If you want to live a life of significance, you need to ask yourself the right questions.
And then take action.
When we’re young, our parents screw things up by asking us the wrong question.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Barely waiting for a reply, our parents reassure us that we can be anything we want to be.
They mean well, but…they lie.
Early on, little revelations start to get in the way of our childhood dreams. Too slow for the NFL. Poor vision won’t cut it in the astronaut program. The league of superheroes isn’t hiring.
But that question lurks in the background as we grow up. What. Do. We. Want. To. Be.
“What” is a title. A profession.
Whether you’re a scientist, a digital marketer, a programmer, a writer…all that title does is put you in a category. With a lot of other people.
But you’re not like a lot of other people. You’re unique. Physical traits. Experiences. DNA. Even your head trash is uniquely yours.
What happens if we tweak the question — Who do you want to be?
That’s a little different. Now we get into your reputation. How you’re perceived by others.
Too many people stop there and focus primarily on what others think.
If you look at influencers on social media and public figures in entertainment, there is a heavy focus on “What people want to be.”
Followers. Likes. Shares. What you’re known for, represented by your public profile, your following, and your brand.
How does the public perception compare to the image in the mirror? To the person inside your head?
When too much time is focused on what other people think, it can hijack your core values. It can distort your focus and make you blind to behaviors that show up when people interact with you.
So, let’s tweak the question further.
What do you want to do?
Now we’re getting into impact. Legacy. The wake you leave behind.
Two incredible people offer examples of answering the call of “What do you want to do?”
One is a badass fighter pilot who had a major influence on the US military strategy and the equipment we use in combat.
The other is a former struggling singer who has had an impact on the entertainment industry as a teacher and administrator that will be felt for generations to come.
These two examples provide lessons for all of us.
You Will Come to a Fork in the Road
I read about John Boyd in Ryan Holiday’s book The Ego is the Enemy and found his story both fascinating and insightful.
Boyd was a United States Air Force fighter pilot who revolutionized tactics and air warfare. His influence went beyond military applications into business, sports, and strategic planning. He developed the nickname “Forty Second Boyd,” because had a standing bet for anyone at the Air Force Training School: challengers could win $40 if they could last longer than forty seconds in a simulated fight against him. He never lost a bet.
Boyd eventually reached the rank of Colonel, but never higher, despite a record of combat success, training effectiveness, and for his input into the design of the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets.
He used his skills and expertise to improve process and performance but stepped on toes and bruised egos in the process. Boyd challenged the status quo constantly, and his career trajectory suffered as a result.
He framed the dilemma that young officers would face in a famous speech. It applies to a decision all leaders need to make. Boyd would say to his recruits:
“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road. And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed in the opposite direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something–for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”
When it is framed in that manner, you feel like you should go the “do something” route.
Sometimes you have the ability to make that decision when you reach a fork in the road.
Sometimes the decision gets made for you, but it requires you to embrace that decision.
Rather than live with the regret that you didn’t make it to the Olympics, create the definitive crypto coin, or become a viral sensation, you have to roll with the opportunities presented to you.
Sometimes the Fork Identifies a New Opportunity
Ralph Opacic was two years behind me at Lake Braddock Secondary School and a gifted musician. He was Curly in Oklahoma and Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. When he was on stage, girls loved him, and guys wanted to be him. He was going to take the music world by storm. We knew he’d be the next Billy Joel.
After graduating from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in music, Ralph performed in neighborhood bars and sang solos at a local church. But agents weren’t knocking on his door offering recording deals.
His singing career was fizzling before it got started.
Ralph took a job as a high school teacher and began working with thirty students in an after-school music program. They sang rock classics and performers tumbled and moonwalked across the stage. Ralph started recruiting football players and cheerleaders and pretty soon he had three hundred students participating. Chorus became cool.
Interested parents got behind Ralph to create the Orange County School of the Arts (OCHSA). What started as a thirty-student after-hours chorus became a full-time arts school with 2,200 students, grades seven through twelve. The US News and World Report consistently ranks OCHSA as one of the top five hundred high schools in the United States.
Every day at OCHSA students pursue their dreams and also receive a world-class education. Some students have achieved tremendous success in their chosen fields. Matthew Morrison is a household name, thanks to his leading roles in Glee and Finding Neverland. Susan Egan was the original Belle in Beauty and the Beaston Broadway and has had a successful career in theater and film. Other OCHSA graduates are making their mark in theater, film, dance, and design. OCHSA graduates have gone on to excel outside of entertainment in business, medicine, and academia.
“If one path of a fork promised you oblivion, it didn’t really matter what the other path held in store.” ― F.C. Yee
They Chose to Embrace the “Do”
Based on his combat success and his track record as a leader, John Boyd seemed destined to become a general. If he didn’t challenge the status quo. He would have enjoyed more status, higher pay, and a more comfortable pension. But he wouldn’t have made the same impact on the military by playing it safe. The security of our nation benefits from his decision to focus on “Do,” rather than “Be.”
Ralph Opacic was a talented musician who was possibly one performance away from commercial success. We might be listening to his songs now on a classic rock station and listening to today’s stars cover his songs. But instead, we’re impacted by thousands of graduates from OCHSA in all fields of entertainment. Every day on the OCHSA campus dreams are being pursued, skills are being developed and lives are being changed. Because Ralph chose to embrace his fork in the road. Because he focused on his “Do.”
Don’t Go With the Flow — Create a Wake!
Dr. Henry Cloud, the author of Integrity, talks about leaders leaving a wake behind them. The wake is a function of your results and your relationships. Are the results positive? Are they significant? Are people better off for your leadership? Are their careers or livelihoods improved from their interaction with you?
John Boyd and Ralph Opacic could have gone with the flow.
They both responded to the question, what do you want to do?
Despite the challenges.
Staying open to opportunity.
You don’t have to be controversial to make a difference. Where your skills, passion, and values come together, your energy and effort can thrive.
Not every setback you suffer is a mandate on your career choices. You may decide to double down on your commitment to what you’re are doing. But remain open to possibilities. Be ready to pivot.
Both Boyd and Opacic had an incredible impact on other people. Impact that will last for generations.
A powerful wake.
As a leader, what you do will be defined by the actions you take and the impact those actions have on others.
Your actions will create a wake. Results. Outcomes. Growth in people. Changed lives.
Approach your wake with intentionality. With purpose.
Then get busy.
Take action. Right now.
I can’t wait to see what you accomplish.
A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives. — Jackie Robinson