So-and-so is goal oriented. So-and-so is results driven. We have heard those statements, often as compliments. So-and-so is detail oriented. So-and-so focuses on processes. We have also heard of those statements, often as criticism. The general wisdom is that focusing on the detail and the process comes at a cost of losing sight of the goal or not getting to a goal fast enough. Is that true?
I am going to write about The Little Mermaid,
I told my friend on the phone. “I’m talking about the Disney version, not the …,” and before I could finish the sentence with “not the Hans Christian Andersen version,” my friend groaned. Many of the adults I know would groan, roll their eyes or sigh in exasperation at a mere mention of Disney princesses. Don’t you? Be honest. I do. I am a proud uncle who proactively “de-pinks” our nieces and introduces them to books like Jane Yolen’s Not All Princesses Dress in Pink, which ended up sitting on the bookshelf, collecting dust and being ignored by the little girls dressed in pink. I don’t know what it is about the Disney princesses that make some of us squirm. Yet, we all like Disney animations. Admit it, you have your favorites, and so do I. But maybe after hearing Let It Go a hundred times and seeing the princesses in unexpected places, like in the aisles at your grocery store, drugstore, and shopping mall, the magic wears off. While we can debate the strengths and flaws of these princess characters, many actually portray admirable qualities and values. What values do we find within these characters if we see beyond commercialization and let go of our judgment? An event in my professional life gave me a chance to reexamine one of these princesses through one of my favorite songs, “Part of Your World,” from the Disney The Little Mermaid (1989). After reading and rereading the lyrics a few times, I saw a new light in Ariel, the Little Mermaid. I didn’t see her as a princess. I saw her as leadership potential.
It all started with a thick binder that I had to read and lug around on my long subway commute. I was invited to be on the selection committee for the high potential leadership program at a large organization. The program attracted a lot of applicants, as evidenced by the thick binder with more than a few dozens of applications inside. It was our job as the selection committee to read the resumes, essays, and letters of recommendations, score the applications, debate and select those we thought were leadership potential to participate in the program.
The applications came in a wide variety. Many shined with stories of accomplishments, visions and aspirations, and moved me to be their advocate, while others left me unconvinced or even frustrated. What is it that made some applications stronger than others? How would an applicant signal to the decision makers that he or she was a potential leader? In this case, I was a decision maker, so what moved me? I didn’t realize that I had been mulling over these questions for so many days that they had seeped into my brain.
After another morning of reading applications on the subway, I started humming “Part of Your World” in my head. The song stuck, and I decided to look up the lyrics online. Reading a song gave a different perspective from singing it or listening to it. Without the melody, I focused on the words themselves, and that was when I realized that the song was my answer to the questions about leadership potential. In that song, Ariel describes a world beyond and her desire to get there. The words read like a resume and a cover letter. In my mind, really good ones. If she had been in my binder, I would have picked her.
The song opens with Ariel’s description of her treasures, or, if you will, her assets, her human capital, her skills and experience. Even though her human vocabulary is limited, she gives you specific details of what she has to offer, “gadgets,” “gizmos,” “whozits,” “whatzits,” and “thingamabobs.” She also quantifies them like the twenty thingamabobs she has. If you have done recruiting, I’m sure you share my appreciation when reading a resume that gets specific with actions and impacts and does its best to quantify those achievements.
Then, she asks us a rhetorical but leading question:
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?
Wouldn’t you think I am the girl
The girl who has everything?
She makes you think that she has got it all as she asks “how many wonders can one cavern hold?” Then, she reveals her drive as she bursts out,
But who cares? No big deal. I want more.
She proceeds to lay out her vision, what wanting more entails. Her desired goals are specific. She doesn’t tell us that she just wants to get out of the ocean to go somewhere vaguely defined as better or more exciting. Instead, she helps us visualize specifically the end state: where she wants to go and what she will do when she gets there. She wants to be where the people are and wants to see them dancing. Her statement might sound simple to us humans, but for someone who hasn’t met a person or knows what a dance is, this vision is outside the box and yet specific at the same time. For those of us who have written college or graduate school applications or read ones, how many of us have struggled answering essay questions like: Describe your career goals in 500 words. Or, what do you want to get out of this program? Save the world, you say. But how strong is that statement if another applicant says, “I want to save the world, and here is how I envision the new world to look like and how I plan to get there”?
While Ariel’s vision is outside the box, it is grounded on reality. Her exposure to the world above comes from trinkets and objects that her seagull friend has brought her. They make her ask questions and spur her vision. Ariel reminds me of some of the potential leaders that I have encountered in my life. They might be young and inexperienced, but they have been exposed to other leaders, mentors or role models who have given them specific examples of what they want to have or whom they want to be in the future.
While her song is about aspiration, Ariel is humble and demonstrates her ability to self-reflect and identify skill gaps that she has yet to learn to fill. She recognizes her own limitation where she is and the potential of doing more if she has an opportunity to be up on land. She identifies what else she needs to accomplish what she wants to do:
Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far
Legs are required for jumping, dancing
She also recognizes that there are words and concepts she doesn’t know like street and legs. She wants to ask questions, learn and know. Her questions are specific like, “What is a fire and why does it … burn?”
She is saying: if I am given this opportunity, this is what I want to learn and this is what I can do.
Ariel sings this song with a tone of joy and hope. Such a tone draws in listeners. For those of us who know her story, she has just been reprimanded by her father right before she sings this song. While she is frustrated, she only briefly verbalizes her frustration. She does not linger on it, and turns that frustration into her positive driving force. She moves on by saying:
Bright young women sick of swimmin’
Ready to stand
This positive attitude reminds me of a piece of advice that someone shared with me. She said that when you want to do something, do it from a position of assets and not deficits. In other words, do not apply for a new job, a graduate school, or a training program because you are resentful with the status quo and want to get away. Do it because you want it given what you have. That is what Ariel is doing here. She turns her frustration, her knowledge and her desire into a vision with positive forces behind her.
That is how I rediscovered Ariel – the Disney version – in a new light, with newfound respect. If I had magical powers, I would give her legs, send her up to the shore, and even give her money for matches and dance lessons. Even though I don’t have magical powers in the realm of merfolk, I still have non-magical influences in the realm of humans. I can be a strong advocate to those who convince me of their accomplishments, visions and aspirations and help them to a path to realize their dreams, as I did with those strong applicants. And I can also say this: Girls (and boys and adults), wear pink if you want to. What is more important is to show the world your inner Little Mermaid. Paint a vision, be specific, be curious, dream big and be real, start your journey from a place of have and not a place of lack, and chase your dream with joy.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
That is a dreaded question for me, and the older I get, the more dreaded I become. It felt easier, as I recall, to answer the question as a kid. “A doctor,” I would have said in a heartbeat. There was no fear. There were no consequences. It was the answer that came to mind because that was what I wanted to be. It just felt right.
Then, life got complicated. It is easy to blame external factors. My parents and their belief systems, their own experiences, their tendency to be protective, or their well-intended concern that might not have been expressed in a way that supported my best interests. “That’s going to be competitive and difficult.” “You are not going to make as much money as a businessman.” “Smart kids go into accounting or engineering these days.”
Or my teachers and their assessing, evaluating minds. “You are not the top of the class. You need to be smarter to get into a medical program.” “Your math and physics are not good enough for medical schools.” “Are you sure you don’t want to be a scientist, instead? We need more basic research scientists.” “What about becoming an economist? We need more economists to help the country.”
Or my friends, my parents’ friends, acquaintances, or society at large. The questions might have sounded different, but most of them came down to people’s opinions, informed by their own beliefs, values, and experiences. To be fair, it was not all like that. Some did offer hope and validation. “Go and follow your dream,” they said. But for a young person with an innate pragmatic mind and a heart full of dreams, they didn’t help answer questions like, “How am I going to pay bills if I study literature?”
As I said, it is easy to blame external factors. I am not. Those were just the external factors that I faced and came to realize in retrospect. I grew, I changed. I learned more about my own preferences, not only about what I liked, but also what I didn’t like. I liked reading books and learning about literature. I worried about savings. I liked some branches of science, but was not comfortable with others. I no longer wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a biologist, a horticulturist, a diplomat, a chef, a yoga teacher. I knew what I wanted, and I didn’t know what I wanted. All of those ideas, hopes, and dreams happened inside as the external opinions brewed.
Then came my decision to go into the business world and business school. Then came the wisdom (I’m not sure whose) about knowing one’s career goals, one’s career paths, and one’s cohesive story about one’s career. I had one. It was well thought out, and it came from a sincere place in my heart. I didn’t make it up, and yet I knew that compromises were made, and something was missing.
But I had my goals.
Off I went chasing those goals. Things were checked off the list, lessons were learned, connections were made, and a career path was laid. As I crossed a milestone, I felt a sense of accomplishment, and it felt good. But I was not content or happy. The sense of discontent and lack of joy continued to mount, becoming unhealthy, physically and mentally. Challenges and hard-earned milestones do not equate to joy. It feels oft times like a Pyrrhic victory. Something is missing.
What is missing is my answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I don’t know how to answer that question any more. Over the years, my experiences, my hopes, my fears have created a thick wall. I forget what it feels like to be inspired.
A good friend of mine recommended The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. It is a story about a creature waiting to be called upon by a child, so that he could be the child’s friend. That calling never came, and he took action in his own hands and went off to find a friend in an unchartered world (to him, anyway). He was about to give up hope, when a girl found him. They didn’t know what to do with each other initially, but they knew that their encounter felt right. They knew that he was her imaginary friend, when the girl gave him a name, “Beekle.”
Beekle became her inspiration, and she became his. They played together, drew together, created together. He validated her, encouraged her, and empowered her, unconditionally. And she gave him a sense of purpose, that his brave journey to search for a friend, made total sense.
I would like to believe that we all have our own Beekle. Some of us may not have met him. Some of us may have met him and have lost him over time. If we look hard enough, we will find him, and we just need to call out his name.
Why am I so sure? In the last three days alone, examples of people who have found their Beekles have been coming to me, unsolicited. Some of the Beekles are large and life-changing. Some are small and momentary. Beekles can come in all forms. They could be a loved one, a fruit or even a typewriter. What they all have in common, however, is that they inspire.
Before yesterday, Jim Obergefell was not known to many. As of yesterday, his name went down into history. His devotion to his late husband kept him up as he fought for right for marriage for gay people in the US.
Yesterday, my partner, who loves baking and who is not a morning person, got up early in the morning to bake an egg-free cupcake for our beloved niece who is allergic to eggs. He didn’t want her to feel left us as everyone had their cupcakes for desserts at a family gathering later that day.
Also, yesterday, I was at a café named Agora, and it was showcasing photographs by an organization called Micah (“Help Micah Change Sign”) to raise awareness about homelessness. One was a series of three photos of a woman showing up a sign: “I was a lonely drunk housewife.” “I needed a purpose.” “I rediscovered who I am.” She smiled in the last photo. She had found her Beekle.
A few days ago, I read on BBC about Helton Josue Teodoro Muniz from Brazil. He was born with a motor neurone deficiency and only learned to walk as a teenager. Holding a seed in his hand can be difficult to him. Yet his childhood discovery of a fruit propelled him to become a collector of fruit, and he is now an internationally renowned fruit expert and author.
This morning, my partner sent me a YouTube video about Paul Smith, an elderly man from OH, who found a way to get around his disability and expresses himself by using a typewriter to create beautiful arts.
Also this morning, the Free Lance-Star newspaper, a local paper in Fredericksburg, Virginia, celebrated a local author Vincent Annunziato of Stafford, Virginia. Annunziato knew his Beekle was the love of writing, but he gave it up when he moved East to take an IT job and has a responsibility to provide to him family. Despite his life circumstances, he let his Beekle came back to him and found time on his long commute on the commuter train to write. He just published his second book.
Regardless of the time in their life, their circumstances or the time it took, these people found their Beekle. I am determined to find or reconnect with mine, whatever he is and wherever he is now. I know I will find him (or her).
Etched on a coffee table at the café yesterday, the carving read,
“It is never too late to become what you might have been”
~ Mary Ann Evans
I hope Mary Ann Evans is right.