How to avoid becoming a sea squirt
We cannot control or even influence much of what happens to us but we [begin italics] can [end italics] control how we respond to it. Peak performers respond to setbacks as opportunities to learn and improve. Jack Dempsey once suggested that “champions get up when they can’t.” I agree with David Neenan, “Taking responsibility for [one’s] life is both courageous and liberating. Facing life’s challenges leads not toward darkness, but toward the light…I believe fervently that we all have the power to choose our destiny, despite what comes our way.” This is precisely what Viktor Frankl has in mind when suggesting that “the last of human freedoms is being able to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
What we have in this book are 22 brief chapters within which Neenan shares everything he has learned about the importance of personal accountability. He immediately establishes and then sustains a direct, personal, almost conversational rapport with his reader and the emphasis throughout the book is on what works, what doesn’t, and why.
Here is a representative selection of chapter titles (with comments added) that suggest the thrust and flavor of Neenan’s approach:
Chapter 2. “Go for It: The only failure is not to participate”
Comment: Woody Allen once claimed that 80% of success is showing up.
Chapter 5. “Growth: You can’t learn less”
Comment: Derek Bok once suggested, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
Chapter 11: “Human Dynamics: Communication is the response you get”
Comment: Don’t assume that your intended meaning is always what others grasp
Chapter 18. “Excuses: The ‘reasons’ we duck responsibility”
Comment: Dante reserved the last and worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserved their neutrality.
Chapter 19. “Legacy: Spreading the opportunity”
Comment: My favorite passage in Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”
I selected the title of my review based on material provided in the Introduction, notably David Neenan’s clever discussion of sea squirts, “a large and numerous class of ocean creatures known as turnicates” who are seafaring adventurers.
Frankly, I was and am struck by similarities between sea squirts and humans: “But as maturity sets in, turnicates find a handy rock, send out a holdfast, and cement themselves to a spot where they will spend the rest of their lives sucking up whatever comes their way. They cover themselves with stiff, unyielding membranes compared to ‘tunics,’ thus the biological name, and stay put. Forever. No longer needing to move, they begin their existence as adults by digesting their own cerebral ganglion. That’s their brain.”
In a book written with Eric Lucas, David Neenan provides eminently practical advice to those who now feel that they have zero-growth careers, feel fear and frustration about that, and are determined to take responsibility for their own success – or failure – rather spend the remainder of their lives “sucking up whatever comes their way,” including alibis, excuses, accusations, and other forms of neurotic self-justification.
Entertaining as well as informative results from a world-class muller
Thus book is as difficult to describe as it is easy to appreciate. What we have here is a series of 52 mini-commentaries, each devoted to an insight or conviction that Alan Webber has formulated throughout his life thus far. As I worked my way through them, I was reminded of Isaac Asimov observation, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd…’”
Presumably Webber has encountered situations that struck him as odd and wondered about them, finally reaching conclusions that he characterizes as unofficial “rules” or “truths” about human nature. I suspect that are probably viewed by most people as guidelines.
Although Webber suggests that they can be applied to “winning at business without losing your self,” I think they are relevant whenever and wherever there is human interaction. After about the first 12-15, I began to connect rules to specific situations.
Rule #10: “A good question beats a good answer.” This offers excellent advice to job candidates whose questions tend to reveal more about their abilities than their responses to an interviewer’s questions do.
Rule #13: “Learn to take no as a question.” Sometimes, no means no. However, on frequent occasion, no is a tentative rather than terminal response. Politely request an explanation and be well-prepared to respond to the reasons offered.
Rule #18: “Knowing it ain’t the same as doing it.” This reminds me of a book with an eponymous title, in which Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton discuss what they call “The Knowing-Doing Gap.” Long ago, Thomas Edison said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”
Rule #43: “Don’t confuse credentials with talent.” Make no mistake, credentials can have substantial value but (as #18 suggests) they offer evidence of nothing more than what obtaining them required.
With regard to talent, I agree with Anders Ericsson and his research associates at Florida State University that its importance also tends to be overrated. Darrell Royal once observed that “potential” means “you ain’t done it yet.” In my opinion, the best credentials are redundantly verifiable accomplishments that are relevant to the given needs.
Rule #45: “Failing isn’t failing. Failing is failing to try.” I agree, presuming to add that that failing is also failing to learn anything of value from whatever is considered a failure. Back to Edison who cherished every setback in his Menlo Park research center as a precious learning opportunity.
After you read Alan Webber’s book, he invites you to formulate your own Rule #53 and then share it with him (email@example.com). I hope you do. Here’s the one I came up with: “You better be there when your name is called,” perhaps inspired by Woody Allen’s assertion, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”
One of my favorite reference sources is the Yale Book of Quotations. Credit Fred R. Shapiro with a brilliant response to heaven knows how many challenges. Here are several quotations that are not as yet included in the YBQ. Shapiro will gratefully welcome corrections of information provided in this volume as well as suggestions of new quotations for future editions. Submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org or www.quotationdictionary.com.
“The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Steven Wright
“Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.” Steven Wright
“Don’t worry about people stealing your idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.” Howard Aiken
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” Woody Allen
“I invent nothing. I rediscover.” Rodin
“Many of us pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that we hurry past it. ” Søren Kierkegaard
And the last word:
A SCOT’S FAREWELL
When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me,
I want no tears in a gloom filled room;
Why cry for a soul set free?
Miss me a little but not for long
And not for your head bowed low;
Remember the love we once shared.
Miss me …. but let me go.
For this is a journey we all must take
And each must go alone;
It’s all part of the master plan,
A step on the road to home.
When you are lonely and sick of heart,
Go to the the friend we know
And bury your sorrows in doing good deeds.
Miss me….but let me go.
In previous posts, I shared brief excerpts from interviews of CEOs conducted by Adam Bryant that appear in his “Corner Office” column that appears in the BusinessSunday section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided by Joseph J. Plumeri, chairman and CEO of the insurance broker, Willis Group Holdings:
Bryant: What’s your best career advice?
Plumeri: Everything that I have done I’ve done because I went out and played in traffic and something happened.
Bryant: What do you mean?
Plumeri: If you push yourself out here and you see people and get involved, something happens. My first job was at Cogan, Berlind, Weill & Levitt. It had four names, so I thought it was a law firm. I was going to law school. My last class was over at noon, and so I thought I’d go over on Wall Street and find a job with a law firm.
So I go knock on doors. I go up and see the receptionist, and she says go down the hall and see Mr. Weill. I don’t know who Sandy Weill was. This was 1968. I gave him the spiel about law school in the morning, learning the practical part in the afternoon.
He says that’s a great idea, but what makes you think you’ll be learning law here? I said, this is a law firm. He said no, this is a brokerage firm. I trued to find a hole to climb into. I’m not easily embarrassed, and he laughed. He gave me a job working part-time, and that firm turned into Citigroup.
When I left Citigroup after all those years, I was walking down a street in Paris, and I ran into Henry Kravis. He said, what are you doing? I said, I’m looking for my next adventure. And he said, I’ve got this company we just bought: Willis. You know the rest of the story. So I tell people, just show up, get in the game, go play in traffic. Something good will come of it.
* * *
Note: Woody Allen agrees with Plumeri. He once observed, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”
To read a longer version of this interview and of several others of prominent CEOs, please visit nytimes.com/business.