There is a tendency when reading about the achievements of others to try and follow their path. To say that they made it through life in a specific way, why can’t I just follow their path? But this is a mistake. There are things you can learn from the lives of others, but you can also get stuck down dead-ends trying the follow someone else’s path.
Follow Your Bent
Why is this?
It really boils down to skills and environment. Everyone is bent in a specific way. And for the most part, you can’t change that. Even though I like and admire the achievements of Teddy Roosevelt, I have to realize that my personality is nothing like his. So the path that he took in his life is not a path that I could take. I’m not going to bowl people over with my enthusiasm like he did.
Well why not try and become more enthusiastic? It can’t be that hard…right? Most of the research today suggests that you’re much better building on your strengths rather than trying to improve your weaknesses. At the end of the day, your success comes from your strengths in spite of your weaknesses. No one remembers what Lance Armstrong was poor at, only what he was really, really good at.
There’s a great quote from Lincoln during the civil war where someone asks why he doesn’t get rid Grant because he is a hopeless alcoholic. After recently going through a string of generals who never pressed their advantage against the enemy, Lincoln replied
I cannot spare this man. He fights!
In other words, it didn’t matter that Grant was a drunkard. What mattered was that he had the courage to take the fight to the enemy. In the end, Lincoln was wise to overlook Grant’s faults and focus on his strengths. We all need to do the same with ourselves. We can’t follow someone else because we have our own strengths that may not be the same.
Find Your Roy
Not only are we bent in different ways than others, but our environment is different. We are surrounded by different people.
A while back I was reading the autobiography of Phil Vischer called Me, Myself & Bob. In his book, he describes the rise and fall of Veggie Tales (the animated series based on 3-D generated vegetables and positive messages). He talks about how he built his empire in his basement when everyone thought he was crazy. But after he became hugely successful, he began to think that he could be the next Walt Disney. He was always amazed by what Disney had accomplished. Now here was his chance to do the same.
His company was highly successful with producing half-hour episodes so the next step was to move into feature films just like Walt did. But there was a problem. How should his studio finance the incredible expense of a feature film? At the time, they were flush with cash and all of the 5-year projections looked great so they chose to self-finance the feature film. The only problem was the film cost way more than anyone expected and 5-year projections were horribly inaccurate. By the end, his studio went bankrupt.
After much reflection, Vischer summarizes what happened:
In hindsight, perhaps the simplest explanation for the failure of Big Idea Productions is this: I never found my Roy. I never found the person who could look rationally at my ideas and then, in love, say no. There were numerous people ready to say no to me, but we didn’t have the sort of relationship Walt and Roy had, so I was always hesitant to trust them. As a result, I didn’t trust their “no’s.” So I barreled ahead, on my own, clutching my ideas like a child clutching a prized stuffed animal in a roomful of strangers whose motives he can’t discern.
Phil could not follow Walt because he did not have Roy. His environment was different. He would have been better off focusing on what he could do with the people he had rather than trying to following the pattern set out by Walt. At the end of the book, Vischer finally comes to grips with the fact that he cannot be Walt and he even makes amends at Walt’s statue in Disneyland.
That’s a lesson we all need to learn because at the end of the day we can only be ourselves.