Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Steady Course

In turbulent, dangerous times he [John Adams] had held to a remarkably steady course. He had shown that a strong defense and a desire for peace were not mutually exclusive, but compatible and greatly in the national interest. The new navy was an outstanding achievement...In his four years as President, there had been no scandal or corruption...he had managed nonetheless to cope with a divided country and a divided party, and in the end achieved a rare level of statesmanship. To his everlasting credit, at the risk of his career, reputation, and his hold on the presidency, he chose to not go to war, when that would have been highly popular and politically advantageous in the short run.
David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 566.
A steady course. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Adams was his ability to maintain that steady course despite the odds against it. In an era of strong leaders each trying to have their pull and control - Adams continued the path he believed to be right. It cost him friendships, position, and leadership clout in the young United States. However, in the end that commitment to hold steady proved to be the most honorable course of action.

I think this is the most difficult choice we must make as people. We must choose to hold strong to a path and not sway to the right or left. Often when faced with difficulty or opportunity, the tendency is move off one's position. In a desire to not seem stubborn, we often cave in on the values and beliefs we hold to be critical. In reality our problem is that of weakness. Whether a desire to please others or a push for more influence or even the want to stay in power - we sacrifice our honor by losing course. We may gain temporarily in this, but in the end have we lost our souls when we allow ourselves off the path? What sacrifices are not worth it to hold to the steady course? In other words, what temporary benefits are you willing to accept at the cost of your beliefs & honor? Adams sacrificed himself & his standing but in the end his virtue, integrity, and beliefs remained intact.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Extravagant (Un)popularity

"As Adams himself observed, he was President by three votes. Yet he appears to have taken it in stride. 'I am not ashamed,' he told Nabby, who had written to express her concern. 'If the way to do good to my country were to render myself popular, I could easily do it. But extravagant popularity is not the road to public advantage.'"
David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 471.
Outside of his personal integrity & honesty, if there is one admirable trait that seems to stick out in the life of John Adams its his ability to make decisions, lead, and preside in the positions he laid claim to without the incessant need to be popular or appease people. His Presidency would be marked by a fierce and ugly battle between the Federalists and Republicans often with Adams taking personal shots on both sides. Yet, in the midst of this turnmoil he did a remarkable job at remaining true to his own personal (if somewhat stubborn) beliefs instead of catering to one side. He might not have been the most popular but his tenacity to not be bought remains praiseworthy to this day.

What decisions do we fail to make because we do not adhere to the Adams Principle of not being prey to popularity? Another way of looking at it is - do we truly see popularity as a sign that the public is at an advantage? What might prove most popular with people could easily be the things that are to their greatest disadvantage. The truth in it all is that we must constantly seek to make the right decisions no matter how unpopular that might make us. Fame might win elections - but it certainly doesn't guarantee quality leadership.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Thanks Joe

Do you hear that big sigh of relief? That's the state of Minnesota & Twins fans everywhere breathing again. Good to have our boy Joe re-up with the Twins. We love our hometown boys - and its nice to actually hold onto one of the best - if not the best in the game of baseball.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


In effect, the Americans had signed a separate peace with the British. They had acted in direct violation of both the French-American alliance and their specific instructions from Congress to abide by the advice of the French foreign minister. To Adams there was no conflict in what they had done. The decision to break with the orders from Congress, and thus break faith with the French, had been clear-cut, the only honorable course. Congress had left them no choice. Congress had "prostituted" its own honor by surrendering its sovereignty to the French Foreign Minister. "It is glory to have broken such infamous orders," Adams wrote in his diary. "Infamous I say, for so they will be to all posterity."
David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 283.
John Adams was a stubborn man. So stubborn to his own beliefs, liberty, and focus on America that he would not play lacquey to a group of men with their own agenda. He was certainly vilified for his stance(s) and history has not always remembered him in the fondest of light. However, I am continously impressed as I read about the account of his dealings with the French during the American Revolution. The French (along with Ben Franklin) wanted independence as long as it was convenient for them. Therefore, all of their "help" was given or held back based completely on their own selfish desires. Adams had the guts to stand up against that - and held his ground even in the face of being disapproved & ridiculed.

Sometimes disobedience is the the absolute right move to make. The difficulty becomes deciding when one must obey & when one must forge their own path. In choosing to disregard orders, a person will put themselves in the line of fire & have to explain their actions. Even in doing so, a person can face punishment and the smearing of their character. However, time has a way of bringing honor to one's choice if it was made correctly. Congress was weak - Adams was right. His stubborn patriotism may not have been popular with everyone, but it was what his country needed. What decisions are you being asked to make today that you believe are wrong? The key is being able to defend your actions. Disobedience will always cost you - and you must be able to give an answer for the choices that you make. Be careful in choosing to disobey - because the cost is high if you are in the wrong.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Guilt of Silence

"Though no one transcribed the speech, Dickinson's [John Dickinson] extensive notes would survive. He knew how unpopular he had become, Dickinson began. He knew that by standing firm, as a matter of principle, he was almost certainly ending his career. 'My conduct this day, I expect, will give the finishing blow to my once great...and now too diminished popularity...But thinking as I do on the subject of debate, silence would be guilt.'"
David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 126.
John Dickinson chose the unpopular route in the Continental Congressional debate. With strong support from nearly everyone - including the people they represented - the delegates were pushing full steam towards declaring their independence. Dickinson firmly believed that they should take a different route - and stood by his conviction. In the face of what appeared to be certain political death, he chose to speak for what he believed in. Silence, or not speaking up on his beliefs, was guilt. The death of his career was worth the ability to speak his mind.

This is a difficult principle to learn. How often do we choose to remain silent and not express our will or beliefs simply to save face? How firm are we in our beliefs...willing to risk our jobs, careers, and public standing? Despite the unpopularity of his stance, Dickinson was well remembered for taking it and speaking well on what he believed in. The fallout would have been far worse had he simply stayed silent. As we proceed forward we must stand firmly in our convictions and trust that even if history proves us wrong - we will at least avoid the guilt of not speaking up at all.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

All the Difference

...When Billy Tudor was admitted to the bar three years later, Adams took the time to write to Tudor's wealthy father to praise the young man for his clear head and honest heart, but also to prod the father into giving his son some help getting started in his practice. Adams had seen too often the ill effect of fathers who ignored their sons when a little help could have made all the difference.
David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 63.
As I transition from studying Thomas Edison to studying John Adams, one of the first traits that pops out to me is the relationship both men had with their families. Edison always seemed too busy for his family, whereas Adams seemed dedicated and infatuated with his. Edison's family had to trust & assume he loved them - Adams' family knew he did. Both of them were involved in time consuming professions (invention/business v. law/politics) and both had to travel. Yet it seemed that Edison was more concerned with how many hours he worked while Adams took the time to write letters and connect with his family. Both men were seen as a success in their lives - yet already I feel more compassion & connection with Adams.

"A little help could have made all the difference." Kids need their dad. Wives need their husband. Families need the leadership of a man. At some point, I must judge a person's contribution not on how much they poured themselves into their work & industry - but how much they cared for those most dependent upon them. As I jump into McCullough's excellent piece on Adams, I am constantly refreshed by a man who loved what he did less than he loved his family. In the end, character matters as much as contribution; and a large part of the evaluation of character comes in the context one's family life.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Power of Fame

During the recent vacation, the two men [Henry Ford & Thomas Edison] happened to talk about the harmful effects of cigarette smoking. Ford recalled Edison's remark that the damage it caused was incurable. Would Edison be kind enough to write a letter that explained the nautre of the harm and why it was irreversible? With Edison's permission, Ford planned to used the letter in his antismoking campaign among workers. In asking Edison to serve as a quotable authority on the subject, Ford reveals his understanding of how celebrity - his, Edison's, anybody's - confers, in the eyes of the not-famous, expertise on all manner of subjects. Edison could speak about the deleterious effects of smoking not because of a background in respiratory disease or epidemiology, but because he was Edison.
Randall Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park (New York: Crown Publishers, 2007), 239.
What is it about the famous that entices so many of us regular people? Why do we follow their lives, study their habits, get offended by their downfalls, and trust their opinions? What makes them so important that we would alter ourselves based upon what we learn from them? Thomas Edison was one of the first modern-age celebrities, and because of this, he was able to give opinions and ideas that the public latched onto simply because they came from Edison. His name literally carried him for most of his life after his big inventions gave way to his poor business decisions. Despite heading nowhere - his name & fame kept him on top of the world. People did not care if he kept making poor choices, they were simply attached to the idea of Edison himself.

What if instead of being infatuated with the 'rich & famous' - we simply learned a lesson about influence and its power? What could I do with the influence I currently have in my life? What battles could I fight, what decisions could I make, and what fears could I cast aside if I simply used my influence? What if the best thing I have to offer is simply my name? I am not trying to imply that I am someone famous or worthy of status...but the idea remains that in my circle of influence, my name might be my most powerful weapon. The key then becomes using it for the betterment of those around me.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Weight of Expectation

"The grander the scale of Edison's ambitions, and the greater the skepticism that he had had to overcome, the happier he had been. Once the electric light had been introduced, however, he found himself in a difficult position. How could he possibly sustain the pace of accomplishments of the previous five years? He could not shrug off the expectation that the Wizard of Menlo Park could accomplish anything. He was thirty-five years old, and the rest of his long life was devoted to attempts to make the inspiration that brought the phonograph and the electric life return."
Randall Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park (New York: Crown Publishers, 2007), 139.
I wonder if Michael Phelps feels like Thomas Edison did. How does Phelps repeat what he did in China two years ago? 8 gold medals. I wonder if he thinks about his performance in a similar fashion to Edison's thoughts about life after the phonograph & electric light. London might bring home more medals - but there is no way he can conjure up what he did @ Beijing. Edison went on to do more after the age of 35, but none of it ever compared to the magnitude of those moments after the electric light.
Where does that leave the rest of us? We might never attain the fame or prestige that Edison or Phelps have - but we certainly each have goals and dreams. When we accomplish those dreams, where do we go after that? All my life I have wanted to "fill in the blank"...when that happens, what's next? I think the answer lies in what Mr. Stross called "attempts to make the inspiration return." We keep trying. We keep pushing. We keep innovating. We keep dreaming. Once the hill has been conquered - find a new hill to climb. The glory might never equal that of your first accomplished dream - but it is the continued push forward that inspires as much as the original accomplishments. Never let fear of increased expectation keep you from moving forward.