When you don’t get what you want, but perhaps get what you need.
My alter ego is a parent. As my children teach me about parenting and about myself, I seek that my parenting inform my work, as I seek that my work as an IEC inform my parenting.
So when my son called me recently to express his worry and frustration about the possibility of not getting the summer placement he had been banking on, I found myself reverting to an idea that I had been toying with for a while now, namely, friction.
For any Mario Kart fan reading this, you would know that straying from the course, if you do not have a mushroom or a star, slows you down drastically due to the friction induced. If you are boosted, then it’s not a problem (in fact it acts as a shortcut) but if you are not, straying from the course can slow you down drastically, leading to delays on arrival. Similarly, not every shortcut on the course gets you to the end quicker. But I digress.
My son has faced disappointment before. He did not get the offers he was coveting from his first and second-choice universities and had to settle for the third on his list. And while he was unhappy with his lot and often reflects on “what could have been if”, he has had one amazing opportunity after another, including being noticed by professors, offered work placements, and attending one of the world’s leading academic institutions as an exchange student for a year.
Yet still, when he sets a goal, he remains hyper-focused on it. Like a horse with blinders on, he can only see ahead. While I applaud his focus and his drive, I keep having to remind him that he should consider if maybe, he just may be straying off his intended course and that the friction (not getting the placement) is an indication of that? Is it possible that, by not getting what he wants, he gets what he needs?
In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs famously recounted how dropping out of Reed College had freed him up from taking the courses he had to take to take the courses he was curious about. He had the confidence in his abilities to work things out, the humility to sleep on floors and return Coke bottles for food, and the curiosity to drop in on classes he found interesting and wanted to know more about, including the oft-cited Typography class.
He also recounted how getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to him. “The heaviness of being successful,” Jobs said, “was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure of everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
At that point in his life, Jobs did not get what he wanted, but he probably got what he needed: The space to remove his blinders and have a look around. During that period, he maintained the confidence, humility, and curiosity that he had in college and that ultimately propelled him to the helm of one of the biggest success stories of our time.
Remaining focused on one goal keeps us from spotting other opportunities that may exist, opportunities that will ultimately get us to our destinations, or perhaps more aptly, destinies, more smoothly and help us grow along the way, because they align with our strengths, our aptitudes and our curiosities.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward,” Jobs said. “You can only connect them looking backward—so you have to trust.” Trusting that we are on a path, that we do not always know what is around the corner but believing in our capabilities and staying on the course will ultimately make for a smoother and, most probably, faster ride.
So how do you tell if you are on the course? Well, how much friction is there under your wheels? How clunky is your ride? How hard are you having to push? Who is getting past you? Jobs ended his speech by wishing the Stanford graduates to “stay hungry, stay foolish.” In a similar vein, I wish for my son, as I wish for the students I work with, to stay confident, stay humble, stay curious. And then to wish for a star.