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Choose Greatness Blog

Ghost Tales for Christmas

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. Original publisher’s cinnamon vertically-ribbed cloth.

On October 5, 1843, a damp, dark night in Manchester, England, 31-year-old Charles Dickens walked alone. Dickens was the most well-known author in England at this time, with nearly a fourth of the population of England reading at least one of his magazine installments or novels. Solitude was something Dickens didn’t usually have in public places, as he was usually pressed by admirers in the thousands when he made public appearances.

But lately, Dickens was losing favor. He had sold more than 100,000 copies of The Old Curiosity Shop. And English people subscribed by the thousands to read stories he produced in weekly magazines. Oliver Twist was a great success, but then he had a few books that only sold 40,000 copies and then 20,000 copies. The publishers were threatening to cut his pay because people didn’t want to buy his new books. Dickens told his agent he would like to go to continental Europe and live a quiet life in a cottage writing travel pieces. He had some large debts and an artist’s confidence starts to flounder when his craft isn’t well received by the public.

Earlier that evening, Dickens was speaking to a large gathering at the request of his sister. He delivered a short, yet effective speech on the values of education and the perils of ignorance in support of a community center that was struggling financially. He did his duty and then took a walk to consider his own situation and what needed to be done. As he walked, a new idea came into his mind. As details of the story developed in his mind a strong desire to see it through grew in his heart.

Dickens returned home to London and worked on his new project as well as finishing his other demands. He would continue to take walks at night in London as he worked through the story. When at last he had the story outlined, he took it to his publisher Chapman and Hall. Though Dickens was excited and enthusiastic about this new book, the publishers were not. They rejected this Christmas story with ghosts before it was ever written. Christmas was only two months away and they would prefer that he develop a new magazine they could sell subscriptions to.

Dickens wrote to a friend, who had helped him get his start with the publishers. He said, “Don’t be startled by the novelty and extent of my project. Both startled me at first; but I am well assured of its wisdom and necessity.”

Dickens had resolved to make this happen and was determined to see it through. He was tempted to leave Chapman and Hall, but instead, asked them to simply print the book. He would handle all the details – editing, illustrator, cover, etc. He would do it alone if he had to but the book would be created.

The publishers agreed and Dickens worked tirelessly for six weeks. He finished “A Christmas Carol,” in mid-November and edited it mercilessly. On December 17 it was finally finished. He had 6,000 copies two days later. All 6,000 copies were sold in the first week. He sold 15,000 copies of the book in its first year. It would go on to be so well read that decades later, Dickens would travel through the United States doing readings from A Christmas Carol to more than 100,000 listeners. It’s one of the most re-made stories in movie and theatrical plays in history.

For you:

It is hard to look at struggles as an opportunity, especially since they don’t seem to come one at a time. Dickens needed to support a wife and four young kids with one on the way, heavy debts because of a large house he purchased a few years earlier and lackluster sales on his last two books. To hear your publisher say, “No thanks,” to your exciting idea, could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. But Dickens believed in himself and what he was working on. He was proactive. He decided to move forward because he needed to see it through.

What struggle are you facing in obtaining your goal/vision? Are you waiting for someone to tell you they believe in you? Believe in yourself and take action. Identify the next step and take it.

Breaking Gender and Air Barriers

Ruth Law in 1915: Her aircraft is a Curtiss Pusher, but has Wright Brothers’ control levers.

On November 19, 1916, Ruth Law sat clinging to her hand controls as she flew exposed to the frigid November air at more than 100 miles-per-hour. She looked out at the land, easily identifying landmarks that corresponded with her maps. Actually, it was the map that was most difficult to see as it was rolled up on scrolls in her lap, attached to her seat belt. Law was flying an old, small Curtiss pusher biplane. It had a V-8 engine that sat right behind the pilot. Law controlled the direction of her plane with two hand-held levers. While she could never let go with her left hand, which directed her up and down movement, she was able to briefly let go of the right lever – holding it in place with her right leg – while she turned the scroll in her lap.

Law wished Glen Curtiss had sold her a larger plan, as she had requested. He said he couldn’t, as they were required for the war effort, but then he added that larger planes were “too much for a girl to handle.” She wasn’t deterred. In fact, his comments and those of other male aviators helped push her to make this flight. She would show that women could fly as well as men. The easiest way to prove this is by breaking a record.

The previous record for the longest flight by an American was set by Victor Carlstrom earlier that year in a Modified Model J airplane. It had a 200-hp engine that sat in the front of the plane. His plane also had a 200-gallon tank. He flew 452 miles.

Law thought about her gas tank now. The plane’s original gas tank only held 16 gallons. She added a second tank that increased her capacity to 53 gallons. She thought that would be enough to take her from Chicago to Hornell, New York.  However, she assumed she would encounter favorable winds along the way. She didn’t. Two miles from her destination, her engine stopped because her fuel tank was empty. Cool under pressure, she guided her plan silently onto the landing strip at 2:10 pm.

Even though Law flew with two layers of wool and two layers of leather clothing, the cold, damp air penetrated the layers. She had slept at the top of a Chicago hotel for a few weeks to try to get used to being in the cold. Even still, she needed to be helped off her airplane and into a car that took her to a hotel where she had a bite to eat while her plane was refueled and replenished with oil. She had been flying since 8:25 am and with only an hour and fourteen minutes of rest, she was back in the air making her way to New York City.

She only flew for about an hour before the lack of light necessitated a stop in Binghamton, New York. She tied her plane to a tree, asked a police officer to watch it and got some rest. At 7:35 the next morning, she was back in the air. When she took off, she flew over heavy fog, which made it almost impossible to see the necessary landmarks. Eventually, she found and followed the Delaware river toward New York City.

When she finally reached Manhattan, her engine again started to cut out. In a moment of calm decision-making, Law rocked her plane, sloshing the gas onto the carburetor, and the engine came back to full strength. Her engine stopped before she made the runway. She had to glide the final three miles onto Governor’s Island at 9:37 am, where nearly 50 newspaper reporters were waiting to ask her questions. One reporter asked, “You have made the longest flight a woman ever made, haven’t you?”

Law knew she had done something no other woman had even attempted. She was constantly reminded that women and men were not treated the same. She believed in her abilities. She hadn’t achieved her goal in spite of her gender, but because of who she was. She was a pioneer, an aviator, and a champion. She answered saying, “I have made the longest flight an American ever made.”

Law went on to show she was capable of much more. With a better plane, she would hold aerial shows with two other male pilots, flying through fireworks, doing tricks, and defying those that doubted women weren’t capable of flying a complex flying machine. She believed and set out to do what she wanted, regardless of the limits others put on her.

For you:

Law wasn’t the only woman to fly airplanes in the early days, but she grounded any arguments about women not being capable of flying as well as a man. She offered her services in World War I, but President Wilson refused her as a fighter pilot. She still helped out with the war effort in America. She believed she could make a difference and set about doing just that. Little girls saw her and said in letters to Law, “Now, I am glad I am a girl, because girls can do just as wonderful things as men.”

That’s what champions do. They see that more is possible. So they break the imagined barrier and that allows others to believe they can do more.

What barrier do you see between you and your goal? Don’t wait for someone else to be the champion. You can be that champion. Then you will lead others to believe in themselves just like Law did.

To Give Up Power

General George Washington at Trenton on the night of January 2, 1777, after the Battle of the Assunpink Creek, also known as the Second Battle of Trenton, and before the Battle of Princeton.

Astride his gray horse, George Washington rode south with a thousand men into New York City. It was November 25, 1783. As of April 19, 1783, fighting had stopped between the British and the Continental Army. Word had reached Washington that the Peace Treaty of Paris had been signed on September 3 of that year. Washington would wait to officially release his army until the last of the British Army had set sail for home. The British army wasn’t leaving until they received written orders to leave, which resulted in a nervous cease-fire until November.

As Washington moved forward, crowds of people cheered and shouted praises for Washington. His tall, dignified personage was easily recognized as the leader of this triumphant force at the head of the army.  Beloved by most of the citizens of the newly recognized independent country, Washington’s triumphant entry into the largest city in the union was a noteworthy day for the new republic – for what didn’t happen as well as what did.

The Continental Army wasn’t as well dressed as the red coats that were leaving the country, but they were the real power in the United States. Washington received his commission from the Continental Congress, which at many times during the Revolutionary war seemed inept and petty as they argued over details. Washington had suffered many harsh winters because of the lack of funding and provisions provided by the congress that appointed him. He wasn’t alone either. Many times during the war, the soldiers and officers petitioned, requested and even threatened aggression against Congress if they didn’t provide promised funding for their service.

Washington sat tall in the saddle, looking very much like a king, as they were joined by the Governor of New York. The plan was for Washington and the governor to ride into town together, signifying an equal position of power and then Washington would leave, turning the full power to govern back to the people.

King George III had predicted it wouldn’t happen. He said that if George Washington could give up power, he would indeed be the greatest man of the eighteenth century. History had shown countless other military leaders that had come in bravely “fighting for the people,” only to turn around and establish themselves as the king or dictator.

Washington could have declared the country insufficiently strong to move on without a true government in place. So he would protect the country until a suitable institution could be in place. After the mess the Continental Congress had made of many of the affairs of the new country over the last eight years, he would be justified. At the least, he could occupy New York for a short time until his soldiers got paid.

Washington did leave. It wasn’t really a question in his mind. He had fought a long eight and a half years for a free republic and he was committed to that vision. For all the folly of the Continental Congress, Washington had fought for the opportunity for a republic to form, not another monarch.

Earlier that year in March 1783, a letter was circulating for officers to meet and discuss actions that they could take to make sure they got paid. Washington learned of the letter and understood the implications of a possible coup. He acted swiftly. He interrupted the meeting by showing up unannounced and stood in front of all present. He passionately asked them to reconsider their actions, believe in the government they were trying to set up, and remember the legacy they were leaving for their posterity. Then he left and nothing came from the coup.

As you know Washington gave up his control of the Continental Army only to be called back as president of the United States. He has been the only president who was unanimously selected twice by the electoral college. Then Washington again voluntarily retired, setting a precedent of two terms until it was made law with the 22nd Amendment in 1951.

For you:

George Washington is often called the father of our country. However, he was far from the originator or master craftsman of the new republic. He gave it the opportunity to exist. At the peril of his life, and fortune for a time, he served without pay because he saw the vision. He passed the vision along to others and inspired them to serve valiantly – sometimes in horrible conditions with no provisions. He was proclaimed a hero, and yet he still never lost sight of the true goal.

What is your goal? What is your guiding star that you can use to orient your path?

Now tell someone. Let someone else know what your goal is and let them remind you so you won’t lose sight of what you want to accomplish. You may help inspire him/her to set their own vision.

Father of Big Science

Ernest Lawrence won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939.

It was 7:30 pm on a Monday evening as students, professors and visitors filed into the LeConte Hall on University of California’s Berkley campus. Showing up promptly at 7:25 pm and sitting in his large, red leather chair was Dr. Ernest Lawrence. He started teaching and doing research at the University of California in 1928 at the age of 27, where he invented the cyclotron; a feat that would win him the Nobel Prize in 1939.

Lawrence was nearly always in the Radiation Lab (Rad Lab) himself observing and participating in the nuclear physics experiments using the cyclotron and other instruments. After a few years in California, he designated Monday nights as the time when the Rad Lab would be shut down so everyone could gather for the Journal Club.

Lawrence looked over his agenda and started the meeting by welcoming visitors. His friend, Robert Oppenheimer would often visit the club, and spur lively debates with Lawrence. Most of the time was devoted to learning about current research going on. Lawrence would not publicize what the subject of the meeting would be before they began, but the presenter could be a graduate student or a visiting luminary. In all cases, they would present the research and discuss the merits, application, and future of the research as they saw it. By 1936, almost all the Journal Club meetings featured research being conducted at the university.

The Journal Club audience wasn’t just Lawrence’s graduate students studying nuclear physics. Like the Rad Lab itself, the Journal Club attracted chemists, biologists, medical scientists, and engineers. It wasn’t meant to be an exclusive club, but an opportunity to learn and discuss with varied perspectives. This dynamic was rare in the early twentieth century, but Lawrence brought people together to achieve unique objectives.

Lawrence was brilliant at science but equally special was his ability to combine people and institutions for a combined vision. One example of this was in 1931 when Lawrence’s associate Dr. Milton Stanley Livingston made a change to the design of the cyclotron. The change helped to make an advance in the machine that got their team closer to the end goal.

“There appeared to be no ‘pecking order,’ nobody really in command,” Molly Lawrence once said, describing the dynamic of the Rad Lab. “…a suggestion from the newest and youngest recruit would be considered and acted upon with as much respect as one proposed by [Livingston] or [Lawrence].”

Another example of Lawrence’s ability to combine teams was the Rad Lab itself. While the Physics department took budget cuts due to the recession,  the Rad Lab had up to 60 people working around the clock, with no more than 10 of them receiving money from the university. Lawrence was instrumental in getting grants, stipends and additional funding from a dozen sources. It allowed the Rad Lab to keep the knowledge flowing while the rest of the nation’s state universities were reeling.

Lawrence was a brilliant scientist, but he is considered by many as the father of Big Science. He believed that to achieve new levels of understanding, he needed to bring minds, technology, and money together. Before his time, and during much of it, scientists often worked in small groups developing their own instruments on a small scale. While their ingenuity was admired, Lawrence saw the combined efforts of many as the way to achieve much more. His methods of assembling large and varied teams helped to launch nuclear science and space exploration in ways that were unimaginable just years before.

For you:

Leaders of the S-1 project, consider the feasibility of the 184-inch cyclotron at Berkeley, March 29, 1940. Left to right: Ernest Lawrence, Arthur Compton, Vannever Bush, James B. Constant, Karl Compton, Alfred Loomis.

There is a tendency for people who lead or have the power to discredit the opinions of others “below” them. The truly great leaders, like Lawrence, are able to put their pride on the shelf and listen to the team they have assembled. To have a team is good. To lead a team is better. To trust your team enough to listen to their perspective and then move forward together is best.

Think about the people around you. When was the last time you considered the opinion of someone “below” you? When was the last time your opinion was considered by someone “above” you? What was the result in team morale and effectiveness?

When you look out of two eyes, you have two different views. Your brain puts them together and it gives you depth perception. Asking your team for their perspective is like opening your other eye. You don’t have to take their opinion just because it’s offered, but to consider both perspectives will help you see things more clearly.

Ghetto Photographer

Chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner (standing, right) questions witness Henryk Ross (seated, at microphone) during the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem. Below: Gabriel Bach; Jacob Breuer. By Courtesy of Israel Government Press Office – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Two men poked their heads out from behind a building to look for police while their companion looked down the street behind them. It was still very early in the morning, not yet six in the morning, but there was no time to lose. Seeing the coast was clear, Henryk Ross and his friend ran across the street. Their yellow Star of David patches evident even at the first rays of daylight. Ross was dressed in the clothes of a ghetto janitor – even though that wasn’t his job – and they rushed to the Radogoszcz Railway Station in Lodz, Poland. Ross’ friends worked at the station as their assignment in the Jewish ghetto.

They put Ross in a cement store room, adjacent to the loading area of the station. Ross pulled out his camera. He had been a photographer for a newspaper before the war. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Ross had his camera taken away. When the German’s learned of his profession, they gave him his camera back with a charge to take official photos for the statistics department of the ghetto.

It wasn’t freedom to resume his work as before. The Germans asked Ross to take identification pictures for Jewish ID cards, factory pictures to show production, and other official pictures of the Lodz Ghetto. Ross did this, but he also took many other photos. He took photos of life in the ghetto, starvation, weddings, burials, kids playing, beatings, and much more. Like everyone else in the ghetto, Ross knew he was going to die soon. He wanted to leave a record so future generations would know what they went through.

Now that Ross was hidden in the cement storage room, he took pictures through a small opening in the boards of thousands of his fellow Jews as they were packed onto boxcars bound for Auschwitz. Their fate was sealed, but Ross was getting the evidence he hoped someone outside the ghetto would someday see. Ross sat there for thirteen hours, until seven in the evening when he felt he could leave in relative safety.

The Lodz ghetto became the holding place for 160,320 Jews in June 1940. Deportations were happening frequently and by the end of 1942 nearly half the ghetto had been deported. Most of the remaining people were forced to work in hard labor camps. When they became too sick or weak to work, they were sent away. In August 1944, nearly 70,000 Jews were sent to their deaths.

The Germans ordered the final elimination of the ghetto at the end of 1944. Ross was part of only 900 people left to “clean up.” They searched for valuables, got rid of evidence and buried bodies. They would be destroyed when the work was done.

Knowing the end was close, Ross took his 6,000 negatives, prints he had made, and his camera and put them in a box. He gathered some close friends as he buried the box so that if any of them should survive, they would be able to come to the place and unearth the photos. They covered it up and prayed it wouldn’t be lost forever.

Lucky for them, the Russians came into Ludz before they were destroyed. Ross was able to recover his box. There was water damage to nearly half of the negatives, but the photos still showed an incredible view inside the second largest ghetto of World War II and helped to convicted Adolf Eichmann of his part in organizing the Holocaust. Ross personally testified at that trial.

For you:

Ross knew that if he were caught, he and his family would be tortured and killed and the photos destroyed. It was a personal sacrifice, but he believed it would help preserve their lives for the future. I have thought about his life as he was taking these pictures and have wondered, “With no guarantee his work would ever be seen by the outside world, why did he do it?”

Some of his pictures were of happy times. He took pictures of weddings and mothers holding babies and kids playing. He tried to capture the human spirit, and I imagine he wanted to lift their spirits. They knew they would die, but he knew the power of photography in preserving a moment. By printing the photos, and probably sharing them with others, he was helping to brighten their seemingly hopeless existence. This while he was most assuredly to follow the same fate.

As you go about your life, and as you pursue your dreams and goals, look for opportunities to lift the people around you. Even if you are in a similarly dismal circumstance, help to brighten the outlook and serve others. It will lift your spirits as well. You may not be able to save a life, but you can make him/her happier.

Ross’ pictures are on display in Boston right now in the Museum of Fine Arts. Here is one webpage where you can read and see more of Ross’ story.

Nine Minutes to Gold

Rulon Gardner signing autographs after winning the gold medal in 2000.

Rulon Gardner walked into the Olympic gym in Sydney, Australia, during the final match in the Greco-Roman wrestling competition at the 2000 Summer Olympics. (Greco-Roman style requires that the wrestlers only use their arms and upper body to attack; grabbing legs or tripping is forbidden.) The fact that he was even in the event was surprising to everyone in the room and to the wrestling world outside, though most people didn’t give him much thought. The focus was on Aleksandr Karelin, the three-time reigning Olympic champion in the sport.

Karelin walked onto the mat first, and seemed completely at home on the stage he had owned for the last 13 years. No one had beaten him during that time in any international match. For the last ten years, no one had even scored a point on him. Bob Costas, who was commentating on the match for a TV company, said Gardner had about a 2,000 to one chance of winning.

Gardner followed behind Karelin and both were patted down by the referee to make sure they weren’t greasy or wet. Gardner remembered wrestling Karelin three years before. It was a painful memory since Karelin had thrown Gardner on his face three times and cracked two vertebrae. That was one of Karelin’s long line of victories. He beat Gardner 5-0 then, a relatively high score in the sport.

Gardner and Karelin were now facing each other in the center of the ring. This was the final match for the gold medal. Karelin, 6 foot 5 inches of chiseled muscle, looked down on Gardner who was a little over 6 feet tall. Gardner was fit from hours and hours of hard work and training, but he didn’t look as trim and well-built as Karelin. You didn’t even need to be a wrestling fan to know who was most likely to win.

They began and the opponents closed in with arms bent and slightly below their heads. Each man was thinking about the thousands of lessons they had learned over their lives. Gardner had only started wrestling in Greco-Roman style seven years earlier. That’s a fair amount of time to learn a sport, but Karelin had not lost in 13 years, let alone being tutored in the style for more than a decade before that.

On the match went, Karelin grabbing and swiping at the American’s arms and head. Then Gardner countering with his own pushes and pulls at the Russian’s arms, but always staying close. At the end of the first three minutes, Gardner had to get on his hands and knees while Karelin assumed the top position. Karelin is known around the world for being able to grab other 260-pound wrestlers around the stomach in a kneeling position, then while standing he picks them up and throws them over his head. Gardner tried to make it as difficult as possible for Karelin by swinging his arms, moving is legs and shifting position. Karelin wasn’t able to get into his signature move before the first period ended. It was tied: 0-0.

To start the second period, both mammoth men assume what looks like an awkward hug, with each one locking their arms around the body of their opponent. The first one to release his grip or score a take-down receives the point. For 30 seconds both men try to push and pull and tug on each other to get the coveted first point. In an uncharacteristic lapse of concentration, Karelin breaks his grip and then regains his hold as he tries to start another move. The match is stopped and the referee checks the replay. Gardner is awarded the point. This was the first time since the 1988 Olympic finals that Karelin had been losing in a match.

For the rest of the second period, Karelin tried to overpower Gardner and pull his head down, either in an attempt to get to a move or wear out his opponent. Gardner was not like most of his other opponents. He continued to fight and counter. The next time Garden had to start from the kneeling position, Karelin tried to put Gardner in an armbar, which would have awarded the Russian points. Gardner moved his body to avoid the trap.

Karelin had two more opportunities to pick up Gardner during the rest of the match. One successful throw would have resulted in more than one point, and Gardner would have lost. Around the 7:30 point in the match (they were in overtime now), Karelin must have sensed the time was running short. He looked tired and became desperate to gain a point. But Gardner met him with continued resistance. Gardner looked as if he could keep going much longer.

With less than 10 seconds left in the match, Karelin drops his head and lowers his hands. He mutters that he can’t win, and as the last second expires, Gardner raises his arms and the audience cheers because they saw a miracle.

Karelin was often called the Madman, Superman, or Siberian Bear. Some opponents criticized Karelin as being a product of science not nature, to which Karelin said, he works harder every day, than they work any day.

Gardner might be the exception. Though not particularly muscular looking, Gardner worked hard every day and knew his work would bring the results he wanted. One of his teammates quipped, “look at the little fat kid try to work hard.” By the time Gardner won the gold medal, that teammate had to say, “The little fat kid had out trained and outwrestled everyone. He deserved his rich reward.”

For you:

The two men struggling for the gold medal in Sydney that fateful day, had trained hard and worked hard to get there. Karelin’s long reign as champion of the heavyweights was a credit to his hard work. Gardner had never won any championship and had never placed higher than fifth in international competition before beating Karelin. But that didn’t stop him from practicing and working hard. He listened to his coaches and did all he was asked to do by them.

Whatever your dream or vision is, you need to figure out the skills you need to get there. Then you need to practice those skills. Don’t stop with one failure. Don’t quit if it doesn’t come easy. Anything that’s important is worth working and sweating for over time so you can become proficient and obtain your goal.

Here is a link to the match. I love the expression of the people watching the first time Rulon takes the bottom position. They think they know what’s coming – a Wyoming-boy suplex.