Originally Published in Fair Value
The coins we carry in our pockets are in many ways remarkable. Their heritage, as tokens of nominal value, stretches back to the very origins of trade. From the first crudely minted discs to today’s complex designs, coins have enabled more than mere exchange: they facilitate our movement, support complex transactions, and are founded on communal trust. In a sense, they are a physical embodiment of millennia of human industry and invention—the ultimate everyday symbol of our collective achievements.
And yet, how often do we stop to examine them? Unless you’re a numismatist like me, I suspect you seldom give them much thought. This is a pity, for their designs alone can remind us of what we owe to others and the past. On every US coin, for example, is minted the motto, e pluribus unum (Out of Many, One), which refers to the union of states and the idea that we are more than the sum of our parts.
In writing the essays in this book, I’ve come to reflect on my personal journey, not only as a leader in business but, more broadly, as a father, statistician, and sports fan. No matter how we define ourselves or measure our success, I’m more conscious than ever that unless we live like Robinson Crusoe, we must all give thanks and pay tribute to others. Those of us who’ve risen to senior positions have an even greater obligation to do so.
Working and Collaborating with Others Matters
Malcolm Gladwell, in his debut book, The Tipping Point, wrote of the importance of Mavens-those persons whose knowledge and wisdom plays a vital role in the adoption of popular trends. Often, in organizations and social movements, we can trace seminal decisions back to their influence. At a personal level, too, most of us can name individuals to whom-either directly or by way of a connected thread— we can link the progress and direction of our lives.
Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to work at a financial organization for a leader who combined the expectations of hard work and analysis with a softer side that took time to encourage a young man to make the most of his talents. It was through him that I first learned the value of communicating with care and the power of modesty as a means to motivate. He showed me, too-and with great patience on his part-that mistakes are part of our progress.
Firmness of Mind Matters, but so does Action
Later, on my first appointment as a CEO, I was blessed with a chairman who taught me much about the need for the firmness of mind. Leadership—and indeed many of the big decisions in our lives can be beset by doubtful voices, which, if we allow them to become too loud, result only in mixed messages and vacillation. It was through him that I learned to marry an openness to new ideas with a necessary clarity of purpose and direction. As we’ve seen, Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, talked of something similar: when faced with conflicting options, he said we must act on the best available information and then hold to our decision unless or until there is clear evidence to the contrary.
The reference to Russell illustrates that great minds have never been more available to us. Bookshops and libraries are a wellspring of wisdom-so to the internet if we use it with care. In this respect, some of my mentors are people I’ve never met-and, yet through their works, I’m constantly learning, continually challenged, and forever curious. It has long struck me as a sadness that so many college graduates give up their studies to begin their careers. That’s not to say we should all be academics in our spare time, but maintaining that essential curiosity feeds and pays tribute to the wonderful gift that is our collective understanding.
Mentorship and Positive Role Models Matter
I learned this from my father, a quintessential polymath and my greatest mentor and friend in life; the debt I owe to him and his gentle influence cannot be overstated. Of course, when I say debt, I really mean gratitude, for, like all the best mentors, he would not wish for payment. This reminds me of a former colleague who had an unrelenting belief in our duty to make better decisions, always seeking to test and improve for the benefit of all. He was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met and yet, far from displaying the hubris of certainty, he tenaciously challenged the status quo, blending a scientific mindset with a kindness and warmth that spoke to and quietly enhanced—my personal values.
And isn’t this what great mentors do?
Epiphanies Happen but Not All the Time
Very few of us experience a “Road to Damascus” moment that changes our outlook overnight. Indeed, my core beliefs in liberalism, meritocracy, and a duty of care to those less fortunate have not radically changed since my college days. But by learning from the perspectives and wisdom of others around me, those convictions have been enriched and refined. I hope this never ceases; I hope, too-as, they would remind me—that I remain open to the evangelism of a sort, for there is merit in radical thinking if we are to make step changes. Liberté, égalité, fraternité the motto of the French Revolution (and on the reverse of its Euro coins)-is a useful reminder that the values we hold most dear were once heretical thoughts.
But whether our knowledge is founded on education or epiphany makes little difference to our dues. Science and mathematics are a ten-thousand-year endeavor; democracy-and much of our philosophy-comes from ancient Greece; the very languages we use to communicate are founded on social constructs. Similarly, today, our industries, our health services, our transportation careers, and the opportunities which come with them are built on the efforts of our forebears and contemporaries.
In writing these essays, I’m clearer than ever that the idea of the self-made person is contradictory to an interdependent, multicultural, increasingly global world. We are, all of us, carried on the shoulders of giants. Even a genius like Leonardo da Vinci served as an apprentice; those of us less gifted are-in a sense-bound to a lifetime of learning from others. We should see that as joy-not a trial, as a credit, not a debit—in the balance sheet of life. Or perhaps, as two sides of the same coin-the many and the one, each dependent on the other.