On the bulletin board in my home office, there is a clipping from the Wall Street Journal that has yellowed and curled up at the edges. It is a profile of an Old Town, Alexandria, VA Federal-style mansion for sale, with photos and a brief interview with the owner.
The owner was selling it because her husband had died and her children had moved on. Her garden, a centerpiece in the annual tour of homes, was a big selling point, and the owner was quoted as saying that the garden was the thing she would miss most about the house.
When asked by the WSJ what she would not miss about the home, the owner answered without hesitation, “The squirrels.”
The little varmints had tormented her for years, she said, eating her flowers and wreaking havoc in her carefully planned and painstakingly maintained Eden!
When the reporter pointed out that the woman was moving to a new home only a few miles away, and thus there was a great likelihood that squirrels would also exist at the new place, the homeowner replied, “Yes, but they will be different squirrels.”
I love the ridiculousness of this logic, which I’m sure the owner herself fully recognized. It is a reminder of how beneficial it can be to change just one factor in the equation of our lives, in order to get closer to the results we’re looking for.
Change is a good thing, the currency of innovation. Corporations — traditionally the last places to embrace change — now encourage frequent lateral moves, to increase employees’ exposure to the company and broaden their skill set. Sabbaticals, once a reward for years of slogging away in academia, are increasingly seen as crucial to revitalizing research and reenergizing scholarship.
Gone are the days when a man retired after fifty years of doing the same work, and went home with his gold watch to putter in the garage and await death — and that’s a very good thing. Most of the people I know in their sixties and seventies are on their second, third or fourth incarnation, discovering interests and aptitudes they never knew they possessed and drawing on decades of experience to tackle new challenges.
Two of my closest friends, a husband and wife team, moved a few years ago to a state that, I can say with 100% certainty, neither had ever before considered visiting, much less living in. The ability to say YES to this new adventure required an arms-open approach to change on their part, because change, for all of its inherent benefits, can be extraordinarily frightening.
Saying yes can be the hardest thing in the world. And sometimes we’re so bogged down in what we’re doing — managing families, maintaining homes, fighting squirrels — that we lose sight entirely of the possibilities around us, so focused are we on the pavement under our feet.
Remember Eddie the Eagle? Back in England, he plastered walls for a living, had no team, no sponsorship, and no high-tech equipment other than his Coke-bottle glasses, but at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Canada, he represented his country in the ski jump, the first time England had ever competed in that sport.
Aided by the Austrian and Italian ski jump teams who took mercy on the Eagle and gave him decent skis and a helmet, Eddie stood up at the top of the jump, his very presence a paragraph in the record books. I remember watching him as he prepared to launch himself into the ether, holding my breath — not because I hoped he would shock the world by capturing the gold, but because I hoped he would survive. And he did, launching himself into the air and, as Franz Lidz recalled in Smithsonian Magazine, “plummeting to the ground like a dead parrot.”
Since then, Eddie the Eagle has opened a lot of shopping centers, appeared sporadically in the tabloids, toured with a Finnish heavy metal band, had some plastic surgery, and attended law school. The money he earned from his notoriety is long gone, and the Olympics powers-that-be instituted a minimum distance requirement to bar any wannabe Eddies from emerging from, say, Djibouti or Eritrea, to steal attention away from the athletes who’ve devoted their lives to their sport.
For many, the story of Eddie the Eagle is ridiculous, and nothing more — and I will concede that there is certainly a great deal of the absurd woven into it. But at the end of the day, this plasterer from England said YES to pursuing his dream, and there is something very admirable in that. He changed the trajectory of his life by being willing to look foolish and fail — in front of the entire world!
But perhaps there are easier ways to revitalize our lives than risking them, better ways to reconnect to our interests than hurtling off a nearly-400 foot ski jump? [Or maybe that is your passion, in which case, go for it, as soon as you update your life insurance.] Maybe for the rest of us, we could find the same rewards by simply saying YES to a new opportunity.
My favorite interview question, which I posed in every business profile I ever wrote, was “What did you want to be when you grew up?” The answers were always funny: the CEO who wanted to play baseball, the ad exec who wanted to be a professional fisher(wo)man, the international business owner who wanted to be a backup singer.
The best part of these answers, however, was what inevitably came up next — the creative ways these people had managed to work their dreams into their wildly successful lives: the rec league baseball team, the monthly bass fishing trips, the church choir.
So consider this: maybe it’s time to put one toe out there, by changing a small thing in your life.
Perhaps it will be as easy as sketching while you watch the evening news, taking a class, writing a story, reconnecting with an old friend, attempting a new language, painting, playing baseball, picking up a racket — and seeing what the payoff is. Maybe your life will require something much larger.
But if you dare to remember what it was you used to want to be, and then take a step in that direction, at the very least, you’ll be battling new squirrels!