Two Paths to Ponder

Just over five years ago, our eldest graduated high school. At a dinner with our family and a couple of his friends, I gave a little, congratulatory speech involving an idea that I had heard in various forms. I figured every young graduate should learn a little Latin and introduced the phrase Quod Vitae Sectabor Iter. The phrase roughly translates to the question “Which path in life will you take?” From the question, several options were then suggested. John Boyd, a US Fighter Pilot that became influential with respect to crafting both aircraft design and battle strategy evolved into an expert trainer. He happily passed on climbing the ladder of rank and promotion. He was content within his sphere of influence. It wasn’t because he lacked ambition, it was that he was clear about where he wanted to make an impact. He wanted to train as many pilots as he could. He urged young pilots to be intentional in their decisions in life. Building on our Latin question of Which path in life will we take, he offered that we each have a choice between two paths. We can either be something or do something. Being something is going after the glamor and the glitz, the title, the corner office, the prestige associated with a role. Whereas the path of doing is about commitment, contribution, and mastery. Boyd saw this decision as a key one contributing to life satisfaction. He felt that we needed less actors and more people with character. Less consumers and more creators. He sought to celebrate those that do instead of those that pretend. He lamented the emphasis society placed on role models that were picture perfect, but deeply flawed. Boyd felt that we tend to glorify those that are all hat and no saddle.

Quod Vitae Sectabor Iter and a choice between being and doing. I thought these two ideas combined to make a perfect message to provide our graduating student. To support the message, I gave him both a Leatherman utility knife as well as a dress shirt. Both gifts were to represent each path. You can choose to either make a contribution and do something which the knife was intended to symbolize or you can be something and try to play a part which the shirt represented. I encouraged our son that whatever direction he chose in life was up to him. Be conscious of your choice to be purposeful or pretty. Ask yourself whether you want to be known for your character and substance or for style and show?

This past spring, our second son graduated. This time we didn’t have a dinner at a restaurant but we celebrated with family at home. This anecdote was told again. The gift ideas remained the same, but the story, I hope, has improved a little over the years as I continue to be introduced to more support for the two paths idea. Like any story that is told over and over this one is becoming like a good adventure told during an apres ski sociable at the bar, it’s getting more embellished with each rendition.

References to the idea of two paths are found in various contexts. One version relates to Hercules  and was recounted by Socrates well over 2,000 years ago. Socrates called the story “The Choice of Hercules.” As a young man, Hercules finds himself at the proverbial “fork in the road.” He pauses to ponder his future wondering which path to pursue. He’s faced with two options each populated by a gorgeous gal, each no less than a Goddess. On one path Hercules meets Kakia. Kakia bounds forward to intercept Hercules before he can consider the other direction. We imagine this Greek Goddess as a blue-eyed, bubbly blonde who introduces herself telling Hercules that her friends call her Happiness. She giddily offers that if Hercules comes her way, she’ll show him a life of luxury and ease that is beyond his wildest dreams. The direction of Kakia’s will be pleasant, easy, and filled with happiness. After Kakia makes her pitch, Hercules is approached by the second Goddess. She, too, is a stunner in a subtler way. She presents as a more natural beauty whose name is Arete. Arete is the Greek word for Excellence. Excellence which is earned through struggle and sacrifice. Arete presents as less striking and flamboyant. She is softer spoken and offers the opposite message. Her path presents no ease and no shortcuts. Going with Arete will be a journey that is long, hard, and dangerous. Should Hercules go down this road, he will be tested more than he can imagine. There will be challenges, loss, and suffering. Arete tells Hercules, “Nothing that is really good and admirable is granted by the Gods to men without some effort and application.” By choosing Arete’s path, though difficult, Hercules is told he will have the chance to learn self-discipline and courage. He will earn what Arete offers as true, lasting happiness from facing challenges. After being presented with the two paths, Hercules chooses that offered by Arete and encounters the Twelve Labours that forge him into the legend he’s destined to become.

High performers are often asked the question how can I become like you? How did you become great? High performers find the question frustrating and confusing because to them the answer is glaringly obvious. Do. The. Work. If you want to be an athlete, get really good at the sport. If you want to be a musician, practice playing your instrument. And, as comedian Sarah Silverman has offered others wanting to be comedy writers, “Well, write. Writers write.” Unfortunately, the attitude of those looking for secrets and shortcuts reflects an attitude of wanting to be the outcome without doing the work. They don’t want to do the dirty, sweaty, tedious, and tiring work to become an athlete, they just want to be recognized as the superstar. It’s similar to those that rue being passed by for a promotion at work. They complain about not being given the opportunity and say things like, if you gave me the opportunity, I’d show you how good I am or if I got the promotion, I would work so much harder. They don’t see that they need to earn their advancement by working harder now. They want the reward before they’re willing to work harder. Again, a suggestion that they want the part instead of the work. They want to hear how to spray themselves with the cologne of accomplishment and avoid having to devote sweat to creating success.

Jeff Goins distinguishes between artists that are starving and those that are thriving. One plays the part while acting like commercial success reflects negatively on their “art,” while those that thrive aren’t above doing the work to showcase themselves. They are working to have their work be seen. They need an audience to enjoy their efforts. Commercial success isn’t something to denigrate but celebrate. Which approach is likely to be met with more satisfaction? Which one will lead to success? Which one inspires effort instead of denigrating it? We can be woke or do the work. For which would you prefer to be heard? Artist and author, Austin Kleon, captured the distinction perfectly when he wrote, “Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb.” It is a difference between professionals and amateurs. Amateurs are interested in looking good for pictures whereas pros accept that every day they have to show what they know.

This tendency starts at a young age. As kids playing sports and idolizing superstars we prefer to get the jersey with our favorite player’s number instead of working harder. In my teens, I loved ski racing and idolized the Crazy Canucks. I had a picture book which celebrated some of their highlights. A picture included Steve Podborski standing amongst all of his gear. He had dozens of pairs of skis, multiple sets of poles and ski boots. There were gloves and mitts. Several helmets and goggles. A handful of racing suits and more. Long before Instagram, I liked this picture. I didn’t take from it a message that I should be out running up hills or doing wall sits to get stronger. No, instead, I gathered my stuff and spread it around our front yard and asked my mom to take a picture of me. I tried to look the part and copy the image from the book. Every bit of that “effort” was entertaining, easy, and fun. Nothing about it made me better. I was playing the part not doing the work.

My experience is repeated, even with the best of intentions, with sports programs that make us feel better than we are. We see professional hockey players, for example, showing up to their NHL games wearing bespoke suits. They are dressed to the nines before they enter their arena to prepare for their games. In turn, minor hockey programs create expectations that their players from ages as young as six or seven show up to the arena toting their gear while sporting finer clothes than they wear for any other occasion. We’re encouraging an investment in resources in pretending to be a player instead of building fitness and skills. In Selling the Dream, Ken Campbell writes of a kids’ hockey program that came to its senses and began redirecting the allocation of its limited funding. Campbell writes, “Any money that would have gone into things such as new matching hockey bags, track suits, and jackets would instead be spent on extra ice time to develop skills.” This sounds like a kid’s sport program that made the shift from trying to look good to get good. Decisions are now being made to shift from showing off to being better. They’re looking at Quod Vitae Sectabor Iter and deciding they want to get on the path of doing and off being. Allocating resources says something about what we consider important. Are we trying to look good or be better? Where are you spending your money? Where are you spending your efforts? What do these decisions say about what you’re trying to become? What do these decisions say about your values? A question to consider in interviews and performance reviews, Does this person want simply to play the part or do they really want to do it?

The French philosopher, Sartre, noted that “we are our choices.” That being the case, what path in life will you choose? Will you opt to make noise or develop poise? Will you parade like a peacock or patiently pursue your goal like a lion after its prey? Are you going to be show or go? Will you do the work or play the part? Are you chasing likes or legacy? Do you want to invest in an illusion or exert effort developing excellence? We confuse wishing with working. Dreaming is deeply different from doing. Power lies in producing not in posturing. Ideas are insolence. Excellence lies in execution. Social media is the Stevia of success. It showcases the artificial sweetener, the false fruit of easy outcomes.

The difference between the desire to be or do is seen at all levels. Steven Sample author of The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership recounts a observation a mentor of his offered early in Sample’s leadership adventure noting, “I’ve been a careful observer of ambitious men all my life. And here, for what it’s worth, is what I’ve learned: many men want to be president, but very few want to do president.” A field note offered from Admired Leadership introduces the idea of leadership as “an expression and not a possession.” They write, “One of the great myths of leadership is the belief that leadership resides in power, status, titles, and authority…the truth is, everyone can make the choice to lead at any time. Leadership resides in actions, messages, decisions, behaviors, and choices.” We lead by doing not by name.

Philosopher, Terry Patten, wrote A New Republic of the Heart. In it Patten suggests that our satisfaction in life increases as we shift from “seeker” to “practitioner.” To Patten, seekers want a particular lifestyle whereas practitioners are interested in living it. They want the process more than the outcome. The profession of ghostwriting, for example, depends on those that want to have a book instead of write a book, or Patten’s seekers or Kleon’s nouns. Those that want to play the part are looking for ways to outsource effort. Success isn’t a style we can simply put on. Success stems from sacrifice, struggle, and suffering. Chris Lavergne, founder of Thought Catalog, contrasts “a voice among a billion other voices and an authority.” It’s the difference between the masses commenting on a story and those putting in the work to do the research and publishing something. One is being, the other is doing. One is easy with no barriers to entry, the other is confusing and challenging. One is done by many, the other by the precious few. Do you want the picture or the problem? Do you want the role or the responsibility?

I’ve got a couple years to iron out the kinks in the delivery and refine the message further before our third and final son will get to enjoy this speech. I hope by the time I’m through my sons will be able to tell me the story. If we’re committing to Hercules’ path of excellence which is the one Boyd, Kleon, and others see as the one of doing, we are likely to look back on our lives with the kind of fond fulfillment expressed in Robert Frost’s closing stanza of The Road Not Taken,

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”