Shake It Up: Success, Ray Rice, and Taylor Swift

A few years ago, after the Leafs won their first game of the season, a very happy friend of mine said, “You can’t win all 82 until you get that first one!” As it turned out, unfortunately, the Leafs did not reel off an 82 game winning streak, but for that one shining moment, after that glorious opening night at the ACC, my buddy had a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye.

I hope you are feeling that way now – even on a Monday morning. Now that you’ve got the first week of school under your belt, you may have made or renewed a friendship or two, and perhaps joined a club or team. The first big academic tests are still out there on the distant horizon; your notebooks are organized; your laptop is in good working order, and you’re starting to think that this will be a successful year for you. It’s that topic of success that I’d like to focus on this morning.

There has been a lot of research on success, but by far the most important study on the subject that I’ve ever come across was done by Professor Doug Heath of Haverford College. Heath conducted a longitudinal research project; he interviewed Haverford students/alumni when they were 21, 31, and 41 years of age in an effort to find out what are the traits or characteristics they possessed as students that actually correlated with success later in life? What makes his research interesting is that he defined success broadly; he didn’t just focus on financial success. He looked at a wide range of variables such as marital happiness, sense of community, engagement in the wider world, and a sense of purpose and well-being.

What he discovered may surprise you because he found there was a significant gender difference. According to Heath, the most successful women possess a high degree of autonomy and a strong sense of self. It’s no wonder that so many girls’ schools do a good job of focusing on these strengths; their marketing materials frequently show young women doing remarkable things, as they emphasize female empowerment.

According to Heath, though, successful men share a different set of traits. Happy, productive, engaged men have two things going for them: first, they have a surprisingly high degree of empathy. They understand the emotional state of others. Without getting cynical, think of Bill Clinton’s biting his lower lip and saying to a voter, “I feel your pain.” The second characteristic these men possess involves strong social skills.

Even in the animal world, zoologists have observed that it’s not the biggest or strongest baboon that is the most successful baboon in the zoo. (And because this is a “family rated” assembly, I’m not going to define how a zoologist actually defines “success”. Let’s just say it has very little to do with an IB score.) No, the most successful baboon is the one who is best at communicating and coalition building.

At this point, I hope you’re asking, “What does a ‘successful’ baboon (which I’d rather not think about after breakfast, thank you very much) have to do with me?” Let me answer that question with a question: If you buy Heath’s thesis, that your success will be a result of your being empathetic and possessing good social skills, ask yourself this: How am I learning empathy and sociability? Where are those qualities taught in schools?

Dough Heath, bless his soul, did more research on just that issue, and he discovered that, while you can learn about empathy and EQ in a classroom, those qualities are more easily learned and developed in after school programs. As a result, Heath would never call drama or swimming extra-curriculars; he sees them as cocurriculars because very often, some of life’s most important lessons are learned after 3 pm.

If you are still asking, “So what does any of this have to do with me?” the answer is simple. It’s the same message you will hear from almost every IB2 boy who speaks in Laidlaw Hall. It’s get involved. Get engaged. It actually doesn’t matter what you are doing: drama, dance, fencing or football. Be a part of a group. Work together to achieve something. Tackle stage directions or running backs or difficult symphonies by working together with others. Put on a show. Create a product. Overcome a challenge. Put a beat down on St. Mikes’. Win, lose, get frustrated, cry, celebrate. In the long run it’s not the outcome but the engagement itself that is important. Through the mysteriously churning cauldron of all these mixed human interactions, you will learn how another person thinks or sees things. All you have to do is participate and pay attention.

I’d summarize Doug Heath’s research by saying, the Lone Ranger rides no more. And your role models should be Don Kawasoe not Don Draper; James Weeks not James Bond; Bart Badali not Sylvester Stalone. Your success, our success depends upon our ability to understand others and to connect with them in meaningful ways.

I couldn’t, of course, let the moment pass without at least saying something about the ongoing Ray Rice saga. If you’ve been following this case of domestic violence, you’ll know that the original sin of Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner who cares so much about women’s health that he makes his players wear pink, was his giving Rice a perfunctory 2 game suspension for punching out his then fiancé in an elevator. It was only after a tape of the violence became available that Goodell saw things differently. It was his apparent inability to put himself in the victim’s shoes that made him think Rice should escape with just a slap on the wrists. That inability to understand the other is a key stumbling block for many men. I know it’s one I struggle with. It’s why we should all read “To Kill a Mockingbird” every summer.

Let me end this morning with a clip that Ms. Robertson sent me yesterday. It features a bunch of college guys lip-sincing a Taylor Swift song. I show this to you because, in a way, it suggests progress. Had I asked my university dorm mates to join me in lip sinking a Stevie Nicks’ song back in the 70’s, I’m pretty sure I’d be doing a solo. (We had fairly traditional definitions of masculinity back then.) This Youtube, which has already had over 2 million hits, suggests that some gender barriers may be changing, at least for some frat boys from Kentucky!



5 thoughts on “Shake It Up: Success, Ray Rice, and Taylor Swift

  1. You talk about gender norms towards the end of this piece.

    Look at what Ingrid Michaelson is doing in her hit “Girls Chase Boys.” Music Video here:

    The Huffington Post has pointed this out, too:

    If all of the dancers were women, we would think that this video is unremarkable.

    But the dancers are men and women, and so this video suddenly becomes progressive.

  2. I’ve seen that video, and if Goodell actually saw it several months ago like they say he did, it’s inexcusable. It’s terrible. How you could watch someone who is meant to be a role model (or anyone for that matter – even a street thug!) do something so violent and think that it isn’t your responsibility to do something about it – to take a stand to send a message that it doesn’t matter how rich you are or how famous – there are certain things in our society that are not ok.
    Sadly, when the stakes are that high, decisions that seem completely morally unambiguous seem to become less clear for some. We are all human, and we all make mistakes. But if you think about human rights – the dignity and worth of the human person – it’s hard to understand how this continues with ‘civilized’ human beings, and why our leaders don’t take a stand. I guess that is why leadership is so hard.

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