By seeking new perspectives, changing up life/work routines, engaging with different people and ideas, and choosing to venture from the "safe" path, each of us has an excellent chance to grow and learn, not only as individuals, but also as team leaders and parents.
Perhaps you will find, as I have, that despite its discomfort – and also because of it – exposure to difference becomes the royal road to enrichment.
Wishing you calmness, clarity and courage in 2018!