© 2020  Edward T. Creagan, MD, and Write On Ink Publishing

The Lessons Behind the Smiling Faces on Christmas Cards—and What We Can All Learn

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In the week leading up to Christmas, a few individuals stop by the piano to give me a Christmas card as I am practicing in the grand lobby of the Gonda building on the Mayo Clinic campus. I was initially surprised when this practice started a few years ago, but it is a gracious gesture of peace and community.


Most of our holiday cards, however, come by mail, and like some of you, we display them on the refrigerator. The cards follow a common theme. There is typically a Christmas or a holiday background with snow and elves and reindeer. The usual greeting of peace and hope and then the photograph of smiling couples with designer clothes, overachieving children who are accepted into Harvard in utero, and the family dog who is clearly a grand national champion.


The photo settings are some magnificent ski resort or a pristine white beach on a secluded island. Occasionally there is the annual holiday letter, which meticulously documents the achievements and recognitions and the awards not only of the adults but especially those of the children. I get it. This is just what we do this time of the year.


Most of the individuals whose faces adorn our refrigerator are well known to us from personal and professional relationships. We have known many of these families for years, and that’s why I know that behind the smiling faces are their stories that demonstrate perseverance and tenacity in the face of adversity—the stories behind the glittery Hallmark sentiments.


The surgeon in his early sixties who was on top of his game had hoped to work for about another seven years. An administrator roughly half his age with a newly minted MBA suggested that my surgeon friend might move up his retirement plans because he was not adept at complex surgical robotic techniques of minimally invasive surgery—never mind that his judgment and his bedside demeanor are highly valued.


The tenured full professor faculty member at a local college who had planned to work through age seventy, but she left a decade short of her goal when budgetary analyses documented that the cost of her technical program was prohibitive, the job market for that skill was evaporating, and the institution was “going in another direction.” The focus was now on technical skills rather than learning how to speak in public and communicate.


A gentleman in his early sixties was the quintessential American success story. He began a business in his basement, provided a service to the community, and became an acknowledged leader in his field. He brought a technical expertise to the table with the power of his engaging personality.


He had anticipated eventually gliding off into the sunset, but his greedy adult children suggested that he might move on now because he did not have the skill set and expertise the market now demanded. This was a cold bureaucratic decision that did not come down from some anonymous, faceless corporate headquarters but from his own family.


A millennial family in their late thirties with two nearly teenage daughters. They look like a family out of central casting. But there were frustrations of crushing graduate school debt, a job market that has significantly softened over the last five years, and an elusive housing market just out of reach. They were given reasonable professional advice somewhere along the line, but the game and the rules changed.


An iconic executive and his supportive spouse. They were fit and certainly looked fifteen years younger than their birth certificates. The husband was a major player and a national figure in the retail industry. A sought-after speaker, an adviser to struggling shopping centers with an almost Messianic fervor. With the sophisticated marketing of the internet, online big box stores, and social media, the retail industry took a huge hit, and the demand for his expertise quickly disappeared. He too learned that if he did not move on, someone unceremoniously would move him in another direction.


As I quietly reflect on these cards on a bitterly cold Sunday morning, there are some powerful lessons for each of us.


Despite the myth of the perfect Norman Rockwell family, each of these individuals is now in a place or space which none of them had anticipated. But each recognized that they had a bucket of experience that no one else had. They did not simply book a ticket to the Sunbelt and sign up for painting classes. Each had a lot of gas in the tank and would not let anybody push them out to pasture.


Each recognized that there were technical, administrative, and economic seismic forces beyond their control and little merit in allowing themselves to become crushed by the weight of nostalgia. What was in their control was the tenacity to re-create themselves.


For example, one of my refrigerator friends was not satisfied to fine-tune his golf game. He started a multimillion-dollar business putting on workshops outlining the lessons he learned.

There was no complaining or longing for the good old days.


Whether they were thirty-somethings or sixties or older, they knew they needed to creatively reassess their short- and long-term goals. Move figuratively from using flip phones to the latest iPhone. The question was not “Oh, poor me, how could this happen?” but “What am I going to do about it?”


As management guru Peter Drucker said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” My refrigerator friends refused to go quietly into the night. Each has made a clear statement, “Just watch me. I will be back.”


Wishing you a productive new year, no matter what the future brings.





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