Focus, motivation and memories: The big dream

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Algerian sahara wilipedia
With virtually no functioning social skills, I travelled through Africa, including the Sahara and Congo after graduating from university in 1976.
With virtually no functioning social skills, I travelled through Africa, including the Sahara and Congo after graduating from university in 1976. (This Wikipedia photo is much more recent, but the environment is similar.)

Yesterday’s posting about focus and motivation provides a reminder that some people are baked for success. We absorb the messages of motivational speakers in our souls and experience, and enjoy lives with higher levels of experience and joy than the masses struggling to survive.

At times we can get egotistical about this success, but I think much of who we are is defined by our environment and genetics. Certainly gifts and drive may propel ourselves to higher levels, but I sense the people who succeed the most, wherever they are, have it in themselves at the beginning.

Yet I can relate to the motivational success stories, of course, because of my own experience and success. I’ve only had a few really major goals in life, and managed to achieve them, and (for me) these were stretches. “Being happily married with a loving family” might seem mundane to most, but I have serious social/personality skills limitations and I didn’t reach the stage where these were sufficiently resolved until I was 40 years old. (Thankfully, I got it right and have been married to Vivian for 20 years, and our 17-year-old son is thriving.)

The earliest career aspiration: “I want to be a foreign correspondent” might fit into the fantasy world, especially because the social functioning issues that meant the second (marriage and family) goal would require two decades of adulthood to achieve. But I had some talents, including the ability to type 70 words a minute, and reasonably strong English writing capacity. Growing up (mostly without human friends), the newspaper with its stories and ideas became my companion.

So, at university, I decided to volunteer for the student newspaper. Here, I had some luck. The Ubyssey (at the University of British Columbia) operated a kind of apprenticeship program for professional journalists.  Seniors taught the juniors the craft.  Most washed out. A few had both talent and social skills, and were offered summer jobs at Vancouver’s daily newspapers. My talent didn’t appear initially, and I had no social skills. But I persevered.

Masai_Giraffe,_Serengeti_National_Park,_Tanzania_(2010)
A Serengeti giraffe

By the end of my first year, I could write some presentable articles, but none of the more senior students thought I would make it in the business, so I certainly didn’t receive introductions from them to the daily newspapers. But, again, luck intervened. One of the newspapers needed a glorified part-time city desk clerk(a step above a copy boy) and posted the job in the student employment office. When I showed up for the interview, and mentioned my Ubyssey participation, the administrator hired me on the spot. My peers were shocked because “Bucky” (my nickname) should never have had a daily newspaper job, in their opinion.

My initial career was far from successful. In fact, after graduating, the daily newspaper city editor said he would not offer me a permanent job, unlike most of my peers. I had a choice. Stew. Or travel. “Why don’t you go to Europe and see the world,” the helpful editor suggested.  I thought, “No, that wouldn’t take me where I want to go.”  I decided to overland through Africa instead.

Decisions like this make and change ones’ life. The initial travel, eight months, through the Sahara, Congo, East Africa and then down through the Serengeti and into then-white Rhodesia certainly changed my perspectives. The travel didn’t improve my social functioning. But, on return, a newspaper publisher in Medicine Hat, Alberta saw something in that African experience and, despite less-than-perfect references from my previous summer job, offered me employment.

I almost lost the job after about four months. I was unaware of the work volume and independence required to function on this small daily. And, besides, my social functioning was, well, terrible. I overheard an editor saying I would be going soon.

Something clicked in my mind and I decided to fight to survive. I got up early, and started writing more stories than I have ever written in my life. The quality improved. “You’ve passed probation,” the editor said. Then an opportunity to become a sub (wire) editor appeared and I grabbed it. I learned how to edit stories, compose headlines and see the news around the world.

As I worked at the wire desk, I saw the stories from Rhodesia. And one day in 1978, as I drank too much with my peers, I thought, “Maybe I should go back to Africa and see the end of the war.” I initially thought it was a drunken idea, but the next morning, it seemed as clear as day to me.  If I could see the end of a major war, I would gain an understanding of life and the world (and maybe myself.)

This decision led to the second visit to Africa, and my somewhat subversive entry into Rhodesia and success in finding employment at the Bulawayo Chronicle. I recall during a visit back to Vancouver while I was living in Africa, one of my student newspaper peers (and nemesis) telling me: “Bucky, I’ve changed my opinion of you. You are, in fact, sane.” (That was a major compliment.)

I discovered my fundamental insight in a wild and wonderful night a few weeks before Zimbabwe’s independence, understanding at last the concept of goals, achievements, and defying probabilities. How could a nerdy, socially dysfunctional person, manage to live through a major African war and achieve career success. I realized I had both intelligence and perseverance. If I could solve this puzzle, I could solve anything.

Bulawayo City Hall
Bulawayo City Hall

Nothing is perfect and the story doesn’t have a magical happy ending. However, the second personal goal — marriage and a loving family — seemed more important than ever, and I set out to solve that challenge. That process required another painful decade of learning, fumbling, growing and struggling, to reach the goal-achievement point.

Now the question, could be “what next?” This question relates to the comfort zone where most of us find ourselves. If I have enough money to live an upper-middle-class life, sufficient retirement funds to not need to worry, a vocation that generally provides satisfaction, and a family with plenty of love and sharing, how much more do I need?  You might say I’m stuckd where I am, but that place isn’t so bad, of course. Yet others move on and achieve much greater things.

The answer, out of the conference and week of learning and reflection, for me will be to redefine the business model to provide a product/service that truly provides sustainable value to our clients, on a wider, more comprehensive scope. I drew up the preliminary concept and plan on the weekend, but now need to refine and test the theory — and receive feedback, guidance and input from colleagues and the community. I realize that success or failure in this goal won’t be earth-shattering, but if I can pull it off, the business will have lasting value, endurability, and scope, as the world moves further into the digital and mobile age.

Stay tuned.

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