by The Inmate
. . . I am inclined to think that the final judgment of any particular type of culture is what type of men and women it turns out.
—Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
I am a weak person. I admit this shamefully. For some years now I have been looking for someone of strength whose life I could emulate or use as a source of inspiration for my own. I considered Jesus, Ghandi and Mother Teresa until their own weaknesses became apparent to me. Later, more obvious people of power intrigued me: Hitler, Chairman Mao, Alexander the Great and any of the Caesars. Of late I have become enamored with the likes of Rockefeller, Gates and Ford, but even these individuals ceased to measure up to the ideal I wanted to find.
My search, however, has come to an end in the person of Karen Stephenson owner of Netform International, Inc., a consulting company, an expensive consulting company based in New York. Netform’s clients include IBM, Time/AOL/Warner, Hewlett-Packard, the CIA and the Los Angeles Police Department. How does one become a high-powered consultant? Karen revealed her secret in a L.A. Times article by Reed Johnson.
Karen is a strong person something she acknowledges almost with some resentment. “Not a lot of people are strong,” she laments. “I’m strong. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so strong. It’d be nice to kick back once in a while.” It is probably true that I spend far too much time kicking back and it is because of people like me that Karen must shoulder most of the burden that we weaklings are too weak to shoulder ourselves. She must work long hours because people like me do not, but I want to change and Karen offers hope: priorities.
Maria Leo, a vice president of Human Resources at Merrill Lynch, says that Karen “is so broad and so deep.” How did Karen achieve such heights? Well, here it is. She told her husband, her former husband, this aphorism for the ages (or least for corporate success): “My work is first, my child is second and you are third.” There it is. Beautiful in its simplicity and yet are not all great truths essentially simple? Who could not understand this wisdom that descends down, down, down, so, so, so incredibly deep?
I took this new philosophy and attempted to incorporate it into my life. Last week I sat my son down and said this to him: “Listen here, little buddy. You’ve been very selfish lately, expecting me to teach you things, take you to the zoo and the park, listen to your babblings, read you books, throw you the ball, toss you the frisbee, take days off work for your birthday or stay with you when you’re sick, fix you meals and even wrestle on the bed. This has got to stop, buddy. I have needs too. You must start being a responsible adult–just like I’m going to be. Beginning next week work is the most important thing in my life. I won’t be getting home in time to do these things with you so you better just suck it up and learn to take care of yourself.” Toward the end of my speech, I had written it out and practiced it in front of a mirror before attempting it in front of my son, I was pacing and had really worked myself into a fervor. Then he started crying. He’s four. Well, being the weak person that I am I folded immediately. I apologized profusely, hugged him (another sign of weakness) and took him out for ice cream when, admittedly, I could have been working, maybe even getting in some overtime.
I also tried to explain my new philosophy to my wife. I began by telling her she was number three on my list of priorities. “Well,” she said wryly, “three’s not bad, depending on what one and two are.” I told her that two was our son. “Okay,” she said, “I can handle that. What’s number one?” Before I answered I tried to envision her reaction to the news that my job was now going to be the number one priority in my life. I balked. Total fear, I admit it. “Never mind,” I said. “It was just a bad joke. I can’t remember the punch line.” “Make sure you don’t,” she replied.
I need help, I realize, but I’m so weak I will never go to get it on my own. I’m addicted. I like being with my son; I like being with my wife. I don’t want to stop. It’s an obsession; it’s a disease. Work, for me, is only a necessity. Many, many things take precedence over it. But I want to change. I want to be strong–as strong as Karen. I know there are a lot of other weak-minded people out there like myself. Maybe if we form support groups we can encourage one another to get our priorities right. Maybe we can change. Maybe we will change.
Then again, maybe not.
- Yutang, Lin, The Importance of Living, Quill, William Morrow, New York, 1998(first published in 1937), pg. 87.
- Johnson, Reed, “Unraveling Workplace Intrigue,” The Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2001 in the “Southern California Living” section, pp. E1, E4