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Living Well by Doing Good




Excerpted from
The Power of Purpose: Living Well by Doing Good
By Peter S. Temes, Ph.D

Michael Jordan was once asked to lend his image to an inspirational poster for school children. A well-motivated school publishing outfit wanted to put posters of Jordan in thousands of classrooms to inspire kids. Jordan was at the height of his playing career, and the publishers thought the image of his success would be a great inspiration to children struggling with their own challenges. Jordan liked the idea of reaching young people, but he didn't want his message to be about success-he wanted it to be about failure. "I've failed over and over and over again in my life," he famously said, "and that is why I succeed." That's the line that made it onto the poster and into the minds of untold thousands of youngsters.

Why the emphasis on failure? Because Jordan understood, as every high achiever understands, that the path to success travels through long fields of failure-that talent matters, but discipline and dedication matter more, in just about every field. And he understood that the biggest barrier for many youngsters in reaching their dreams is fear of failure. Our culture emphasizes success to such a degree that we forget to teach about the necessary process of trying, failing, building strength from failure, learning lessons from failure, and then trying again.

Jordan's message was clear. He wanted to grab hold of the kids who would laugh at a schoolmate standing under a basketball hoop and putting up flawed shots that never find the net. He wanted to tell them. Don't you see? This isn't something to be ashamed of-this lousy playing isn't the destination, it's the pathway, it's the door you have to pass through to get to the place I found. And his message to every young person with a dream-every young person trying out life with a purpose-was to put aside the laughs from the sidelines, to put aside the bad guidance from foolish friends who say Stop trying, you just look silly, and focus on your purpose. Allow yourself to fail, and learn from your failings. There is no loss in failure if you learn the lessons failure has to teach.

Jordan's message was really about leaping past the second level of thinking. Put aside how you look to others. The path to excellence, the path to purpose, requires getting past that all-too-common question. How do I look to others? and focusing on your own determination to get where you need to go.

Second-level thinking keeps us from taking the risks we need to take to reach challenging goals. What kinds of risk does a young boy like Michael Jordan face bouncing his basketball and dreaming about a big future? Risks like this-Will they laugh at me if I go practice my basketball game and miss more shots than I hit? And we all face similar risks when we weigh the kinds of big steps that stand between where we are today and where we want to be-What will they think of me if I quit my job and go out on my own? How can I go off to that great college when my friends and family think it's a waste of money? Why try to write my book when no one thinks I can pull it off? Won't people think I'm crazy if I walk out of my comfortable life to go work with poor people? These are the questions that stand between most of us and our greatest potential, and they all center around that second level of thinking, where we keep asking ourselves. How do I look to others?

An American retiree named Eleanor told her story of getting beyond this second-level thinking this way: "People laughed at me and told me I'd never make it.... I was fifty-one at the time and everyone thought I was too old to make a difference. 'You've come too late,' they said." The people who laughed at Eleanor were friends and family at home, and new neighbors, local officials, and aid workers in Haiti, where she'd set up a new, free school for poor children. She had enough money to rent a five-acre school compound, but not enough for blackboards or chalk. She taught her first twenty students the alphabet by scratching letters in the dirt. From that difficult start, she build a school that now teaches six hundred students-students who would not be in school at all if she had cared too much about the people who thought she was crazy.

Another woman making a great difference in the world, Wangari Maathai, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work in building Africa's Green Belt Movement. Maathai organized tens of thousands of ordinary, mostly uneducated people to plant trees in areas in Africa at risk of becoming deserts because of decades of destructive agricultural practices. Maathai's vision for her movement grew out of her education-she was the first woman in the history of Kenya to earn a PhD in the sciences. As her understanding of the environmental problems in Kenya grew, she saw positive solutions to at least some of those problems. But she lived in a traditional culture. Her husband told her not to attract attention by agitating for change. Others said it was foolish for such a well-educated woman to work with people with no education or social prestige. Local government officials opposed her plans, rejecting (out of ignorance) her insistence on the importance of planting trees and telling her to leave the forest planning to government forest managers. People in her village thought she was crazy. Family members thought her education had ruined her. But she had a higher purpose and put aside her concern for how others saw her. The Green Belt Movement has, so far, planted thirty million trees in Africa, provided thousands of jobs to poor women, and revived traditional crops that help to strengthen the depleted soils of Africa. To make all this happen, Maathai had to put aside that question that comes naturally to all of us-how will other people view me?-and strive toward her higher purpose.

A woman I knew in Brooklyn, New York, faced similar challenges. She was an accountant, the first person in her family to finish college, and she was making a fine living working in a large business in a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan. Yet she was unhappy. She hated leaving her neighborhood every day and having to live so much of her life, as she put it, in a glass box in the sky. What she really wanted was to run a coffee shop in her neighborhood, to be one of those folks who knew everybody in the area, who kept an eye on things when others were away working. And she wanted to do something concrete and practical. "Do you know what I used to sell for a living? Numbers. Reports. Pieces of paper." Her knowledge of business gave her a great insight, though: coffee is one of the most profitable things you can sell. "I began doing research, and in some cases the cup actually cost more than the coffee.

Ten cents for a fancy-looking paper cup, and at the low end, maybe eight or nine cents for a cup of coffee. And you could sell it for a buck, a buck fifty. There was a real business there for sure." But everyone she knew thought she was crazy, because accounting and office work were high prestige, and running a coffee shop was just another local gig. "I was one of the first people who grew up on my block to really make it into the white-collar classes," she said, "and people were proud of me. The fact that I didn't leave, that I kept living in this mixed-income area that I loved so much, made me much more visible. Now any number of folks I could name had jobs at this lunch counter or that coffee shop here and there-there was nothing in particular to be proud of doing that. But I would do it my own way. I'd do it right, and do it big." And she did. She now owns seven coffee shops in Brooklyn and Queens and travels to Central America every year to scout for the best coffee beans in the world. "I'm living the dream," she says, "because I understood that for all the love my people were giving me, I had to put aside how it might look to them if I took this leap. It was the right thing to do, so I did it."



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