The Jewish New Year is upon us. As I write this we have just concluded Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For those unfamiliar with this most sacred Jewish holy day, it is the annual day when we reflect on how we performed character-wise in the last year, considering those things which we could have done better and when we make a solemn promise to ourself, our God, our community and those close to us, that we will take real steps to be better people in the year that comes. With each passing year I realize that no matter how many strides I have made in recent years to become the best version of myself I have ever been, there is still a long way to go. The lyrics to a Dwight Yoakam song act as a succinct reminder of the way most of us, if we are being honest with ourselves, should feel upon such self-reflection:
I’ve got a long way to go before I get there
I’ve got a lot of field to hoe, the sun is so high
I’ve got a lot of miles to row
And the next few only show
That there’s still such a long way to go
It is an important reminder that I must always keep striving for a perfection of character I will surely never reach. I can always be better. This is not the same thing as the dog chasing his tail. Even if we never get to the end of the road, with each fresh step we make our lives and the lives of those around us infinitely better.
Another important reminder of this concept came in an unusual form.Rather than attend my own synagogue for Yom Kippur, I had the pleasure of attending the services at the synagogue of a Rabbi who is a friend of mine. This would turn out to be perhaps the most significant High Holiday service I have ever attended. My friend gave my son and I the honour of reading the sermon- a sermon written some 40 or 50 years ago by the late Rabbi Monson, one of the most renowned North American rabbis of the 20th century. The sermon related several stories which were an allegorical lesson of how most people focus their admiration on a person they deem to be “successful”, all the while forgetting that said person would not be successful were it not for a person or people sacrificing behind the scenes, toiling often in penury and obscurity to propel the wealth and fame of someone else. It was a reminder to any of us who have tasted career and financial success not to forget those who sacrificed to help us succeed.
It is very easy for those of us blessed to have a fortunate career, to receive the praise and the big pay cheque, to be the boss and make the rules, and to have people to do our bidding, to think it’s somehow deserved because we are entirely self-made. We forget that we didn’t do it alone. I always try to remember this, but the sermon drove home the point especially poignantly.
I grew up in a family that lacked formal education and would be considered lower middle class, yet went on to become highly educated and develop a successful law practice that provided me a level of status and income before the age of 30 age that most people never achieve. I then had a fall from grace, mired in a cycle of addiction and depression in my late 30s, and at the same time went through divorce and financial collapse. As a young lawyer I had a brashness and arrogance at being a rising star, all self-made in my own mind. These days, having clawed my way back to and beyond my wildest professional dreams, I often feel a certain smugness, having triumphed over such adversity that would have kept a lesser man down to the mat for good.The sermon was a stark reminder that no matter how much ambition I had, no matter how smart I was, how hard I worked, how well I networked, none of my career success to date or in the future would be possible without parents who worked night and day and did without all the while raising me with the right values; without mentors who gave freely of their own time and attached their good names to me for my benefit exclusively; without dedicated staff working long hours for relatively (by comparison to my take) little pay and who tamp down their own ego and ambition to make sure I look good and come out on top; without friends who helped in innumerable ways, often at risk to their money or reputations, to give me a hand up. I know all of this intuitively, but it is important to be reminded.
So I write this article not just as such a reminder to myself, and a thank you to the unnamed people referenced above (they know who they are), but to anyone reading this who has the good fortune to be successful in their business or profession. Human beings have a natural tendency to believe their own press. There is a perception, often not entirely wrong, that people who have achieved success resonate a certain arrogance or sense of self-entitlement. We must remember that to do so is an insult to all those people behind the scenes without whom we would have no success at all. Those of us with any sort of profile in our profession, our community, our social circle, must lead by example to ensure in their milieu the concept of Tikkun Olam (leaving the world a better place than we found it). And we must ensure that every individual with whom we have contact is treated with dignity and respect. Money, fame, status, does not make one individual better than another. Perhaps with a bigger house or nicer car. But not better. So if you are at the top of the mountain looking down, you must never forget that you didn’t get there alone. And if you’re admiring the king of the jungle, don’t forget that there’s a queen or prince who helped to crown him.