This morning, I was talking to my wife about a new connection on LinkedIn with a man who has long worked with Merrill Lynch. It led me to reflect on the unusual fact that, years ago, over a three year period, I had done 43 talks for that company, in the midst of what would be their Golden Age of iconic prosperity and reputation, under the guidance of then legendary Co-CEOs Dave Komansky and Dan Tully. I said to my wife, “It makes me remember the email I got from Tully’s Chief of Staff, when I had requested a testimonial from Tully for the back of my book If Aristotle Ran General Motors. He said that Dan got lots of requests for blurbs, and could agree only to a small few, but that he, the Chief of Staff, was the one who normally did the reading and blurbing, given how busy Tully was with the business of the company. But he wanted me to know that Tully was so impressed with what I do as a philosopher that he said he would read the book himself and write the testimonial, which ended up on the back cover of the hardback and the front cover of the paper edition. Here’s the part the publisher chose to excerpt and use:
“If Aristotle Ran General Motors goes to the heart of what makes people and organizations successful … Tom Morris’ message is a guide to the highest level of excellence in your company and your career.”
Daniel Tully, Chairman, Merrill Lynch
I told my wife the story as I shaved and then said, “That’s a little thing I’m really proud of, that Tully wanted to read the book and that he personally chose to write such a nice testimonial.” My wife said, “Well, that’s not such a little thing.” I replied, “But it’s the sort of thing that never gets onto a resume. It's a tiny little fact that almost no one knows but that means a lot to me.” I was thinking that it would never appear in an official bio or on a Wikipedia page, and yet it brought me great satisfaction. She said, “The little things that really matter are like: Do you enjoy letting someone in front of you in a line?” I said, “Yes, I do.” She said, "Good." And then I said, “But it’s also fine to enjoy stuff like the Tully thing.” And then I pondered it all some more.
It’s nice to be recognized as the Number One Salesman this year in your company. It’s something to be proud of and relish. But what makes it great is not the fact that you beat lots of other people, who are all now a bit disappointed, but rather the focal thing is all the hard work you put into the job to make possible the success you had. You feel great. But: Why should we ever celebrate or relish being the person who is keeping other people from having that feeling? It’s the little things you did persistently, and maybe relentlessly, that added up and that are worth enjoying and celebrating. The big result? Maybe there’s a way in which it’s an illusory, or true but misleading, side effect of all the stuff that really matters.
None of us needs to be King of the Hill. What we need is to discover our talents, develop those talents, and deploy them into the world for the good of others as well as ourselves. A certain level of income, or status, or a widespread public recognition may or may not come along with that. But even if it does, it’s never the core of what’s to be relished or celebrated. We get it backwards or upside down when we seek and fixate on the seemingly big things, which, after all are merely the cumulative effect of the little things, with a dash of luck or providence added in, factors that we never control and so can never take credit for. So maybe the big things are really in a sense little, and the little things are really big. And if so, then that wouldn’t be the first time that life shows us a deep paradox that’s the portal to great wisdom.
A little conversation produced a big insight which, in the grand scheme of things, as I put it out here for a few good people to read, is really just a little thing after all.