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Touchstones: Connection, Reflection and Failure

About every three months, I join a group of colleagues for dinner followed by an all day meeting. Our goal is to share best practices, bond with one another and have some fun. Nothing unusual about that, right? What makes it different is that there is no corporate sponsor. It’s an Ad Hoc group of people who share a profession and a common interest in getting better at what we do. Most of us hop into our car and head to a central location within an area bounded in the north by Toronto, the south by Pittsburgh, the east by Rochester and the west by Indianapolis.

At our last meeting, one of our cohort suggested we try an exercise she thought of as a best practice: tell the story of your life in 5 or 10 minutes. I am a new member of this invitation-only conclave. However, many of my colleagues have been meeting for over 10 or 20 years. What happened next was quite extraordinary.

It was clear that, despite long-time relationships, many knew little of each other’s backgrounds. As I listened, several themes emerged. First, we clearly identify with our affiliations and many of us had some in common. Nearly half had attended Jesuit schools. One, who is Jewish, spent the bulk of his professional career as a professor at a Jesuit college. A quarter of us had served in the US military. All of us had been entrepreneurs. About a third had endeavored to be musicians and two of them had spent much of their careers in radio.

More remarkable was how a word or phrase could convey so much meaning. One of our group described love at first sight when she met her future husband who had “hippy hair.” Another, a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, described himself as a “propeller head.” Our childhoods could be described in a word by telling where we started in life: Harlem, Brooklyn, Chelsea (Boston) or simply “small town.” Each term served as a cultural touchstone.

“Immigrant stories: they’re wonderful!” exclaimed someone about halfway through the exercise. And, indeed, about half our group grew up with a connection to our ethnic background – Italian, Jewish or Indian. The challenges experienced by our immigrant parents or grandparents still ring true today.

What stood out most for me was that each of us had endured some failure. While touching on the highlights of our careers, each of us had been fired, taken a business into bankruptcy or been without income for an extended period. We spoke of the stress on our families while bringing up kids and sending them off to college.

It’s easy to trumpet one’s successes. More challenging is to be vulnerable enough to talk about one’s failures. In a room where relationships are defined by trust and truth, it’s a bit easier. In that setting, each of us smiled or perhaps smirked when we talked about those experiences. Perhaps we are prouder of our failures because they made us stronger, more resilient. Each failure marked a transition to something new, something better in some way. It’s our failures more than our successes that form our character. A quote attributed to Confucius goes like this: “our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.”


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