Plan what to do with your one wild and precious life

Andrea Schüller on April 27, 2015

American poet Mary Oliver coined a wonderful question: „Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? “ It adorns one of our compliment slips, which takes pride of place at the pinboard just above my computer screen, providing both perspective and encouragement.

I have numerous plans. In the last decade, they changed shape. Spreadsheets with clearly defined steps morphed into broader ideas of outcomes, impact. My entire notion of what ‘success’ means evolved. Hence, I was most intrigued to find yet another book that promised to reveal ‘what really determines success’ when I customarily browsed the shelves of my favourite bookstore. According to the authors, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, a formidable professional couple who are both Professors of Law at Yale Law School, it’s “a Triple Package (Bloomsbury, 2014), made up of a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control”.
Truth be told: I bought it with the intention of despising it.

It turned out to be a hugely nuanced book well worth reading. Rather than providing a simple strategy for success, it sought to explain why certain cultural groups achieve disproportionately – at least in terms of what the authors themselves, using the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., acknowledge to be a “vulgar sense” of success, “the gaining of money and position.”

With the book still unread in my satchel, judging by the proverbial cover, I gave a rather biased summary to my 16-year-old daughter, who is currently preparing for the first set of exams that matter re future career prospects: “Supposedly it’s a book that explains what it takes to make it to the top more often than others. It’s a combination that is bound to be disastrous in the long run: to be instilled with a sense that you are destined to be exceptional from early childhood, coupled with a deeply rooted belief that you’re not good enough, which is why those poor kids pull out all the stops to disprove it, every day, at any cost. Where other people’s impulses suggest ‘take it easy now, you’ve done enough’ they pull yet another all-nighter before a major exam, probably joining the ranks of those that feel compelled to take performance enhancing drugs.” End of rant.

I was so fired up because I’d like my daughter to develop a broader notion of success, of achievement. Yes, I’d like her to work hard, so that whatever talents she has come to fruition, yet I’d like her to be free of what I can only imagine to be a millstone of expectations round her neck.

Chua and Rubenfeld do acknowledge what they call the ‘dark underside’ of the triple package. They devote an entire chapter to it. In fact, their book really isn’t about individual success at all. It looks at entire cultural groups. It is truly thought provoking in as much as it questions what cultures nurture excellence.

Most intriguing, the authors describe examples of individuals that used their triple package heritage to rise to the top, but then “kicked away this ladder, having climbed it”. They broke free of the insatiable demands for excellence and “wrote their own, original scripts”. Yet how many get to that stage and how many end up feeling like failures and disappointments?

In the authors’ own words, “the danger … is judging your own worth solely by external measures – allowing your life to be defined not by values, interests, or aspirations of your own, but others’ expectations, or more precisely, by the fear of failing to satisfy those expectations.” Chua and Rubenfeld conclude: “the best thing about the Triple Package may be that it can empower people to break out of it.”

Whilst I understand this, I find it tricky to translate that into advice to me as a parent at home and as a nurturer of outstanding talents at work. So, if you’ve been brought up in a culture that demands excellence, you may use your outstanding drive and capacity to endure hardship for longer than most to carve out your very own niche? How high do you need to have climbed before you’re ‘allowed’ to pull that wild card and make a bold side step?

Here are some questions I’m itching to ask – myself, my daughter, anybody who might get too caught up in the triple package:

  • In 10 years from now, how will you know that you succeeded?
  • Looking at those indicators, what do you notice? What’s missing? What’s overrepresented?
  • How many of those success indicators are a reflection of social pressures, rather than your own values and priorities?
  • If you knew that anybody whose opinion truly matters will be exceedingly proud of you as you apply yourself and your unique strengths with focus, insight and verve, what would you truly want to do?
  • If you knew you were good enough, how would you go about creating the career that matters to you? What would you start with right now?

Plan what to do with your one wild and precious life!

Make sure that you stop being a hostage to others’ expectations and your own insecurity. In the wonderful words of Nathaniel Branden: “If my aim is to prove I am ‘enough’, the project goes on to infinity – because the battle was already lost the day I conceded the issue was debatable.”

What do you think? How can we keep the drive, yet break free?

Looking forward to hearing from you!