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Message in a Bottle: Life Lessons from Rock Stars

Many of us can recall individuals who were destined for the Big Stage, the Big Room. These shining stars seemingly had that unique combination of physical and psychological characteristics that tagged them with the label “can’t miss.”

We usually become acquainted with these rock stars in high school or college. They seemed to be unfazed when the game was on the line or the musical lead role needed to be filled. Stardom seemed effortless to them. Their accomplishments many.

Let’s open that yearbook again and look at the class president, the quarterback, the Homecoming queen, the valedictorian, brainiac, smart geek. Where are they today?

They had a swagger, a confidence, which most of us secretly admired and to some extent envied. And through high school and our college years, most of us did not recognize that there is no free lunch, there is no free ticket to The Big Dance, and there is a mortgage due that must be paid for these gifts and skills that were conferred on these individuals by some existential power.

Fast-forward for a wake-up call. Maybe you wonder where these shining stars are today. Perhaps you saw a Facebook post about some tragedy or no word at all. They disappeared. Weren’t at the twentieth class reunion or the thirtieth.

What happened?

A colleague of mine who recently retired from a major healthcare delivery system was visiting and invited several of us to lunch. We were comfortable since COVID seems to be less of a threat. We shared the usual discussions of the way life was and the challenges and the opportunities about life now. A time to catch up, to reminisce. Nothing too heavy. But then something changed. A serious shadow loomed over each of us.

The conversation turned more serious when another respected colleague shared that he was in the midst of a voluntary furlough at the request of his department chair. His funding from extramural grants was dwindling because his research was viewed as being mundane. Peer review of grants and proposals was blistering and negative. He just was not bouncing back from the kind of setbacks that we each have. But we somehow deal with it and move on.

His star was fading. His meteoric rise to the top of the gene pool was threatened. And he was not being promoted to a full professor.

Some background. In the academic world there is a hierarchy of appointments. Instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor. In many organizations unless one is a full professor, leadership opportunities and doors are closed. Our colleague did not recognize that we have limits in terms of time, attention span, and physical demands. He was very public and shared with us at the lunch table, “I never saw it coming. I had a blind spot. I thought I was doing okay, a took a couple of hits, no big deal but then the bottom really fell out.”

What happened?

And what are the lessons for each of us as we try to just get through the day?

Without clear boundaries, without clear priorities, without specific goals, we will become depleted. The frustrations and the disappointments siphon off our professional and social bank account. We risk being ensnared in an existential drought, and we will not go the distance. This is an all-too-familiar scenario played out in the academic, athletic, and business communities.

Another example surfaced at about the same time. An associate professor was on a probationary period of three years, had publications and professional presentations, and fully expected to get that phone call that he was now a full professor. The phone call came to inform him that there was another three-year probationary period. He was devastated, humiliated especially since he shared with some of us, “I was on top of my game, I never saw it coming.”

This fall from grace can be precipitous and unpredictable. We need to pack our own parachute, take care of ourselves so that our gifts and skills are not squandered.

What are the lessons?

  • At the start of the day, we have a bucket of energy. If we do not set the agenda, if we do not prioritize how to use that energy, someone will set the agenda for us. And they may not have our best interests at heart. I’m talking about social media interruptions and mindless emails and tasks we don’t put on our to-do lists. Somebody else has riveted these trivial nuisances onto our calendar.

  • Health and well-being are the cornerstones as life unfolds. At a minimum: seven hours of restorative sleep in a cool dark room, thirty minutes of aerobic activity on most days of the week, and a plant-based diet focusing on fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and the elimination of processed food. This is not brain surgery, this is not rocket science, but these lifestyle choices are easily overlooked as we travel on the Yellow Brick Road looking for the Promised Land.

  • An element of spirituality, the existential search for meaning and purpose. Why are we here? Some of us can find these through mindfulness, meditation, and the input of a secular or a spiritual counselor. For thirty-five years I have gone on a three-day silent retreat following the Jesuit tradition. This may not be for everyone, but for me it is restorative.

  • Stable, predictable long-term relationships. As the Harvard longevity studies have shown us, these types of relationships with friends, spouses, partners, even pets, are significant factors in well-being. Marriage is a sound investment.

As our life unfolds, we are not a cork bobbing aimlessly on the sea of life. Our lives are not a total roll of the dice and in fact only about 30 percent of our well-being is decided by our genes. The other 70 percent to some extent is under our control through our choices and our lifestyles. We decide, not someone else.

In the iconic play by Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman commits suicide. A worn-out, irrelevant, and insignificant man who was jettisoned by a carnivorous capitalistic machine that promised unattainable glory. In some way, each of us can relate to the Willy Lomans of the world. His wife concludes with the memorable message, “So attention must be paid.” And we are each well advised to pay attention. We are each at risk and we need to take care of ourselves.

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