Mariano Rivera on Luck vs Skill

At the end of every How I Built This podcast, host Guy Raz asks his guests whether they’d attribute their success in building their business to luck or to skill.

Hearing that question, it’s hard not to think: how would I answer?

Listening to episode after episode, I looked forward to this question. Both answers seemed valid to me. Then, last week, I attended a benefit for Family Services of Westchester, a not-for-profit that supports the community in Westchester County, where I live.

FSW is a wonderful organization that does important work. However, like most non-profits, their benefit followed a familiar script: drinks, a seated dinner at 10-tops, a silent auction, and a litany of speakers all saying how humbled they were to be honored… It’s not fully FSW’s fault. This is what is expected, and meeting people’s expectations is an accepted way to grab attention to raise money and awareness for good causes.

Mariano Rivera Hall of Fame
Mariano Rivera in 2011. Photo credit: Richard Perry / NYTimes

Near the end of the event, it’s time for the guest of honor: Yankee relief pitcher and Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. I’m not a baseball fan, so I don’t know that Rivera was the first baseball player to be inducted unanimously into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I don’t have any expectations.

But when Rivera starts speaking, the mood shifts. He has a natural charisma that holds the room, an easy smile and a quick wit. Sports marketer Brandon Steiner, who is set to interview Rivera, walks up to the dais and spontaneously asked him if he’d auction off his watch and his tie for the cause. Without missing a beat, Rivera flashes a big smile, says yes, and runs the impromptu auction himself. The room is jovial, relaxed and engaged.

For all his confidence, charm, and sense of humor, Rivera shifts gears when he’s asked about what got him here. In response to how he stayed calm in big situations, where his famous 90+ mile-per-hour cut fastball came from, how he became one of the all-time greats, Rivera’s answer is the same. He is a religious man, and time and again he says, clearly and simply: he had been blessed by G-d, he is just the vehicle for this blessing.

There is something about the clarity and genuineness with which he says this. He isn’t boasting, grandstanding, or prostrating himself. He is speaking his simple truth. As noticeable, he does so in ways that don’t diminish his own struggles, hard work and perseverance. Yet the ultimate message is that he isn’t the hero of his story, he is a vessel for a bigger story.

Whether or not you’re a person of faith, I’d offer that there’s an old lesson to be re-learned here.

The successes that really matter are ones of good health, a loving family, the talents we’ve been given and the opportunities we’re lucky enough to come across. Whatever other successes we might pursue, and achieve, are built upon this foundation of good fortune.

Yet increasingly I worry that we’re living, in the United States at least, through the logical endgame of our national narrative of an individualistic, “meritocratic” society. As religious practice fades, as our communal ties weaken, and as technology feeds us stories that reinforce our worldview, more and more of “successful” people believe, deep down, that we’ve earned our good fortune.

What I saw in Mariano Rivera was the power of faith of any kind, and the truth that if we’re successful by any conventional measure, we probably have been outstandingly, undeservedly lucky. I also saw in the way Rivera told his story that there is no necessary trade-off between gratitude and agency, no need to diminish ourselves as we acknowledge that we are small players in our own story.

The best part is this: the moment we let go of our story of deserving what we have, we find greater ease in connecting with others, in giving thanks, and in doing what we can to rebalance the scales.

Snapshots

We’ve all had powerful moments when the right person says the right thing to us in the right way at the right time.

Often, these moments will fade for them…just another day and another conversation.

But they stay with us for ages.

It’s because of who they are, the relationship we’ve built with them, the fact that it’s them saying the one thing we need to hear right now, allowing us to believe that we can take our next big step.

We carry these moments in our back pockets where, like photographs, they get worn and a bit faded. In times of doubt and uncertainty, we pull them out, gaze at them, and take comfort.

“This person, who really and truly knows me, said this thing. Maybe it’s true.”

There are many reasons we keep showing up for our colleagues and friends, reasons we continue to be present and why we endeavor, each day, to fully see one another. One reason is for the privilege of saying those right words at a Polaroid moment, to give the gift of hard-earned belief and trust to someone who can do great things.

If you’re carrying around one of these snapshots, today might be a good day to thank the person who gave it to you.

A Great Yoga Practice

My yoga practice today
Happened next to a half-made bed
A few clothes strewn nearby

My daughter entered the room a few minutes in
Plopped herself onto the bed
To read her book

I stopped once or twice
Answered a few questions
And ended my practice mid-pose for bedtime

Yoga used to be a sweaty thing
Pushing through physical barriers
Bending further, deeper

This time I didn’t even break a sweat
The twinge in my back didn’t melt away
There was no savasana or Om

But afterwards
I feel joy and gratitude
For the people around me

Maybe it was a great yoga practice after all

 

Project Ski

For the last decade, I’ve been investing in what my wife affectionately calls “Project Ski,” teaching our three kids (now in 8th, 5th, and 1st grades) to get up and down a snow-covered mountain.

Skiing is an enormous investment of time, energy, logistics, effort. Teaching three kids to ski/ snowboard…that’s a whole other level. The gear alone (skis, boots, poles, hats, gloves, glove liners, long underwear tops and bottoms, goggles, helmets, balaclavas, ski pants, fleece, ski jacket, lift tickets…times five in our case!) is enough to test anybody’s patience and strain their bank account. And with the crazy weather that is our new normal, most of our ski trips in the Northeast U.S. have ended up either being dangerously cold (well below 0 degrees F) or rainy.

Having invested 10 years in this crazy endeavor, last week we take our first family trip to Colorado.

The ski gods smile on us.

It had been a very poor season for snowfall, but it snows more than a foot the week before we arrive and another foot while we are there.

So we drive and park and fly and drive some more on winding roads…we sleep and get on gear and buckle uncomfortable boots and ask “do we have any toe warmers?”….until we finally find ourselves at the top of a massive Colorado Rockies peak.

The sky is a piercing blue. The air is thin, crisp and clear. All around us are fields of untouched powder and evergreens.

And I suddenly remember what I’d forgotten over the years of sweating and organizing and cajoling (“c’mon guys what’s a little rain?!”): skiing is really about freedom.

Not just the freedom to go, or go fast.

It’s the freedom of being out in nature.

The freedom of being a dot amongst miles and miles of untouched beauty.

The freedom of feeling the air, the ground, the sky all around you.

The freedom, and joy, to go anywhere that I and my family pointed our skis and boards.

And, yes, also the freedom that comes with the rush of speed and motion and fluidity that occasionally happens when everything comes together going down the mountain.

This kind of freedom felt particularly magical now, living as we all are in an era in which we struggle to shield ourselves from the cacophony of news and our schedules; we fight to remain present for even a half an hour; and we promise ourselves, daily, that we’ll put our phones away for the night and not check them first thing in the morning.

While skiing isn’t for everyone (my wife is quick to remind me that ‘lying on the beach would be great too’), this sort of joy, presence and liberation certainly are.

And I can’t help but reflect that this flavor of liberation only arises out in nature, when the sensation of the ground crunching beneath us, or a wave splashing over us, or a breeze catching light in the leaves, remind us of our here, our now, our smallness in a big world, and our inexplicable connectedness to all of it.

I’m feeling grateful for having shared this time my family, and for the reminder that this sort of experience is still out there, even today.

Some days

Some days you get a lot of praise for work well done.

It can feel like this praise isn’t deserved, or that it is for things that came easily to you, or that it is not worth all the fuss. Often this means that you won’t allow yourself to fully hear the gratitude and appreciation that someone expresses.

Other days you toil and sweat and put your heart and soul into a thing and nothing comes back. Or, worse, it’s exactly your best work that engenders criticism or nit-picking or downright resistance.

The thing to remember is this: gift-giving is circular. Your best ideas, your art, your emotional labor, your love, these things never come back to you in a binary way. Imagine instead that the positive words you’re hearing took a long, circuitous route to get to you. They are the winding, imperfect product of you putting bravest, truest self out into the world.

What we need from you is your continued courage, grit and determination.

And what we encourage is that you allow yourself to be sustained by the positive words that do come back your way, because the people sharing these words are, secretly, messengers for many.

The Easiest Money I’ve Ever Given Away

The easiest money I’ve ever given away was the day after my wallet was returned to me, untouched and full of cash.

Having done the mental work of literally imagining living without that money, it was easy to see the request to give money away as a simple reminder: “Ah, yes, this money isn’t mine after all.”

The practice of giving is just that, a practice. And like any practice, it is in the act of doing that the behavior becomes normal, expected, and part of our lives – not the other way around. The practice of giving is how we pound away at the mold of who we are. We exert effort and willpower until the very material of our selves begins to yield and take on a new shape.

Part of that reshaping manifests in a new story we tell ourselves, a story about how to think about our wealth and our skills and our possessions and the choices we can make about how to deploy all of them – maybe, just maybe – to reshape the world into the better image we dare to imagine.

Over time, we also discover that, in the act of starting to show up differently in the world, the world starts to show up differently in us. In the act of trying to shape the world in a new way, the world sneaks up on us and starts to reshape us too. If we are very lucky, both of those transformations will be for the better.

Today Acumen is celebrating its fifteen-year anniversary, and in a couple of months I will hit my 10-year anniversary at Acumen. Looking back, it’s easy be misled by the small, nearly imperceptible daily changes we have made in the world and that the world has made on us. But looked at from the vantage point of a decade, or a decade and half, it’s obvious that the changes are both profound and lasting.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this time, it’s that the only way to become the kinds of people who show up, who hammer away and who do the work is by showing up, hammering away, and doing the work. It also helps tremendously to have people who are willing to show up alongside you, people who are willing to pour their best selves into a shared vision about what is possible.

To all the people who have been willing to show up alongside me, and to all the people who have shaped me in ways that I hope you know (but I bet you don’t know fully): thank you.

I’m sorry

You might have noticed that apologies don’t need to happen just once.

The first time, the words can catch in your throat. You might sound a bit defensive, even reluctant, a bit like the little kid who looks at the ground, mumbling almost unintelligibly as his parent nudges him forward to say “sorry.” What’s going on is either that you don’t fully believe your own words, or you sense that the person you’re speaking to isn’t totally ready to hear you.

The second time you apologize, you’ve gotten past the noise in your head (“I’m not the only one who did something wrong!”) and the self-congratulations (“I’m such a martyr”) and started to get in touch with real feelings. As these feelings of remorse start to be visible, you begin to build an emotional bridge between you and another person.

And the third time, well, the third time you are fully grounded in the truth of the wrong you’ve done, the hurt you’ve inflicted, the unnecessary slight, and you can match those feelings to the words you say and to how you say them. When that comes out, you can truly apologize and begin to set things right.

Of course there’s nothing special about apologies. This is the way it goes with any communication that has real, challenging emotional content, including expressions of humility, gratitude, requests for help, even communicating the joy and hopeful enthusiasm you have for a job you want, joy that is often buried beneath layers of seemingly-appropriate responses.

There are no shortcuts to expressing your emotional truth. There’s just the progressive work of discovering it, and then having the courage to reveal it.

Sorry.

Hey Trump, we are all immigrants

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp besides the golden door!

So read the timeless words of poet Emma Lazarus, immortalized in a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

But in 1880, six years before the Statue of Liberty was completed, the US enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act which officially banned Chinese from entering the U.S. The Act was not repealed until 1943.

I guess 2015 is the new 1880.

Acknowledging the latest vitriol from Donald Trump feels like shining a spotlight on a circus barker. For a while—I hate to admit it—I indulged in thinking of Trump as an entertaining and harmless sideshow. Not any more.

Trump’s latest call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is an abomination and an insult, not just to Muslims but to all of us, to our country, and to  what it stands for. While it’s encouraging that Trump’s nonsense has been disavowed by nearly all major public figures, including most of the Republican Presidential candidates, Trump’s poll numbers remain firm as his supporters jeer more loudly, fanning the flames of ignorance and hatred.

In interviews, Trump’s supporters say “they” a lot, as in “they, Muslims, present a threat.” I wonder when Americans forgot that each and every one of us was, not so long ago, a “they.”

I was a “they” in 1947.

On Thanksgiving Day 1947, my grandparents arrived in San Francisco from China, having fled the Nazis in the early 1940s. They and more than 100,000 Jewish refugees entered the United States thanks to changes in immigration policy under President Harry Truman. In December 1945 the Truman Directive gave U.S. Visa preference to displaced persons.

This was a big change. Throughout World War II, the United States had refused to open its borders to Jewish refugees, turning its back on one of the greatest tragedies in human history. Fear and xenophobia reigned at home while soldiers fought for freedom and democracy abroad: Japanese were put in internment camps, and the rights of Germans and Italians were severely curtailed.

Lejb and Chaja Dichter (who later became Leon and Lucy Dichter), my grandparents, were two of these refugees. They arrived in San Francisco on a boat from Shanghai after six years of running for their lives: from Poland, to Lithuania, to Japan, and finally to Shanghai. They arrived with their two year old son, my father Misha, in tow, having buried their first child in the Shanghai ghetto. They quickly built a life for themselves in this country.

At my desk, I have a printout of a document that records my grandparents’ arrival as refugees in Kobe, Japan in 1941. It reminds me that life is tenuous. It reminds me that I am here thanks to the risks that people I will never meet were willing to take to shelter and protect my grandparents as they fled the Nazis.

Leon and Lucy_passenger manifest

It is in no small part because of those people that I do the work that I do: because when I see my own children’s bright and smiling faces, when I see what a light they are in the world, I am thankful. And I hope that I can do my own small part to save even just two more lives, to pay forward the infinite kindnesses that were done for my family just 70 years ago.

Mine is one of hundreds of millions of immigrant stories that end happily in the United States.

There is no separating immigrants from the United States. There is no “we” that exists separate from the “they” who have just arrived.

We are all immigrants. It is who we are. It is what makes this country great.

 

Leon and Lucy

The easiest thing to do

The easiest way to make some understand how valuable they are and the difference they make is by praising them.

Not empty words, not loose compliments. Actual, specific, context-relevant praise that they will value.

Ah, “that they will value.” Indeed.

To do this we must go back a few steps, to figure out not only the work they do and where they shine, but also how they see themselves and the sort of reinforcement that is important to them.

This requires recognition, from the outset, that what’s important to each person differs in fundamental ways. It means being both attentive and curious, and being consistently outside of your own head and its internal chatter. And it means always being on the lookout for moments when people shine, and being quick to reinforce the great things that they do.

So, yes, that moment of giving the praise is a simple one. But there’s a discipline and a practice of all the steps leading up to that moment.

 

Bhava Yoga, then and now

Over the holidays, I went with my family up to Okemo, Vermont for four days of skiing. It was a little icy for the first few days, but we had a great trip.

As an experiment in family travel management, we decided to break up the drive with a quick overnight stop in Brattleboro, VT. One of our great parenting discoveries is that any hotel with a pool and free waffles for breakfast is, according to the kids, “totally awesome,” so we stay at a lot of Hampton Inns on family vacations.

Weeks after we’d made this plan, my wife reminded me that Peter Rizzo, a master yoga teacher whose classes we used to take on the Lower East Side of New York City, had moved his studio to Brattleboro a number of years ago. Could we arrange things so that one or both of us could take a class with Peter during our 18 hours in Brattleboro?

Somehow, it worked out. Last Sunday we left New York around 1:30pm and managed to pull into Brattleboro at 4:50pm, ten minutes before Peter’s 5pm class. My wife spilled out of the car and went up to Peter’s two-hour class while I took the kids to the (tiny, cold) pool at the Hampton Inn. That class was so great that I then took Peter’s 9am class the next morning.

Peter is an exceptional yoga teacher on a number of levels. Yes, he’s technically amazing, but what really matters is that he keeps you calm and helps you get to a non-striving place, with great reminders like (after putting you into a crazy poze) “just by looking at how far you do or don’t get into hanumanasana (full split) I could tell nothing at all about how advanced your yoga practice is. In fact, I can tell you from my personal experience that there’s no relationship between how close my head gets to my shin and how enlightened I am.”

Indeed.

Time works in funny ways, and when my wife and I spoke to Peter that Sunday evening after the 5pm class, he remembered that we used to go to Bhava Yoga when it was on East 13th street. We said it was “a while ago,” and he said, “Yes, that was 11 years ago.” Where did the time go?

Though our interaction with Peter was fleeting, there was something special in that moment of reconnection. Peter gave each of us the gift of a deep, grounding, inspiring yoga class, and a glimpse of the community he has created. There was also something pensive and reflective – and perhaps even a flicker of pride – in Peter’s eyes as he contemplated the 11 years since we’d last seen him, the logistics we must have managed to make the class happen (the drive, the kids). What I hope he understood was that, even though we’d taken no more than 30 classes with him so many years ago, he was a part of our lives and he had made a lasting impact on us. I hope that, in seeing us, we helped him realize how many other people there are out there in the world, some of whom he hasn’t seen for a decade or more, who he’s also impacted in profound ways.

I think this is how it is for all of us: we hear back only a fraction of the ways that we have touched people, moved them, inspired them, and lifted them up when they were down. But that impact is out there, it is real, and it is our living legacy.

One of the easiest gifts to give is to find the opportunities to remind people how important they have been to us, and to thank them for it.

Here’s wishing you a great start to your year in 2015.