Martin Luther King was arrested 29 times. They were ready for that. In fact, they actually trained in how to cope with violent aggression and how to stay peaceful. In other words, they were prepared and they practiced the skills that they would need to further their cause. And they kept on. Every time they were arrested and then released, they would continue their fight.
The second story I want to share with you is a story from childhood, the story of David and Goliath. Is everyone familiar with that story? Hands up if you’re not familiar with the story of David and Goliath. Great, so you all remember the story of David and Goliath. It’s from the Book of Samuel. And it’s the story about this fierce giant, Goliath, and how David, a small, innocent shepherd boy with a single slingshot was able to topple, to kill this terrifying warrior. And so win the battle for his people against the Philistines.
Now it’s hard to imagine a more intimidating foe or daunting prospect. How in the world did David do that? What was his secret? Was he just lucky, really? With one slingshot? This is the subject of a fantastic book called “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell. And in it, Gladwell seeks to challenge our perception of what makes us strong, what makes us weak. People and things we think would give an advantage, and those things that we think make us disadvantaged.
And what’s wonderful about the David and Goliath story, if you read behind the headlines, is David, that small, weak shepherd boy, he knew exactly what he was doing when he went to face Goliath. He knew that Goliath was this big warrior, that he would be decked out from head to toe in armor.
On the day in question, he carried a spear. Goliath carried a spear, he had a sword, he had a shield. He was there in all his glory. David knew this. He knew that Goliath would be slow because his armor was heavy. He also knew that Goliath was short sighted because Goliath had said, where are you? Where are you? Show yourself to me. Show yourself to me.
The other thing that David knew was that he was an excellent slingshot. He was very good at his skill. This is a skill he used everyday to protect his sheep against predators. He knew that that skill perfected was enough in one shot to topple the giant. That’s what happened.
The third and final story I want to share with you is the story of Victor Frankl. Victor Frankl is a Holocaust survivor. He died a few years ago. But he wrote a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read, and I highly recommend you read it. It tells the story of his experience in concentration camps and his fight for survival.
It’s hard to imagine circumstances that could weigh more heavily against you, the torment, the horror, the misery of being in a concentration camp. How did Victor Frankl and the very few that managed to survive when millions didn’t, how did he do that? What made the difference between those who kept fighting, fighting to stay alive, and those who didn’t make it? And this question, answering this question, is the subject of Frankl’s book. And he came up with one thing.
Despite everything that was taken away, everything physical, the emotional torment, there was one thing he discovered that could not be taken. And that was his attitude, his mindset. He realized the power of his thoughts, thoughts that he could control no matter what happened on the outside. He would always remain in control of those. And that is what he attributes to his and many of the others survival in those awful circumstances.
So those three stories have the following in common. They are all examples of people who faced extraordinary odds, people who wanted to fight the battle. They are stories of people who won against those odds because they focused not on the impossibility of the task, how powerful and overwhelming were the odds against them. They focused on what they could control. Focus your attention on what you can control.
I’ve already explained to you that that was an instrumental factor in my journey from then to now. There’s just one small problem, small blip in that journey. If only I’d remembered that lesson, that lesson that I learned all those years ago when I was a working parent. When I returned to Cleary Gottlieb, which is the law firm I was working in when my first son was born. Dylan was six months old.
And I returned full of enthusiasm, positive, determined to make a success of balancing my career and my new family. Wow, that was. The first year of being a working parent was the hardest year I’ve ever had. I struggled. The demanding hours, the competition, the air of competition, the culture of presenteeism.
That awful feeling is the only non-partner, non-male who was there, who had a child, who had to leave the office and run and be there for her child. That feeling when I got home, despite being exhausted, despite having to log on and keep going with my work and all the pressure I was under at work. The feeling at home and had to learn the ropes coming to grips with being a mother for the first time. And I was doing everything at home.
My husband– who I’m happy to say is much better trained now– at the time, his career, his life remained surprisingly unimpacted by the arrival of our new baby boy. It was the hardest year of my life. I fought very hard, but I struggled.
What was my strategy in those circumstances, in that really hard battle? I had no strategy. I was just too blind to be able to even spot the things I might be able to control, let alone focus my attention on those things.
I went from day to day, my head in a spin, putting out fires. That’s what I did. I had a year of just putting out fires, always exhausted, always stressed, always worried that I’d forgotten something, that I was underperforming in all these different areas.
Is it any wonder that that battle ended in failure? When my second son was born, I walked away from a career I had been leading up to, spent my whole life building, for all the reasons that I hinted at at the beginning of this. It took a lot for me to walk away.