One of my earliest memories is sitting on my father’s shoulders watching the main street parade at Disneyland. I remember the lights, the Disney characters, the smell of popcorn and cotton candy, and the noise of the crowd. I also remember the pride of sitting so tall on my father’s shoulders. I remember being very happy that he was tall and strong and that I was able to be up on his shoulders.
I forgot this feeling for a long time, but it came back to me in college when one of my professors used the expression “standing on the shoulders of giants” to explain how we all rely on the work of others in our collegiate studies. Everything that we were learning was based on work that had been initiated and then advanced by prior generations. The expression hit home because I remembered the trip to Disneyland. I could fully understand the analogy and how it applied to education.
This past week, I was on “spring break” vacation with my family. It gave me a lot of time to talk with my children and reflect on things. As I put my daughter on my shoulders and walked her around, I was reminded yet again of my trip to Disneyland with my family. My parents have long since passed away, but their impact on me is still very apparent. I am the father, the husband and the executive that I am because of their influence. I am also who I am because of other family members, teachers, friends, managers, co-workers and leaders in my industry.
Our lives are much more of an ongoing relay race than a sprint or even a marathon. It doesn’t matter whether you are a politician, a lawyer, a scientist or a janitor. The work you do could not be done without many others doing it before you. Even the greatest leaders in each discipline were only great because they “stood on the shoulders” of the great ones before them. The truly revolutionary scientists who “discovered” cures were able to do it because of the work done previously in their field. The great technological advancements that we have seen in our lifetimes were only possible because of the successes (and failures) that occurred before them. And the janitor at my college learned his trade from those before him.
Some may argue that new jobs emerge all the time that never existed before. This may be true. However, even seemingly new markets, such as social media are simply based on work that was done previously in marketing and PR. However, they are using new tools (that were developed using programming languages developed by others) and run them on an internet infrastructure (that was built by other technologists).
When you think of your life’s work as a relay race — and that you are being handed the baton by your parents, your teachers, the leaders in your industry or simply the person who had your job before you — it gives you a much different perspective. You realize that your role is to take what you have been given, and do the best you possibly can with it before you hand it off to your children, your employees, and others. You begin to realize how important the quality of your work is. It is important to advance the effort, no matter how significant or insignificant it may be. Simply put your fingerprints on the effort before you hand it off. However, do your best to be one of the giants that others are thankful for…
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