Small Invisible Acts

A man wrote a short story that he could not get published. So he included it in 200 Christmas cards he sent out to friends and family.
One of the cards ended up in the hands of a film director. He made a film based on that story.
It lost a fortune and the director never made a successful film again. He ultimately had to sell his production company and with it the rights to the film.
The company and the rights were sold several more times. The eventual owner forgot to renew the copyright of the film.
Which meant that it was now free to anyone who wanted to air the film.
So PBS did.
And then other networks followed suit.
They aired it around Christmas because they needed cheap programming to compete with newer holiday specials.
The film was It’s a Wonderful Life.
The story behind how this classic came to be epitomizes its name and central message every bit as much as the better known plot of the film itself.
Small invisible acts by people known and unknown shape our lives.  It reminds us to send more such acts into the world – without thought or expectation of any grand outcome.

Although, as this story shows, this doesn’t mean that something grand won’t eventually happen.  And when it does and others learn the story behind the story, they too will feel all the more grateful and enriched.  Perhaps inspiring more simple invisible acts to made.
Thank you to Phillip Van Doren Stern for sending his story, “The Greatest Gift” out into the world and into our hearts.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

What Does It Take to Save a Life?

This week buried beneath the din of politics and conflict was a brief article in the New York Times featuring an 81-year-old Australian man who was donating blood for the last time in his life.

He started giving blood as a young man – a way of paying back those who had donated the blood he needed to survive surgery as a 14-year-old boy.

He would go on to give blood every few weeks for over 60 years. The total number of times he has donated blood?  1,173.

While remarkable, this is only the beginning of the story.

At one point, it was discovered that his blood contained a rare anti-body that was essential for a life-saving drug called Anti-D given to expectant mothers to keep their babies healthy.

The Australian Red Cross estimates that the blood of this man, James Harrison, now retired, has saved more than 2.4 million babies from a potentially fatal disease.

If not amazed yet, among that number are included two of his own grandchildren. You see, his daughter received the drug with his anti-bodies as well.

Now rewind back to the beginning of this story. This remarkable journey began with nameless strangers who first donated blood to save James’s life. He then decided to give back –values instilled in him through his upbringing. 

Researchers then discovered something in his blood that was precious. Companies then made the drugs available to doctors who with nurses administered them to mothers.  All made affordable through a single payer health care system.

James’s actions are heroic. His dedication to giving back is awe-inspiring. At the same time, hidden in this amazing tale are the contributions of nameless others.

Like these nameless others, it is doubtful any of us will ever know how many lives we will save or impact at all. But this story is a reminder that it starts with a blind gift. The beauty of not knowing, but hoping that this gift will connect with others.

It is a sentiment, embodied in the words of Robert F. Kennedy who  said that those who act to improve the life of another or stand up for an ideal, “sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current …”

Here’s to all the tiny ripple’s among us and the currents they will create.

Be The Master of Black Holes

Last week, I learned that a pivotal person from my past had died.  Yet, when I heard the news, I felt more emptiness than sadness.

Our history was decidedly mixed. He was in our lives the better part of a decade, responsible for moving us from Boston to Pennsylvania. Without that single act, I don’t meet my best friend, get the same education, marry my wife or have my children.  Couple that with the financial security he eventually provided, there is much to be grateful for.

It is said that we should not speak ill of the dead. So I will not. I will only say that I spent too much of this period on edge and in fear.

We have a difficult time reconciling our mixed feelings. Few people or things in our life are entirely good or evil. Yet our darkest events can have outsized impact on much that follows.  These personal black holes become a repository for our dark days and the people who contribute to them. 

We do not approach them often for fear of getting sucked in.  Therefore we have no means to bring our memories gently into the present.

Coincidentally, Stephen Hawking – the physicist who spent much of his life studying black holes – died on the very same day.  

The New York Times obituary quoted Dr. Hawking as saying, “They’re named black holes because they are related to human fears of being destroyed or gobbled up. I don’t have fears of being thrown into them. I understand them. I feel in a sense that I am their master.”

It is a reminder that understanding is an antidote to fear.  

It has been over thirty years since I last saw the man who no longer walks amongst us. On occasion, I have imagined what a conversation with him would be like.  Perhaps it would have been a gateway to understanding.

Unfortunately, that opportunity is now gone and I regret not getting some sense of closure. Perhaps it would have brought us both a little peace.

I hope, if given the chance, you will be more like Hawking than I was. Become the master of your black holes.  Your universe will be better for it

Where Did That Come From?

In just the last week I tripped over these three tidbits:

On Sunday, our family went to Armonk, NY for Frosty Day. This town was home to Steve Nelson, the lyricist who wrote Frosty the Snowman. There we stood in the Village Square where 65 years ago, Frosty invited the kids to “catch him if you can.’

On Tuesday, I was distracted from work by one of those “20 Things You Didn’t Know About…” click bait articles. The subject in this case was Lucille Ball. When Lucy gave birth on the show, it was a major cultural event.  Lesser known is that she insisted that she take time off to be with her newborn. As a pioneer of maternity leave, Lucy inadvertently ushered in a new innovation – the rerun – to fill her time slot while she was out.

On Thursday, in a biography of Henry David Thoreau, I read of his visit with then unknown poet, Walt Whitman. Thoreau noticed that Whitman had taken a sentence from a private letter from his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, without permission and had it printed on his latest edition of his new book, Leaves of Grass.  Emerson’s sentence “”I greet you at the beginning of a great career” became the first ever cover blurb.

These seemingly innocuous anecdotes share a common theme.  They are origin stories of things whose histories I have never previously given a moment’s thought.

Each discovery led to a spark of satisfaction, a tiny little smile, and a moment of “ah” followed.

It was a reminder that everything comes from something and by extension everyone comes from somewhere.

Re-runs, maternity leave, holiday songs, cover blurbs and endorsements all started somewhere and for some reason.

As did the food you eat, the technology you use, the transportation you take, and on and on.

Every person and everything in your life that helped you get to where you are – has its own story.

When we are introduced to the origins of things, it affords us the opportunity to both understand and appreciate them just a little more.

It is easy to take for granted that everything just is without realizing that there was a time when it wasn’t.

Why is this important? 

When we take things for granted we tend to value and understand them less. 

And when we don’t know where things come from we become complicit in their making – robbing us of an opportunity to make better decisions for our selves and our society.

Pick one thing today – and ask yourself: “Where did that come from?”

Then find out for yourself.

Grab A Bucket

The fire broke out in the early morning. It traveled quickly through the walls of the white house on the corner lot. The 69 year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson rushed out of his home calling for help.

Townspeople throughout Concord came running to his aid. They included Louisa May Alcott, who with her sisters,  were armed with baskets to rescue the books in his library.

On a recent tour, one of the historians pointed out a common feature of his home and others at the time.  Hanging from the back stairway, were two buckets –numbered to correspond specifically with your house.

When a fire in town broke out, it was your duty to grab your buckets and run to the aid of your neighbor – regardless of what you were doing and whether you liked them or not.

Once the fire was extinguished, you were required to leave your buckets with the fire department. They would take a full accounting of who came to help and who stayed home. If you failed to help your neighbor, you would be imposed with a tax (and probably a dose of shame or embarrassment.)

The townspeople went beyond their duty and raised the necessary funds to not only restore Emerson’s home but to send him on a trip to Europe while repairs were being completed. Upon his return, school was canceled for the day, so the children could greet Emerson at the train station and escort him to his once again livable home.

I long for the days of buckets and duties. Where it was expected that we would all come to the aid of our fellow citizens regardless of our own distractions or affinity towards him or her.

Today, as then, the fires are not always literal.  Life’s devastating forces can come in many forms – sickness, poverty, hate, lack of opportunity, chief among them.

If you listen carefully, regardless of where you live, you can hear the siren call of these fires amongst us.

When we do, I hope we can all grab a bucket and do our duty. 

Why Do Racehorses Wear Blinders?

This is the question posed by legendary music producer Jimmy Iovine during the spectacular HBO docu-series, The Defiant Ones, chronicling the parallel journeys of his life and Dr. Dre’s and how together they made music history.
His answer to this question is “focus”.  Without blinders horses would look to their left and right distracting them from their pursuit of victory.
This six hours series is a testament to how focus and hard work can help overcome extraordinary life challenges. In that regard it is a typical American Dream story – albeit on steroids.  It is really hard to underestimate how much these two men have contributed to music and culture over the last 40 years and their work ethic is legendary.
At the same time, the focus of their lives and/or this series would lead one to believe that they never cooked a meal, did laundry, went to a kids game or recital, watched TV, read a book, played with their children, or went on vacation with their family.  In other words, did the things that constitute a life for the rest of us. 
Even racehorses take time to graze and nap.
It was also telling to see how their hard work was aided by the people and environment around them – repeatedly leaving me thinking – “you’ve got to be kidding me,” after hearing a story.  Here are a few examples:
Iovine’s first job in the business was at a janitor in a recording studio.  His boss took a liking to him and helped him learn the ropes.During his first stint as a recording engineer, Jimmy was asked to come into work on Easter Sunday. Over his family’s objections he went in to find John Lennon waiting for him. Working with Lennon gave him the confidence to launch his career. Shortly after he was working with Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, and U2.Meanwhile, Dr. Dre played DJ when his mom had friends over, often stacking up ten 45’s on their turntable based on what he thought the guests would like.Seeing her son’s early interest in music, she bought him some recording equipment. Soon he was making mix tapes and recording friend’s music – selling them back tapes of their own recordings. No doubt Compton was a challenging and dangerous place to grow up.  Yet it was in this neighborhood where the talents of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and others came together to form N.W.A.  Suge Night, founder of Death Records was also a Compton connection. One of Dr. Dre’s latest finds, Kendrick Lamar met Dre when Lamar was a nine-year-old boy.One of Jimmy’s interns told him about a young rapper he saw at a battle rap competition.  Jimmy asked the intern to get a tape. At another show the young rapper threw his last tape the intern’s way.  Jimmy shared it with Dre.  Soon after they signed Eminem, rejuvenating Dre’s career.Jimmy was walking along the beach one day when Dre saw him from his balcony and told him to come up. Dre mentioned that he was getting endorsement offers for sneakers and wasn’t really into it.  Jimmy responded saying he should put his name on “speakers, not sneakers.”  Dre responded by saying, “Yeah, we can call it Beats”.

What followed each of these stories and others like it was a tremendous amount of work, but without a constellation of people, connections and serendipity, these critical pieces of their success probably don’t happen.

No doubt blinders help us focus and accomplish more.  At the same time, it’s good to take them off so we can appreciate why we run as fast as we do.

80% Of People Will Find Jobs This Way

Over the next two months, approximately 3 million young adults will graduate and enter the job market.  About half will graduate from college and the other half will graduate from high school with no plans for higher education.

Despite the differences in career paths and future opportunities, how they find that next job is likely to be similar. According to this study, 80% of people will find a job through someone they know. So whether you are a high school graduate who landed a job at the local Caterpillar plant or a college graduate who will be starting as an analyst at Merrill Lynch, odds are that job came courtesy of a connection.

Recently I asked a friend how his kids were doing.  He mentioned that one was graduating and was looking for a job in cyber security.  By sheer coincidence, I happened to have a friend who owns a cyber security firm in DC and offered to make the connection. After sending a simple email with resume, an interview followed and he was hired. Upon receiving the news, both the son and Dad emailed to thank me. Take note of this excerpt from one email:

“Thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU!!

Trust me, you have given a father one of the best gifts of a lifetime — his child’s first “real” job! Many people begin life or life’s big steps on second or third base and think they hit a double or triple…that they did this themselves. You put my son squarely on second base, with a big turn to third; he started his job search with an extra base hit, thanks to you.

First let me state the obvious, the kid still had to have a good resume and nail the interview, so his individual effort and accomplishment should in no way be diminished.

At the same time, it’s interesting that even though most of us get some help in finding a job through a connection, we often fail to fully recognize and appreciate its significance.  

Perhaps it’s because of potential embarrassment born out of concern that others will feel you didn’t earn the position.  Or maybe it’s just one other example of fundamental attribution bias – our natural tendency to believe that we are the sole drivers of our life’s outcomes. 

When we don’t celebrate this aspect of our connectedness, two things happen. One we don’t own the advantages some have over others just because of who they know.  And two, we don’t actively seek to put our connections to work for others. 

In the spirit of this post, find some time today to  thank someone who helped you land a job or use your connections to do the same for someone else.  Either action will make you and the person you reach out to feel great.  

(This post is dedicated to the late Lyn Salzburg – who helped me start my career on second base.)

Do You Feel Lucky?

On the lead up to St. Patrick’s Day, I wondered about the phrase, “luck of the Irish.”

I had just watched a PBS documentary on Irish history and they didn’t seem very lucky at all.  Considering:

  • The great potato famine took over one million lives and drove another million to emigrate – decreasing the population of Ireland by almost 25%.
  • Their war for independence from England caused a lasting divide between Unionists in Northern Ireland and Nationalists in Southern Ireland. The solution to which caused such bitterness, that unlike in America, they don’t celebrate their Independence Day.
  • The period from 1970-2000 was called “The Troubles”! (Thirty years marked by escalating violence and domestic terrorism)

Ironically, the phrase “luck of the Irish” was originally one of derision. It’s origin dates back to the gold and silver rush in the 19th century. Many of the most successful miners were of Irish descent. Their success was attributed to “luck” rather than intelligence or hard work. This reflects a very unhealthy relationship between success and luck.

When reflecting on the role of luck in achieving our own dreams, only 27% of Americans see it as essential.  

However, when we think about luck’s role in other people’s success – especially those who we may not feel are as deserving  – then we see it playing a more significant role. 

Or in sports parlance — your opponents make lucky plays, you make great ones.

Our relationship with luck is critical to how we view the world and support each other.

In his book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, author Robert Frank demonstrates its impact on everything from individual giving to support for fair tax policy and social welfare programs.

Usually when we acknowledge luck’s role in our success we can’t help but link it as just a by-product of our work. 

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “The harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.”  Easy for him to say when he inherited a 5,000 acre plantation.

The motto of my namesake, the McKinnon clan (Scottish not Irish – long story), is “Fortune follows the brave.”  Yet bravery had little to do with many of the breaks I’ve received along the way.

When we acknowledge the role of luck in our lives, it doesn’t diminish the magnitude of our success but enlarges our appreciation of it.

So just a few days after celebrating a day when we are all a little Irish, I ask you this –  Do you feel lucky?

Maybe You Could Be President Someday…

This phrase has probably been uttered to hundreds of millions of American children over our country’s 240 year history.

Yet during that time only 44 people have actually held that job.

It is no wonder that when we tell the stories of our Presidents we marvel at the individual efforts and the hard work that must have been required to ascend to our highest office. Yet consider how many other factors, like these, had to fall in place when you hear their extraordinary individual tales:

Money helps. Every President but one (Truman) since 1929 has been a millionaire at the time of achieving office.

Education is critical.  Over 40% went to Ivy League schools and since 1893 all but one graduated college.

Health matters. Most enjoyed healthy lives – especially for their times. Even those who had to overcome well-known health issues, such as John F. Kennedy and both Roosevelts, had the benefit of being able to afford literally the best care in the world for their conditions. 

Connections count.  40 out of 45 came from politics – many hand picked by party bosses to be their nominee. Ten were directly related to another President (2 sets of father/sons, 2 sets of cousins and one grandfather/grandson).  In fact, genealogists have determined that FDR was related to 11 different Presidents himself (5 by blood and 6 by marriage). 

A little luck goes a long way.  20% didn’t even get elected to the office – rising only after the previous occupant died or resigned.  Of course, there are also five who did not win the popular vote but won via the electoral college. 

Lifted by many helping hands. Behind every President is a whole host of advisors, friends, relatives, aides and funders who supported them along the way.  However, 18 Presidents actually owned slaves, in many cases hundreds, which presumably allowed them to amass their fortunes that made running for public office possible

These are just a handful of the factors that help explain how these 44 people rose above the hundreds of millions of children who were told that “maybe one day they could become President too.”

None of this is to diminish any of their hard work or the amount of individual effort required to rise to the oval office.  But hard work and help aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact to become President of anything they are mutually dependent.

Consider this:  Even Abraham Lincoln perhaps our most “self-made” President, would never have risen to that office were it not for the simple fate of his birth.  Leave 99.9% of his genes exactly the same, but assume he were born either a woman or a black man. Could he have become our 16th President in 1860?

So on President’s Day, let’s honor those who have held this office by honoring the totality of what made their journey possible. 

Can You Feel The Wind At Your Back?

According to research from Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich, probablynot nearly as much as you can feel it in your face.
In one classroom exercise, Davidai asks students to google images for headwinds and tailwinds. For headwinds, there is a whole host of images of people being blown backwards and destroyed umbrellas.  For tailwinds, not so much (other than the occasional aeronautics diagram of planes.)
Images of headwinds are more available to us not just online but in our own minds. 

In their paper, Headwinds and Tailwinds: An availability bias in assessments of blessings and barriers, they examine the psychological phenomenon that shows we have a tendency to remember the obstacles we faced more than the help we received.
Over coffee last week, Davidai told me one other story that helps explain why.
Imagine Usain Bolt sets a world record for the 100M (not a stretch since he’s already done so numerous times.)   If I told you he did it in spite of running into a strong head wind, you would be all the more impressed by his accomplishment.  If I instead told you that he did it BECAUSE of a strong wind at his back, it might “cheapen” his feat in your mind.
None of us want to diminish our accomplishments or the roles we’ve played in our success.  We didn’t ask for the tailwinds – they were just there.
Usain still had to train and sprint and beat the competition. We still have to get up every morning and put effort into our work – often struggling to get by or get ahead.
On one hand, the presence of tailwinds shouldn’t diminish our effort or accomplishments.  On the other hand, to not acknowledge them is to take for granted the extra push we may have received along the way.
As you walk around today, notice which way the wind blows — for you or for those around you – both literally and more importantly, figuratively.