I am both drawn to and repulsed by most things labeled “self help”, but I picked up this book after seeing a dozen recommendations from readers I follow on Twitter who claimed that it was funny in the best ways. I’m glad I did because it went one better; this slim little book that was expanded from the original five-item speech delivers the best kind of advice: that which in telling a story, makes a connection and inspires the recipient to think.
Charles Wheelan uses plain, colloquial English to make his points. He is frank and direct without reading like a manual, but does not confuse weighty words with depth or wisdom. Instead, he speaks simply about the choices he made, the situations he landed himself in, the opportunities that presented themselves to him, the reactions of those around him to the way he lived his life, and how he responded to those reactions.
Unlike most commencement speeches*, there is much in this book that will be useful to a 16 or 22 year-old kid, but there are bits that will also resonate with those of us who should be older, or wiser. I imagine that the Number 7-1/2, “Your Parents Don’t Want What is Best for You” is a fantastic bit of parenting advice. But there was one bit in particular that resonated with me and seems timelessly, agelessly vital.
“Don’t try to be great. Just be solid.”
That simple advice had a profound effect. Because I knew I could be solid. That was within my control. I could just talk about what I knew. I could answer questions candidly. I could have a fun and interesting conversation with other guests. I might have some funny quips; I might not. Phil’s advice was liberating because it removed the pressure to deliver what I wasn’t certain I could deliver. And it made me better at doing what I knew I could.
In the first fourteen of the last fifteen years, there were few days — few hours or moments, even — when I paused in my headlong rush to be the absolute best at everything I attempted. And yet, on those days when I took that breath and stepped back to consider if I was enjoying the work at which I tried so hard to excel, there were invariably moments when I did a perfectly adequate, respectable job.
In the last year, I’ve come to recognize that adequate, respectable, solid work is pretty damn good, and worth being proud of. That doesn’t mean I don’t aim to excel at times – I most assuredly do, with an occasionally vicious competitive streak. But I’m no longer poised to psyche myself out with a misplaced sense of importance. There are many, many days when I’m satisfied with “solid.”
I wish I had read this story — or heard it read or told to me — on the day in March of 2001 when I sat in my mentor’s office in tears, terrified that my worth as a human being would equal no more than the sum of my many-but-seemingly-inadequate accomplishments.
And yet, there are some lessons that need to be learned the hard way in order to stick. I might not be as successful as I am today if I’d translated “solid” into “slacker” at 21. That success has put me in a position to revel in the happiness and joy I’m surrounding myself with now, so I won’t complain. At all.
* The one absolute exception to this statement is Paul Hawken’s commencement address to the University of Portland’s class of 2009, an excerpt of which hangs above my desk at work.