Sunday, December 27, 2009

Who Should I Be?

What kind of man do I want to be? When I was a boy, I frequently asked myself that question. In the mind of a small boy, the question is too abstract, so it frequently takes the form of 'what do I want to be when I grow up?' A child understands what people are based on the adults he observes around him: my father worked for a newspaper, Mr Casey next door worked in the food business, still another neighbour was an architect who designed the new swimming pool complex at my local high school. All three men were productive in one way or another, so I thought it perfectly normal to aspire to the same.

As I grew older, I began to grasp the specifics of the work these men did. My father was an editor for a city newspaper and contributed to the quality of the end product. Mr Casey was a food broker who bought and sold products not for direct consumption by everyday people, but for bridging the gap between producers and sellers. Mr Kahler had to know an enormous amount about structural engineering and aesthetics to produce sound, elegant and practical buildings. I never once thought there were other types of men - men who existed to seek advancement in life not by their skills, but by their ability to seek influence.

Today, of course, as a fully-grown man, I understand all too well the type of men who exist not for the sake of their own abilities, but who stand in the way of those who do. This brings me back to my initial question, which I can now state in the present tense: what kind of man am I? People who know me well can answer easily: I am a man who seeks out achievements, wherever they may be. When I get an idea in my head about a future project, I observe, think, plan and act. It never occurs to me to consider the opinions of others, nor does it worry me. I may get an idea for some new achievement based on a conversation I've had, but the work itself is its own motivation for me.

As a teenager, I decided I was going to become fluent in French. A worthy goal, right? Some expressed doubt that I was capable of mastering a second language well after the muscles to produce the sounds of French had atrophied in my mouth. As it turns out, for me they hadn't, and so I was able to mimic the sounds of French effortlessly. The looking in the mirror exercises that the teacher had recommended were unnecessary, so I didn't do them. The teacher was never the wiser for it. It was easy for me and I loved it. I always got the best marks in French class and happily continued acquiring vocabulary and more complex verbal constructions.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, there were a number of fellow students who resented me for my skills. They thought I was haughty and a show-off. They thought I was the teacher's pet. This attitude became clearer to me years later as a student at the Université Laval in Québec City. I recall one afternoon sitting in the student coffee lounge, overhearing a conversation two English Canadians were having with one another. Apparently I was an offensive jerk for refusing to speak English and becoming part of the Anglophone community. I thought: how odd that these women I didn't even know would concern themselves with my life. What was it to them really? I had neither harmed nor maligned these two strangers. I simply went about my business.

I began to formulate the idea that some people do not live their lives to seek out achievement, but rather to malign those who do - or worse, attempt to stop them from attaining success in life. These are men and women whose driving force in their lives is envy of others. Envy is that emotion that moves people not to admire ability - as I do - but to denigrate it.

Why, I wondered. Why do people care what others do? What do they hope to gain? Why the focus on others when they could be expending that same energy achieving for themselves? As I moved into the work world, the same ugly emotions manifested themselves in the men and women who took pleasure in playing office politics. Another concept emerged for me: the notion that some people prefer to curry favour rather than do their jobs. They want desperately to be liked, but do everything in their power to sabotage legitimate business relationships. Time and again I have seen this play out in my current job, but because I have a rational and high achieving boss, every attempt at treachery in the office is thwarted. The schemers are always cut off at the pass and wonder why they never succeed at their task.

I could become a cynic. I could conclude that men are rotten to the core. I could proclaim that these creatures seeking to suck the lifeblood out of others are the rule, not the exception. Human history is rife with examples of envy destroying good people: Socrates, Galileo and even Bill Gates who did nothing so odious as to produce software that others wanted at prices they were willing to pay. And yet, I pay these examples no heed. I know that, despite the evil intentions of some men, vast achievements are all around us to admire. When I walk down the gleaming streets of Sydney and Melbourne, I see high achievement in the skyscrapers and shop windows. When I enter the Apple Store in Sydney, I see employees and patrons alike marvelling at the array of fantastic products available to the public at large. When I order my strong flat white coffee in the morning from my local cafe, I watch admiringly as the barista prepares my delicious beverage for me.

In all my years of living, I have never worried what other people thought of me. I have only concerned myself with my own goals. I realise that I am the kind of man who exists to live fully, and even though there are bumps in the road and occasional set-backs, nothing stops me from that singular focus.

What kind of man are you?

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