Imagine for a moment that The Kentucky Derby is underway. It’s a beautiful day. The horses are all rounding a turn in full stride, close together, hooves pounding, sprays and clumps of dirt flying up from the track. The colors are dazzling. The jockeys’ bright silks are glistening in the sun – green, red, yellow, in solids, stripes, and patterns of diamonds. The action is frenetic. Whips pop against the horses’ flanks. You can hear the thunderous pounding on the track.
Now consider this. Many of us are those horses. We’re racing around a track we didn't create. We have jockeys on our backs urging us on, guiding us, and at times whipping us forward. If we’re good enough to win, someone gets a trophy. And when this race is over, there’s always the Preakness. And then we’ll get ready for the Belmont Stakes. And so it goes.
I was recently at a weekend retreat for incredibly high achievers. It was the triennial Morehead-Cain Forum that brings together from around the world and across the decades hundreds of men and women, along with their spouses, who have attended The University of North Carolina on a Morehead-Cain Scholarship, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious full merit scholarship. This honor pays for all college expenses, sends its recipients around the globe and across disciplines to continue their learning in the summertime, and gives them extra funds for personal and intellectual discovery along the way. Long ago, it allowed me to be the first person in my family and its history on both sides ever to go to college, something that would otherwise have been impossible for a young man like me who grew up in an eight hundred square foot rental house and could eat only two meals a day at home. I’m sure the Morehead-Cain also helped get me a full ride to graduate school at Yale, where I was able to study free of cost for six more years after college and earn a double Ph.D. in philosophy and religious studies.
And here I was in a big room full of Morehead-Cains, as I have been over a long magical weekend every three years for the past couple of decades. Many of those around me are prominent doctors and lawyers who have changed their hometowns, or their prestigious big city practices, for the better, transforming things wherever they go. They’ve started companies, or television channels, produced movies, run global enterprises, made films, created Broadway plays, or performed in such venues. They’ve discovered, invented, created, and published. They’ve helped save the US Postal Service from insolvency, transformed blighted inner city neighborhoods, launched film festivals, fought wars, and run companies like Ancestry.com where we can get our bearings in the world by discovering our historical roots. Some of the former scholars are household names. Others quietly work behind the scenes to do incredible things that boggle the mind and help create the future for us all.
And in one of our weekend sessions, we were discussing throughout small breakout groups how we define success. In two of the groups I sat in, it became clear to me, hearing everyone else speak, that we all got to college as great young race horses who knew how to win. And we all had small but powerful jockeys on our backs – the hopes and expectations of our families, the pressures of our peers, and our own needs for praise and accomplishment, along with various other forces that pushed us and prodded us to run faster, and always faster. As a result, we had indeed won lots of races and garnered vast arrays of trophies.
But at some point, it seemed, most of the older achievers in the room were starting to ask new questions. Do I want a jockey on my back? Am I running a race that I feel compelled to run or that I choose to run? Am I enjoying the process, or is it all for the water trough and big feedbag at the end?
As I listened to my esteemed colleagues speak of their lives in a vast array of very different terms, this vivid image came to me to organize most of what I was hearing. Are we content to run someone else’s race, on their track, for the entirety of our lives? Or is there perhaps a time to leave the winner’s circle at those venues and find our own paths?
Are we prepared to follow our hearts and go our own way, even if there’s no one to hand out a trophy as a result of what we do? Are we free enough in our inner selves to set our own standards, find our own goals, and pursue dreams that are distinctively ours, outside the glare and glamour of the track where everyone gathers? That’s a key to what I call true success.
There’s actually nothing wrong with running on someone else’s track, as long as that’s what we truly enjoy and freely want to do, and as long as there’s no bright smocked jockey pushing and forcing and prodding us along. We need to shake off the blinders and bits that have been constraining us, and make sure we’re finding our own way and doing what we do because it’s truly ours to accomplish and contribute to the world.
It was still a day away from when I would stand in front of all these successful people from around the world and close the weekend with my own session on “Wisdom for the Journey.” And I had other things to say. But as I sat in the final summation around the room of our small group discussions, I was moved to raise my hand and share these simple thoughts. And when I did, the great thoroughbreds in the room broke into spontaneous applause – something that surprised me. But then I realized that we had touched a nerve, and articulated a feeling. The only smart bet for true success is that when you run, you need to run free, and stay true to your deepest self.