Thursday, March 03, 2005

Why Aren’t You a Winner?

Steve, an entrepreneur friend of mine in Jerusalem, met recently with an Israeli venture capitalist concerning funding for Steve’s new company. The two discussed the market, the company’s technology and promise.

Eventually, they got down to Steve’s work history which included several startups that had trudged along but never really hit the big time.

The venture capitalist then looked Steve in the eye and asked: “So how come you’ve never been a winner?”

Steve was momentarily stunned but came up with what he felt was the right diplomatic and politically correct response. Afterwards, though, he confided in me at a bar mitzvah we both attended.

“What does that mean, not a winner?” Steve asked feeling both indignant and a bit bewildered. “And what right does he have to sum up my life on his own techno-financial terms? I’m not living on the street, am I? I’ve raised a family. In Jerusalem, no less.”

Steve had run head on into a mindset that we too often buy into.

How many times do we allow external forces – with or without our permission – to define our intrinsic value or our success in society...not on our terms but on theirs?

If you watch enough TV or go to the movies, how do walk out feeling about yourself? Are you rich enough? Thin enough? In love enough? It’s pretty hard to score when the odds are so stacked against you.

While I was having my conversation with Steve, another friend of mine, Josh, was making a pilot trip to Israel. He hadn’t visited in 20 years and it was his burning desire to be here, not in California where he’d raised a family and built a medical practice.

What had kept him?

Josh was dealing a different sort of external definition on what constituted success.

“The Rabbis in our community pretty much forbid anyone to move to Israel if they’ve got kids between the ages of five and 18,” Josh explained over zucchini and carrot pasta one night during his trip.

I was flabbergasted. “You’re kidding, right?” I said, but I could tell he wasn’t.

“They say coming here can be so traumatic that you’re kids will go off the religious path for sure,” Josh said.

Now, in Josh’s community, statements from Rabbis he relied on constituted more of a binding ruling than mere opinion. His even being here in Israel, checking out school and work options, was an act of rebellion in its own quiet way.

Whether Josh’s Rabbis were right or not – aliyah counselor Howie Kahn agrees with them in this article, although I still believe that a kid who’s going to go off the path will do that wherever he or she is in the world – Josh and Steve were both forced to contend with how other people view their lives.

I’ve been thinking about Josh and Steve a lot as I’ve been taking a meditation class for the last couple of months. I’ve dabbled with meditation for years. But it turns out I got it all wrong.

I always thought that meditation was about emptying your mind of all thoughts. Focusing on your breath and being peaceful and pure. But as one meditation practitioner quipped, “that’s just being dull.”

Meditation, rather, is about being mindful, and to a large extent paying attention to and identifying external stimuli, then simply noticing them for what they are – something outside of you.

And whether it’s a visceral sound like jack hammer drilling away while you’re trying to think, or a subtle voice like a Rabbi or a venture capitalist trying to define your life or career path on terms not your own, you always have a choice of how to respond.

The key is to separate facts from perceptions; to remember that the external event is not you.

Why aren’t you a winner, asked the VC to my friend? That’s the wrong attack. The real question is, why don’t you see that you already are?

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