When I was eighteen years old I wasn’t exactly college material. Sure I was a champion wrestler and had some athletic scholarships, but I desperately wanted out of that sweaty beat-down life. Instead, I was going to be a gritty playwright crafting tales of derring-do based on my extensive experience on the “bottom.” Why not? OK, I hadn’t written my Death of Salesman yet and Broadway was busy with lighter fair like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but it was just a matter of time until things changed. It really never occurred to me that the Julliard wasn’t really looking for a grappler from a blue-collar neighborhood with poor grades. So, that August, while my friends were off to community college or their factory jobs, I was working as a busboy at a local restaurant depressed, despondent and defeated.
It was after mass one Sunday that Joe, a friend of the family, told my Dad that his brother was leaving his union job at a shipping and freight company. He suggested that I go down to see a guy named Chuck who was the personnel man at a local trade school about the possibility of snagging the choice position. That’s how it was done back in the neighborhood. You get a job and he gets your tuition. But that’s not what happened. Chuck looked over my application and transcripts while he talked with me for over an hour. The interview ended with a cordial handshake and the issue still undecided.
The following day, I received a most unusual call from Chuck. He announced that he would recommend me for the job with one condition – I enroll in a reputable university that was located in the next city over. He went on to say that he had taken the liberty of calling the Admissions Officer at the school and that my acceptance was assured. I was astonished. How was it that this man, whom I had never previously met, saw more in me than I saw in myself? More so, what could have possibly have possessed him to put a creative plan in motion simply for my well being?
I believe we all encounter people like Chuck in our lives but we don’t always see them. They are invisible innovators – helpful friends, caring grandparents, attentive teachers and all those who provide the luck of our lucky breaks. They aren’t always saccharine and sunshine. Sometimes they are rough hewn and demanding. They challenge us to be better because they won’t settle even when we will. The path of least resistance runs downhill but our growth is always uphill, sinuous and obstructed. While it is indeed our willful energy that pulls us along, it is the guiding hand that helps us find our way. There is no such thing as a self-made man. Like Paul Bunyan and the Easter Bunny, it’s a colorful myth. Even the heroic Edmund Hillary ascended to the summit of Everest with the aegis of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay guiding his every step.
Who are the invisible innovators in your life? As for me, there was the flamboyant choir teacher who paid for me to attend an arts camp where I discovered my love for writing; the acclaimed professor who agreed to take me on as his last graduate student, which initiated my academic career; the bare-knuckle tyrant who gave me the opportunity to build a successful company and jumpstarted my innovation skills…and of course, Chuck. That job was the bridge to a completely different life for me.
It’s easy to remember the evangelical and energetic, but look again and you might catch a glimpse of those subtle abettors and their small gestures moving you closer to your dreams. It’s not so much that they innovate but rather that they help you do so. Recognize them, celebrate them and love them for gratitude is the only real culmination of innovation.
The next time you are watching a crummy television show or stuck in a dreadful meeting, take a moment to do an after action review of the key events in your life. I mean a thoughtful examination of what worked and didn’t work, and why. Instead of focusing on the usual key events, accomplishments and failures, pay particular attention to the people who were instrumental in making good things happen. Forgo taking another bow for your outstanding performance and instead look for the invisible innovators in your life who made your show possible: Writers, stage hands, and actors who enter the story at just the right time and place. Make them visible, if not to others, at least to yourself.