President means chief servant. ~Mahatma Gandhi
Approximately a year ago, the United States witnessed one of the most momentous occasions in its history in decades — Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th president, effectively shattering a thickly cemented racial divide and ending the unbroken streak of the traditional all-white male succession of presidents in U.S. history. Many in the U.S. believed it wouldn’t happen in their lifetime. Yet many more across the oceans cried tears of joy, glued to their TV sets, transfixed, celebratory, ushering in rejuvenated hope for deep, meaningful and lasting change.
The last U.S. presidential election will always be memorable to me not only because of the work I do in politics but also because I had prematurely given birth to my son around the time Obama and Clinton declared their candidacy, signaling the official beginning of the presidential election cycle. After 8 months of pregnancy, life was suddenly at once blissful, tumultuous and doubly exciting. Quickly, I learned that I was forever changed, that parenthood is more than a full-time job even for two parents, and that these little angels from the get-go do oh-so much more than the purported sleep-nurse-poop routine. (If you happen to be expecting for the first time while reading this, please know I don’t mean to scare you :-).)
Many of us recall how the presidential race unfolded. Much like a good book. A page-turner. There was drama, there was intrigue, there was suspense and finally the payoff came on election night, and millions upon millions thought it was well worth it. For a brief moment, not just Americans but citizens of the world were united, bound by a historic occurrence and transcendent of the superficial color of our skin.
Fast forward to today, approximately nine months since President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were inaugurated and they, once again, are public servants. Life is, for many Americans, arguably, back to normal. The citizens, the pundits, the activists and the politicos all continue to do what they predictably do and, once again, democracy is, arguably, at work.
Regardless of your country of citizenship, your perceptions and feelings toward Obama and Clinton, or of your (un)official party (non)affiliation or electoral (non)involvement if you are American, here are five key lessons to learn from political candidates and politicians like them that we can apply to our everyday life:
1) If you believe in yourself, just about anything is possible. It sounds cliché but Obama taught us this lesson beautifully. I remember meeting him for the first time in 2004 when he was running for an uncontested U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. He sat in a small conference room and spoke so eloquently and so convincingly of what he stood for. I recall that the word “presidential” crossed my mind for an ephemeral second, then I quickly (mistakenly!) dismissed it with my own bias that America isn’t ready for a self-described “skinny kid with a funny name”. I’ll always be happy to be wrong about that.
Obama entered the race with the least experience in the big-leagues, the least endorsements, the least name recognition and the least clout. However, he had a vision. A compelling vision. He invited everyone to share in his vision. His momentum grew and he achieved victory with the help of every single voter who believed in him as much as he believed in himself.
2) Anything worth doing should be done with your heart. All in is best and most fulfilling. Make it personal for a little more breadth and depth. It simply isn’t enough to be cerebral about strategies and tactics. We have to actually care about the people around us, the people we work with, the people we serve.
In life, we may burn a bridge or two out of necessity or as a by-product. But when we carry out a goal, we can’t be so callous, cutthroat or ruthless that we leave a trail of carnage and damage in our path to success. This kind of approach will leave us empty. What’s the point of succeeding if we don’t have a friend to share our success with?
3) Hard work still counts. You could work smart and savvy, work a four-hour day, or even a four-hour workweek as the business and motivational books teach. But hard work isn’t about to go out of style anytime soon. Every political candidate I’ve worked for, including Obama and Clinton, is always the hardest working person in the room. The fund raising is daunting. The demand on their schedule is staggering. The sacrifices they make are painful. The (non)partisan attacks on their character, performance and just about every little word uttered and move made are relentless.
But if we want to achieve something meaningful, if we want a game-changer, if we want a paradigm shift, if we want to make the world a tiny bit better while we’re in it, then we need to work really, really hard. No tricks. Just good old-fashioned timeless simple truth.
4) A thick skin will go a long way. Think rhinocerous or repellent goose feathers. When we’re compelled to take on a big project, the naysaying will be ever-present. It may even come from those closest to us. Some are cautionary, others protective while others will be straightforward attacks.
This isn’t to say that we should lose our sensitivities. It just means we will get a little hurt as some arrows and daggers penetrate. But we must not and will not let these interruptions break our spirit. Not if the cause we serve is larger than us.
5) Your life and your work are for a larger purpose than yourself. Hillary taught us this lesson with grace. She mentored Obama in his first year in the U.S. Senate. They were friends. She led the race by double digits in the beginning and repeatedly reigned over multiple debates.
But when the dynamic shifted, she didn’t hesitate to campaign for her once-nemesis because she believed in the cause that both she and Obama were fighting for. You may or may not agree with their politics. Or with anything I say in this post. Regardless of that, when she campaigned for Obama as hard as she campaigned for herself, she made an enormous difference in how the election turned out. I don’t know many people who would have done what she did in the same situation.
VALUE ADD PLUS
I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve. ~Albert Schweitzer
In our non/post/ever-political everyday lives, we have to know that we’re on this planet not just for ourselves. We spend an inordinate amount of time and effort polishing every aspect of our lives. We doggedly pursue a vocation that makes us happy. We check our realities against what truly is and isn’t. We adjust the perspectives we hold dear based on realities and what we believe to be possible. We alter our psychological and physical state through exercise of the mind and body. And this is all great. These are good ways to get better.
But if all the time we spend on improving ourselves is never going to benefit others, perhaps a larger cause, it would be a complete shame, wouldn’t it?
Today, Obama’s vision of hope and change traverses an arduous road. And expectedly so. Meaningful change, particularly in a system where so much is in disrepair, usually takes place incrementally, rarely overnight. No doubt, it will take a lot of work, time, patience and dedication.
Having a vision is grounding, even necessary if we are to take a shot at carrying out our mission in life. Vision is what connects the dots between the dream and the drudgery.
What is your grand vision? What do you need to do to get closer to that vision? Is there a baby step you can take now? If so, will you?
A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back — but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you. ~Marian Wright Edelman
Images by Tom Gibbons and Suki Hill