Friday, November 06, 2015

My “Fortunate Son” Myth

While delving into family history I am often reminded that I am the only son of an only son who was a fourth generation Idaho horse and cattle rancher.

This meant that I also carried the weight of what I came to call being the “Fortunate Son,” by my 21st year after the late ‘69 Creedance Clearwater Revival hit.

It’s an “anti-war” anthem, a cause I wouldn’t embrace for another two years yet.

For me though, the feeling of being a fortunate son began almost as soon as my parents brought me home to the ranch in 1948.  I grew up with the sense that I was treated differently.

By that, I mean that my patriarchal grandparents treated me differently, as did my aunts on both sides.

It was different than how it seemed they treated cousins who were both older and younger, male and female and different too than my two sisters when they came along.

Maybe it was just a response to the patriarchal ranching culture along the Rockies but to me the feeling came to symbolize getting things I didn’t deserve.

It is a feeling that revisits whenever I receive recognition as I did a few days ago with an award named for Charles Kuralt.

He was from North Carolina where I’ve lived for going on 27 years but his heart was along the Big Hole River in Montana, just across the Centennial Mountains from the ancestral Idaho ranch where I spent my early years.

Through his One the Road series, Kuralt happens to also be one of my influences  to follow a four-decade career in community destination marketing.

The sense that I was a fortunate son also meant that to me people expected things I couldn’t deliver, such as being a three sport standout in school like my father.

To their credit, my parents -- especially my mother – worked hard to instill humility in me but that came soon enough with the embarrassment, if not shame, of failure.

I failed to have my father’s bone structure or speed for that matter.

I was also left-handed which presents some learning challenges beginning with tying my shoelaces or lasso a moving steer from horseback.

These and many other tasks were complicated by an essential tremor in both hands which, in and of itself, was embarrassing enough.

Still, it took a while before I fully grasped that “fortunate son” was a myth.

Failure was an option with my parents but giving up and especially not trying were not.

In retrospect, I look back at my life through a lens of grit, determination, perseverance and success because it felt that way and people have reinforced those qualities and outcomes.

But closer examination reveals an incredible number of failures, including failed relationships, but they were not for want of trying.

But for fortune and luck, there would have been more I am sure.

But as an exercise in memory and to reinforce humility and empathy for my less fortunate, from the safety of distance I look back at the failures now.

Failure and shame seem closely associated for me.  Each one played a role in propelling me forward just as for many others they seem a permanent disability.

Having been invited by third graders to play tackle football during recess, I picked a fumble up as a first grader and ran the wrong way.

I was called out as a fourth grader by my teacher for using my finger on each word as I read.

I was cut from my little league baseball team as a fifth grader.  I got a C in P.E. as an eighth grader and quit the football team only to come back as a ninth grader.

I screwed up as a senior and let my grades slide and flunked my renewal drivers license exam test for using my left foot on the brake.

I’ve lost any reliable count of how many times I disappointed my parents.

I failed my military draft physical due to a football injury, and then failed five different times over the next four years as I relentlessly attempted end-runs to enlist in other branches of service.

I got fired from three different jobs before I turned 40.  Oh, and then there were those failed marriages.  As I retired in 2009, I read a great book by essayist and poet David White entitled, The Three Marriages.

The book’s subtitle is “Reimaging Work, Self and Relationship.”  It is not a book about balancing the three but for me especially it explained why I was so successful at the first and until late in life a failure at the third.

My take away was that only when I understood the marriage to self was I able to transfer my success at work over a four-decade career to an enduring relationship, which now seems so effortless.

One of Whyte’s most memorable metaphors is that “We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory we travel.”

In his book of essays entitled, “WHAT ARE People FOR?” Wendell Berry wrote about solitude that “Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness.”

I needed a lifetime of relationship-“exile and loneliness” as a part of consummating my marriage to self.  I simply had two of Whyte’s marriages in the wrong order.

He observes that “We often enter a marriage with images of how it will enhance our sense of self, increase the happiness we already possess and end a sense of loneliness.”

But, Whyte continues, “After the initial euphoria, we just as often find that in the marriage itself our sense of self is obliterated, our previous sources of happiness disappear and our sense of isolation is made more acute…”

Those failures of relationship were at most, a failure to know and understand myself enough.

Work was another matter for me but again fortune played a role.

I set out to be a lawyer and backed into the perfect career: community destination marketing.

I was always highly “engaged” in my work, as is 30% of the workforce according to Gallup, give or take a point or two depending on the year. 

But I believe much of that engagement was due to being and finding a line of work that was “purpose-oriented.”

This is the good fortune currently shared by 28% of the American workforce according to a study by Imperative, a company founded by Aaron Hurst, author of The Purpose Economy.

It is probably part of what made me so much more successful than many peers.

Purpose-oriented employees who pursue work as fulfillment and as a means to help other people are found distributed across the workforce and in every occupation.

I feel it is a mistake for those who aren’t to see themselves as a victim and look to management to fill them with purpose and engagement.

Tom Rath, a best-selling author and senior scientist for Gallup has written a new “must-read” entitled Are You Fully Charged?

He concludes that if you seek engagement or purpose directly you may not find it.  But if you seek meaning you will find happiness and engagement.

As in a sentiment my daughter forwarded recently, “Do what you love, love what you do.”

Find meaning and purpose in whatever job you do and you will find engagement, something I realize was one of the early values embedded by my parents.

For me the stars just aligned more closely than for many not because of the “fortunate son” myth but thanks to parents who put the emphasis on trying.

1 comment:

TWM 3823 said...

great column....I think you meant "paternal' grandparents, not 'patriachal'