Mark Twain, George Washington, and Stephen Sondheim understood
“All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward.” ― Ellen Glasgow
I’m going to warn you right now, at the beginning of today’s essay, that I’m going to grow your inbox. There are two newsletters I’ll recommend today.
But that’s not the kind of growing pain I want to talk with you about.
Did you ever have growing pains as a kid? Joints sore, tired all the time, constant moodiness. It’s inconvenient, right?
That may be so, but it’s also a part of life—part of growing up.
Is there any kind of growth that comes without pain?
Some people go through life with nothing but success, buffeted not by failures, setbacks, or traumas, but buoyed by an unrealistic assessment of their abilities and the good fortune to have been born at the right time, in the right place, or of the right class.
I would argue that their development—while a progression of sorts—isn’t growth at all. Growth ought to require self-realization and work to achieve.
“To inherit property is not to be born,—is to be still-born rather.” ― Henry David Thoreau, 1853
Eventually the Twain Shall Meet
I’m reminded of the apocryphal story attributed to Mark Twain (not until five years after his death, mind you) in which he is supposed to have said,
“When I was 14 years old, my father was the most ignorant man I knew. By the time I turned 21, I was astounded at how much he learned in seven years.”
For anyone who’s had teenagers, this rings true. Parents certainly do grow as a result of having children, but we all know how teenagers think they have all the answers.
What strikes me about the Twain story is the implication of what must have been going on in the relationship: we can imagine arguments, tense moments, and utter frustration between father and son over the course of years. Lots of pain.
Ultimately it led to a resolution—growth happened. But not without the struggle to get there.
Father Doesn’t Always Know Best
I mentioned two newsletter recommendations. The first is Laura Gassner Otting’s Hello Truesday newsletter. Laura has the ability to pick up on moments in her life, whether from last week or years before, and pluck lessons for anyone who wants to grow.
And if you want a book filled with inspiration about the joys and pains of growth, you must check out her new book Wonderhell.
Laura was the first guest on the Timeless Leadership podcast, by the way:
In one newsletter, Laura shared a poignant moment with her father. Laura initially intended to go to law school—a direction approved by her family—but didn’t follow that plan after college. And it sounds like there was a good deal of friction regarding that decision over the years.
But recently, she had an experience that turned the Mark Twain story on its head. She writes of an exchange with her dad:
“If I had stuck to my plan for me from when I was a high school freshman, I’d be miserable right now.”
“That’s because it wasn’t your plan for you, it was our plan for you.”
Laura’s own journey allowed her to realize that a decision she made as a young woman was tempered with wisdom; and her father grew to understand that his daughter deserved to make her own choices in life.
There was undoubtedly pain in such a journey, for everyone involved. But it resulted in growth.
Our Uneducated President
Abraham Lincoln gets all the attention as a self-educated man, a backwoods youth who had little schooling and went to great lengths to borrow books and read them. But George Washington was another U.S. president who had very little education.
He took great pains to ensure his growth and endured plenty of pain as in a sense of insecurity that plagued him throughout his life, even after his presidency.
Washington was self-conscious of his relative illiteracy, particularly in comparison to other founding fathers, who were all educated in the classical tradition: Latin, Greek, and French from universities. He was provincial and received only a limited education before his father’s death.
It didn’t help that John Adams, who could be something of a snob, disparaged him as “too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation.” But Washington “worked doubly hard to rectify perceived failings.”1
But Washington was ambitious and earnest, and he appreciated practical wisdom over intellectualism. He applied the multiple lessons he gleaned and became one of our nation’s most respected leaders.
Wednesday in the Inbox with Stephen
The other newsletter I received this week is David Berkowitz’s Serial Marketer. It’s chock full of material for anyone in the world of marketing, and David’s essays are always thoughtful.
His most recent entry contained a tribute to Stephen Sondheim, widely recognized as a Broadway genius. But his success didn’t come without hard work and growth along the way. And he poured his own success back into those whom he could help.
It made me think about growth as a transformational journey—one that I think is poignantly reflected in Sondheim’s song “Being Alive” from Company.
The musical involves Robert, a single man unable to commit fully to a steady relationship — let alone marriage — five married couples who are his best friends, and his three girlfriends. Witnessing the pains of dedicated relationships, Robert is cynical about marriage.
But as we reach “Being Alive,” the penultimate song in the musical, we witness Robert’s growing realization that marriage, warts and all, is something to admire and aspire to.
The song opens with Robert mocking the negatives he perceives in married life:
“Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair
And ruin your sleep”
But the observations he’s made throughout the musical and the exhortations of his friends culminate in the middle of the song, and Robert turns the lyrics around, instead using them as a plea of sorts:
“Somebody hold me too close
Somebody hurt me too deep
Somebody sit in my chair
And ruin my sleep
And make me aware
Of being alive
Growth is hard. It takes work. It requires resilience.
And such a journey awakens something in us—an awareness of sorts. It allows us to know ourselves better and to become more understanding of others.
Growth inevitably leads to empathy. And empathy is the secret sauce of leaders.
It may hurt to get there, but trust me—it’s worth it.
“Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1911
How did Europe become so rich? Its success “was not the result of any inherent superiority of European (much less Christian) culture. It was rather what is known as a classical emergent property, a complex and unintended outcome of simpler interactions on the whole. The modern European economic miracle was the result of contingent institutional outcomes. It was neither designed nor planned. But it happened, and once it began, it generated a self-reinforcing dynamic of economic progress that made knowledge-driven growth both possible and sustainable.” (Aeon)
A winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Paul Krugman wrote in 1998, “The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law’—which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants—becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.” (Lapham’s Quarterly)
With the growth of web3 (representing cryptocurrency, NFTs, blockchain, the metaverse, etc.), it’s interesting to look back at some facts and figures about Second Life circa 2009. How far we’ve come, yet how much remains similar. Have we really grown? (Lapham’s Quarterly)
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise ― with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.” ― Abraham Lincoln, 1862
This is a story of negative growth: this week, investors injected $750 million into Better, a startup backed by SoftBank. And yesterday, 900 of their employees ― ten percent of its workforce ― were terminated via a three-minute video call. Immediately after the video ended, “the employees’ computers automatically shut down, multiple sources said. Staffers who hadn’t been able to attend the last-minute conference were left scrambling to figure out why their devices had stopped working. Other employees were on vacation and didn’t know they were out of jobs.” (The Daily Beast)
It’s okay to say you don’t know. Even Steve Jobs admitted he didn’t know everything.
When it comes to marketing, we tend to focus too little of our attention on existing customers, instead wanting to apply growth marketing tactics. “While your promotional team is out there making noise to get you new customers, you’d be much better off turning your existing customers into repeat customers and ambassadors.” (Seth’s Blog)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.” — Clifton Fadiman
🎧 In the latest episode of Stay Tuned with Preet, Scott Galloway joined Preet to talk about cartel-like behavior ruining higher education. But the first 15 minutes of the podcast cover things Galloway learned as he grew: confidence, the importance of showing affection to our children, and the value of time together. Well worth a listen.
📚 It may seem that it flies in the face of our ever-growing digital world, but Daniel Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter examines growing evidence that people are newly recognizing certain strengths of analog — often learned because digital is dominating our lives. In our digital age, analog can be rejuvenating.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.