“The great paradox of life is that those who lose their lives will gain them. If we cling to our friends, we may lose them, but when we are non-possessive in our relationships, we will make many friends. When fame is what we seek and desire, it often vanishes as soon as we acquire it.” —Henri Nouwen, “April 30” in Bread for the Journey (HarperOne, 1997).
Nouwen again opens us up to a very real truth: that we live and work with paradox, holding tensions. One of the best books I read during my work as a physician was John R. O’Neil’s The Paradox of Success: When Winning at Work Means Losing at Life. It is subtitled: A Book of Renewal for Leaders. O’Neil starts out telling us about how our excessive pride as leaders, when combined with the seductive perks of power, can become addictive. At some point, the wielding of power itself becomes even more important than its goal.
Power and need to control our own fate can take over, and sometimes become the end rather than the means. The paradox of success is the promise of renewal as we can stand back, especially in a retreat, and see where we have gotten into trouble. There are obstacles to stepping back, such as our drive for perfection, as our path becomes a prison. Often we let our clocks tell us what we should be doing—especially as we drive toward the dead end of a substantial paycheck.
O’Neil believes that any amount of time spent away from our usual productive round of activities is renewing, as long as it is time spent in pursuit of some deep learning. For me it entails walking, being or sitting in nature, music, quiet, writing, talking and connecting with friends, visiting the sick, and some form of daily retreat, which usually involves writing. He encourages us to become healed by pursuing a different situation in which we do not run the show; as well as concentrating on relationships rather than goals or end results. Our difficulties stem from the very traits that make us winners. We will find gold in dark places.
The book includes a graph about success. We work hard to reach the top as we master our profession. We only stay there at the top briefly, since there is always someone else or many who will soon surpass us. O’Neil suggests that we stop to observe our situation as we approach the peak of a pursuit, and consider starting all over again in a new career. That can serve to keep us humble, as we are back again on a learning curve where we are not the ones with all the answers. As we get close to the top of that career or undertaking, he suggests we observe and again consider starting all over again. As Benedictines might put it, “Always we begin again.”
My summer reading this year includes David Brooks’ The Second Mountain. I think Brooks is discovering some of these same principles about life. More will be revealed.