Last night was movie night with my nine-year-old daughter. Quite by accident we chose to watch Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. It’s a nice feel-good family movie I, of course, didn’t pay much attention to having my mind focused on work and “adult” things. Something most all parents are guilty of in our overly busy modern age. This one line in the movie however leapt out at me and struck a personal chord as I had been thinking a great deal recently about the costs and benefits of having stood alone to my success as an entrepreneur, investor and one-time Green Beret.
Unlike most popular culture messaging which heavily focuses on individualism, pursuit of personal happiness and love of self as reflected by our identity and place within one “tribe” or another, this statement the movie was crafted specifically to deliver, was unexpected. This whole rising to the occasion thing is not an easy task even when only rising to a single occasion on a single day, as it generally requires putting ourselves out there where we are standing alone. Given how hard this is day-to-day, imagine how much harder it is to rise to the occasion that is a well and fully lived life.
Rising to the occasion requires standing alone, because it means going beyond what is accepted, beyond the minimum, beyond what others are doing, beyond personal gain, beyond what is expected of us, to doing what is right, specifically, when what is right costs us personally. Sometimes this cost is financial in the form of time or money or both, but more often than not, rising to the occasion requires a personal price be paid in the social domain. The first is easier, the second vastly harder. And while in our day to day the former may be more often the norm, when rising to the occasion of a life, the occasion that is a life, the latter is always the requirement.
Standing alone means making sacrifices, most often in the form of paying a price within our own social circle, expending social capital. This is due to the fact at times we have to set aside at least some, if not most, personal relationships in order to accomplish a task, a goal or a hard to reach objective or a vision few or no others can see. While at other times we must take a stand for something which goes against one or more of the members of our own social sphere, at times calling out individuals or the organization as a whole in order to get back on track. And yet at other times it means taking a step back, isolating ourselves from our social network so we can get ourselves in order, get ourselves back on track.
This standing alone and paying a personal price, distancing ourselves from some individual or subset of our social sphere to do what is right, for a moment or across time, in whole or in part, is incredibly difficult for the social animal that we are as humans. Paying the heavy personal price of standing alone however is not the greatest difficulty in rising to the occasion. The greatest difficulty in rising to the occasion is not one of a lack of willingness to pay a personal price, whether financial or social. Because despite the current prevailing low opinion of humanity, most of us would willingly pay the price to rise to the occasion, pay the cost for doing the right thing, would be willing to go it alone if necessary.
The real difficulty is in knowing which occasion to rise to, knowing what the right thing to do is, knowing when to spend social capital and knowing how to spend that social capital most effectively to make a real impact. Even more precisely, it is exceedingly difficult to understand what it means to stand alone while remaining an active and productive member of a social group, whether this standing alone is related to a singular rise to the occasion event or over time in a far larger rising to the occasion.
In the very most simple terms. In order for us to effectively stand alone, to effectively expend social capital, the most precious resource in the Universe, whether pursuing an objective that must be pursued alone or taking a stand, we must be recognized by our peers as an individual of quality and character, as someone who has earned authority. This means we have to be actively pursuing mastery of a domain, we have to be recognized for our deeper understanding of the topic or issue we are expending social capital on, such that our motives are unassailable.
Understanding what it means to stand alone and knowing a rise to the occasion cost and how it must be paid requires one has sought or is seeking mastery of a domain, has gone through the difficult journey of obtaining “earned” rather than assigned “authority” such they are recognized as a leader in a given domain, or field of related domains for the polyglots among us. This is because it is far easier to recover from having stood alone when your expertise “authority” is recognized by your peers, not the assigned authority that comes with a job title and position within an organization or community, but the kind of authority can only be earned through recognition of domain mastery.
This pursuit of mastery and obtaining of earned rather than assigned authority, this rising to the occasion through having stood alone, having expended precious social capital with surgical precision, means one must:
1- Never quit in pursuit of domain expertise, in paying all the many related small and increasingly larger rise to the occasion costs necessary to being recognized by your peers as a Master of a domain;
2- Once a Master long enough, look up to realize you have accidentally become recognized as a leader, and accept as a leader you must now share your hard-earned knowledge, experience and deeper understanding with others;
3- Share your understanding in simple terms and concepts tailored to and readily digestible by the audience, guidance dedicated to helpings others on their personal path to domain mastery, guidance based solely in the practical;
4- Accept your flaws, push beyond failure, allow yourself to be a real personality, an individual others want to work with, to build the future with, because you admit their role in your successes while taking direct accountability for your failures;
5- Develop real confidence, the kind of authority comes from having gotten it wrong so many times and having recovered that you know rather than believe you are strong enough to survive taking a stand and doing what is right even though it costs you; and finally,
6- Understand everything you do occurs in the social domain. Everything comes with a social capital price tag, meaning even when you are rising to the occasion, standing alone in a given situation or across a lifetime, it isn’t about you, it is about the community.
I wish nothing more for my daughter than to go on and live a life where she rose fully to the occasion that is the life before her. But this isn’t something I can or would make her do. I can however live my life in such a way where I carefully expended my social capital, stood alone in pursuit of mastery of my craft and where and when necessary, took a stand to make a real and lasting difference in the life of others. And perhaps by watching me, she will plot a similar course and in that I will truly rise to the occasion that is my life.
E.M. Burlingame: Founder Emerio Group and the Honos Foundation
Passionately engaged in leveraging diverse experience and skills developed during 30 years in technology, entrepreneurship, startup investing and Special Operations to identify and develop the next generation of startup leaders globally.
This article originally appeared in The Havok Journal on September 13, 2018.