Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Tobacco Plug

Sometimes we learn from the most unlikely of places. A number of years ago, I went to visit my grandmother, then 82 years old, in White Sulphur Springs W.Va. I didn’t visit her often, but since she was going to be alone that Thanksgiving Day, I thought the least I could do was to stop by for a long weekend. After a fine meal filled with wild stories of family members long passed, my grandmother announced that she wanted to pay a visit, over the mountains, to her sister Marge the next day. The plan was set; early after breakfast I would drive “Mama” over the mountains to Marge’s farm.

The trip began without event, with Mama strapped into the front passenger seat of my bright yellow 1976 Datsun B-210. Now, my car was a lot like most of my friends’ cars. It wasn’t much to look at but was filled with interesting distractions: cassette player, dart board, two or three bottles of beer, an old pair of Nike’s, and – maybe surprisingly – a small pouch of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco. Unfortunately, it was the tobacco that Mama spied first. Immediately she asked if it was mine. How can you lie to an 82-year-old grandmother? “Yes, Mama, it’s mine,” I replied sheepishly, not sure of what question was next. “Do you want a plug now?” was the next question out of Mama’s lips. I wasn’t sure what my response should be. I did indeed enjoy a little chew while driving in those days and we had a few hours to get to Aunt Marge’s farm so, hesitantly, I said yes!

What Mama then did was a mix of art, love and history. She proceeded to tell me that her father, William Bryson Hill (the namesake of my son Bryson), chewed tobacco every day of his life, and was very particular with how he liked his plug. With that, she began pulling leaves out of the pouch, pinching off the stems and butts and smoothing those tobacco leaves out in her soft leathery 82 year old hands. After nine or ten leaves, she tucked the ends and rolled the leaves into what looked like a small black cigar. “Just how he liked it,” she said, with the glint in her eye of a ten year old and in the voice of an old woman. With that she passed me the plug and said it would last all day.

Thinking back on that day, now 27 years past, I realize I had the chance to actually experience history. I never asked Mama the last time she had made a plug of tobacco for her father. Was it 1910? 1915? Certainly no later that 1919, when she went off to “Standard School” to become a teacher. Regardless of the exact date, I felt a powerful sense of the hand of my great grandfather, reaching across the decades and thanking his eleventh child, my grandmother, for a fresh plug.

Over the years I have tried to replicate the plug that Mama rolled that day. I have counted out the leaves, picked off the stems, even rolled and tucked the ends into a small plug. Even with practice, it’s never been the same. It’s often that way in the lessons of life. We must find a way to keep our eyes open in the here and now. Too often we are worrying about something that is looming in the future, or maybe ruminating over something that has happened in the past. This life of ours is happening “live,” right now in the present! We need to keep our eyes open, ever expectant to experience history, and possibly to receive a tobacco plug from another century.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Lens of Success

I’m not certain when it started. Sometime maybe ten years ago my wife, Jennie, and I were asked the question, “What do we aspire for our children?” At that time we had only my son, Bryson; Marie had not yet appeared on the scene. Without much hesitation, we responded that we hoped for him to be happy, healthy, self-sustaining, and a productive citizen. Jen and I hadn’t discussed it in detail. We hadn’t used any sort of analytical process to clarify priorities. I don’t even remember if I came up with some of the ideas, and Jen others. What I do know is that for the last ten years or so we have shared those four simple priorities numerous times and our conviction around them continues to grow.

Interestingly, as our children have grown, the questions from family and friends about our views of their future have become more and more pointed. Someone will hear Marie at the piano and ask whether we hope for her a musical future and career. Another person will see Bryson pitch at a little league game and ponder about his potential as a left-handed big league pitcher. Regardless of the vector of the question, we always respond with our four wishes, that whatever they choose to pursue, we aspire for them to be happy, healthy, self-sustaining, and productive citizens.

As often happens with parents who actually listen to things they say to/about their kids, I started to reflect on these four simple aspirations and wonder how they apply to me. Over the past 20+ years of my professional life, I have aspired to and achieved numerous goals. I have had the chance to lead large organizations, be accountable for large P&Ls, travel professionally all across the globe, and attend amazing world events. Additionally I have had the chance to work closely with a range of well-known individuals including numerous corporate CEOs and a former U.S. President. Regardless of the achievement associated with these experiences, did they drive me to be happy, healthy, self-sustaining, and a good citizen?

As I reflect not only on my life, but also on the world at large, I am reminded of the dangers and limits of certain definitions of success. In a recent conversation with an old friend, we compared notes on a worrisome phenomenon. Both of us had worked for major, publicly traded, Fortune 50 companies. In both, there was a tendency inside the culture to view senior executives in a different light than all other employees. My friend commented that in his company, “it seemed that if you were a Vice President or above, you weren’t just in a higher position than others, you were a better person than others.” When did the title of a job, define the character of a person? When did professional promotions recognize core human values? I have known numerous senior executives across my career whose characters couldn’t hold a candle to the associates within their organizations.

The past few years, with the worldwide economic challenges, must remind us that material achievement is not the highest calling of humanity. When did materialism and consumerism become the ultimate aspirations of humanity or America? We cannot allow ourselves to be tempted to think that one’s purchasing power actually defines one’s character. We must aspire for more, or maybe actually less. The following are a few touchstones that may make better aspirations for all of us than Gordon Gekko’s simplistic admonition that “greed is good.”

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
-- Declaration of Independence

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!”

-- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” Speech

While these two points of inspiration may seem a challenge in the day-to-day routine of life, maybe we can all start by considering our own “lens” of success, and by aspiring for our kids, ourselves, our countries and our world to be:
happy, healthy, self-sustaining and good citizens.