Social Distancing

We are trying our best to physically distance ourselves from risks of the coronavirus.  Along with washing hands and not touching your face, this practice seems to make much sense.  Everyone I know seems to be doing these things.  However, the phrase “social distancing” got me thinking.

Most of us have been social distancing for quite some time.  We distance ourselves from poor people, uneducated people, desperate people who seem to threaten us, and people who see crime, and perhaps violence, as their only choice.  We want to avoid them disrupting our lives.  We want to avoid their disrupting all we have worked so hard to achieve.

Do these factors fully differentiate success from failure, or is something else also important?  My early years with a single mother were very poor. Once, as a young boy, I received materials for living room curtains as my birthday present.  I remember being ok with that.  We had no central heat, no hot water, and had to secure drinking water from relatives.  These things didn’t strike me as hardships.

What my mother provided was models of success.  My great-great grandfather, working for J.P. Morgan, was a famous shipbuilder.  My great grandfather was an electrical engineer who, working for Thomas Edison, had electrified the first railroad in the US. These models inspired me.   I later earned my PhD from MIT, despite never having observed such success in my immediate family.

The lesson for me is that where you are is highly influenced by the path that got you there, including the vision that inspired that path.  I could aspire to technological innovations because I knew the stories of family members preceding me.  My mother’s generation, beset by the Great Depression, the 1938 Hurricane, and World War II, could not escape the feeling that “If anything can go wrong, it will.”  But, I could escape this.

Distancing is good for escaping the coronavirus, but it is not a good strategy for avoiding people who can serve as success models.  How do we get millions of young people to see that there are models that can instruct and inspire them?  Many very successful people started out very poor.  They were determined that poverty would not be their future.

Let’s consider some possible role models.  If you aspire to be very successful in business, role models could be Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan, Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan, Thomas J. Watson, Sam Walton, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos.  Pick one and learn how they succeeded.

Maybe you aspire to be a scientist, engineer or inventor.  Then, you might consider as role models Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Margaret Mead, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers or Steve Jobs.  Again, pick one.

Perhaps you aspire to be a political leader.  If so, possible role models are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, or Barack Obama.

Beyond understanding how one or more of these people succeeded, seek mentoring.  My uncle Joe, who owned a small plumbing company, taught me much about business, for example, managing inventory.  My aunt Nancy, a newspaper reporter, taught me to appreciate history.  My aunt Becky and grandmother Marian introduced me to Bridge, Canasta, and Chess, which improved my abilities to visualize, memorize, and do math.

You don’t want to distance yourself from role models and mentors, whether you embrace business, science and technology, or politics.  You want to embrace them. How did they get ahead?  Read their stories or, if possible, ask them.  What were their ingredients of success?  Could the same ingredients work for you?  If they succeeded, why can’t you?

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