What makes someone successful? Isn't that a loaded question!? If we had a set answer to this question we could create a formula that everyone could follow, right? Unfortunately, no. Success is difficult to define, fleeting, and changing with cultural norms.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of success from a very unpopular perspective. I say unpopular because he debunks the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps American Dream story we love. We want to believe that anyone can achieve anything because it sounds great, but success is way more than an individual outcome. Also, we often learn about historical figures as they relate to their most famous contributions to history. They often enter and exit the stage of history having only done one thing, but in reality they had exciting and fulfilling lives full of mentors and teachers. Case in point: the Wright brothers. In our history books we learn On December 17, 1903, they successfully flew their airplane for the first time. They were two self-taught engineers who became aviation pioneers and changed the world on that December day. It's almost as though they woke up picked up their plane they tinkered with for a while, flew, and that's the end. But there's so much more. That two-sentence summary leaves out the years of struggle and preparation. It leaves out their incredible family and the time they spent studying. The world may have changed on that December day, but their part of the performance was being performed long before the world ever took notice.
Not all of us are called to be major characters in the great story of history. Some of us are cast in supporting roles that make the grand successes possible. In the case of the Wright brothers, they had several amazing people in supporting roles. First, their parents were incredible. Their dad, a minister in the United Brethren Church, taught them to think, debate, and encouraged them to read on a variety of subjects. Their mother, a wagon maker's daughter taught them mechanical skills and building techniques. Their father inspired their imaginations with a toy propeller and the boys' thirst for knowledge was developed by family discussions in the parlor. Hard work and perseverance were a major component of their success as well. They suffered through brutal nights in the Outer Banks and had to puzzle through complicated calculations. After years of struggle they succeeded, but they didn't stop. After December 17, 1903, they continued to study and improve their designs and defend their patents.
Recognizing supporting roles is important because being a secondary character takes humility and a willingness to remain in the shadows. We can't all be great, but we can all help others in their drive to become great. This doesn't mean we get squashed or deserve to be treated with scorn. Mattering to someone or something is a part of a basic human desire that some of us feel so very strongly it hurts. But not all our roles will be recognized. A doctor that saves someone's life may not be known to history at large, but he mattered deeply to that person. Any maybe that person or a decedent of theirs will go on to greatness. Reaching for greatness should never require you pushing others down. Reaching for greatness should always include pulling up those under you and pushing forward those above you.
Recently, I read a book about the periodic table. (#nerdlife) The author describes Dmitri Mendeleev, the father of the periodic table, as a gifted scientist, and explains that without his mother he would be completely unknown. Mendeleev was the youngest of 17 children and at the age of 15, his mother crossed Siberia on horseback to take him to Moscow to get him into the university there. After traveling around 1,200 miles the university said, "No," to accepting young Dmitri. Undeterred., Mrs. Mendeleev told her son, "Get back on the horse!" and they traveled another 400 miles to St. Petersburg where he was finally accepted. She died shortly after he was accepted into the university. Her journey cost her her life, but without her sacrifice, Dmitri Mendeleev would have died in obscurity in eastern Russia. (This makes me feel pathetic when I think about how much I whine about driving Logan around to his activities.)
I want to pull back here and make it clear that I'm not advocating mothers or fathers kill themselves providing wonderful lives for their children. This is far from what we need. Your children need to see you having a fulfilling spiritual, social, and intellectual life. But having a supporting role means that you are willing to push those around you ahead not to leave yourself trampled, but as a way to contribute to the world at large. Teachers get this. This is what they do. They work crazy hard and maybe someday one of the students they influenced will become president, or cure cancer, or become a teacher and continue the circle.
As I close this post, I don't want anyone to feel discouraged about being in the shadows. If you feel God asking you to step toward leadership or do big things, that is wonderful. But true leaders, as exemplified by Jesus Himself, are also willing to serve and remain humble. Do what is right and don't worry about grabbing for glory. Leave that to God.
The Wright brothers are fascinating to study, but their family is equally intriguing. David McCullough's book on them is good, but if you are looking for a wonderful quick read, I would highly recommend The Wright Words by Kirk Haas. Kirk is my favorite presenter at the Henry Ford. (Yes, I am a big enough nerd to have a favorite presenter at a museum.) In his book he tells stories about the Wright family and how the boys became to be the innovators they are remembered as. I may have cried. It is only about 60 pages so it is a quick read. By purchasing and reading you are also supporting a local author. Go Michigan!
"A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one."