We all want to be good at what we do, whether it is our jobs, our hobbies, the sports we play. And if asked, each of us could put together a wish list of things we would love to learn, improve or even master. But the gap between wishing and doing is the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip of achievement. It is why we do not all have stellar careers, speak multiple languages, play Beethoven and build miniature furniture in our spare time.
Why don’t we all excel at everything we fancy? Is it simply a function of giftedness, or is great achievement the offspring of such variables as motivation, passion, determination, commitment, and the willingness to pay the price of excellence? And are we born with these qualities or are they thrust upon us?
Motivation is a complex issue with a whole host of theories on the various intrinsic and extrinsic forces at play. While some of us seem to be born with a fire that burns fiercely inside others need that fire to be lit, stoked and constantly attended if it is to burn at all. This past week I heard several people speak of the importance of being ‘pushed’ to excel. First, I interviewed an individual who lamented his lack of an undergraduate degree. After explaining how life had intervened with his academic pursuits, he noted, “to this day, I also wish my parents had pushed me harder to stay in school”. Two days later I attended a meeting where an investor framed his need for a new CEO by growling, “This place has become a real country club. It needs someone who can give everyone a collective kick in the ass to start performing. We lack motivation”. Finally, at my son’s hockey game I overhead a parent rationalizing his boorish haranguing of his child and coaches by saying, “The boy needs to be pushed, and pushed hard. It is for his own good”.
Motivation always comes up when discussions turn to the very successful. What drives these people to such heights, who influenced and encouraged them? Is it the love of a nurturing father that Wayne Gretzky credits for guiding the development of his hockey career or the trauma and anger of loss that Ted Rogers spoke of when discussing the death of his beloved entrepreneurial father when he was a young child? Is pushing more effective than pulling or does it always depend on the individual?
Before too many of you start voting for the pushing option, consider the story of accomplished Chinese pianist Lang Lang. In his autobiography Journey of a Thousand Miles, Mr. Lang speaks at length of the role played by his father who quit his job as a policeman to devote himself to developing his son’s musical talents. Mr. Lang’s father did not exactly cuddle or pull his son along the path of excellence. Instead, he pushed his son to excellence with a ferocity that was at times frightening, if not outright abusive. One unforgettable scene describes the father’s reaction to Lang Lang’s rejection by a coveted music teacher:
“You cannot go back to Shenyang in shame” he cried out. “Everyone will know you were not admitted to the conservatory! Everyone will know that this teacher has fired you! Dying is the only way out”. I started backing away from my father. His screaming only got louder, more hysterical. “I gave up my job for you! I gave up my life! Your mother works and starves for you, everyone depends on you, and you’re late, you’re fired by this teacher, you’re not practicing and you don’t do what I tell you to. There is no reason for you to live. Only death will solve this problem. Die now rather than live in shame. It will be better for both of us. First you die, then I die”.
For the first time in my life, I felt a deep hatred for my father. I began cursing him.
“Take these pills!” he said, handing me a bottle of pills I learned were strong antibiotics. “Swallow all thirty pills right now. Everything will be over and you will be dead”
I ran onto the balcony to get away from him
“If you won’t take the pills”, he screamed, “Then jump! Jump off right now! Jump off and die!”
Young Mr. Lang clearly did not jump. Instead, he went on to become one of the great pianists of his generation. And though his autobiography does not refer to ongoing nightmares, facial tics or other emotional scars of his adolescence, one can’t help but think of Michael Jackson and how his past eventually became entangled with his present.
Motivation comes in many individualistic flavors and is but one ingredient in the recipe of excellence and achievement. And before you start wishing you were pushed harder, or think you know what your child or staff needs, think carefully of the Lang Langs of the world, and then think again.
About the Author
Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.