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I’ve always enjoyed making comparisons across generations. Not just measuring performances and statistical records, but understanding the differences in motivation involved in memorable accomplishments. I’ve long marvelled at small town kids, like Jerry West from Cabin Creek, West Virginia, who rose from obscurity to achieve a level of greatness in basketball few have matched.
It may not be an exaggeration to state that over the past 150 years, all Americans have been inspired by the story of Abraham Lincoln. Rising from the backwoods of Kentucky, Lincoln overcame years of disappointment and despair to forge a strength of character that saved our nation during its darkest days.
Around Christmas time the movie about Louis Zamperini will be released, based on the best seller – “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. He is another true, American hero, who triumphed over incredible hardships, during World War II.
Sometimes I wonder if our country can still produce such men… There was an article recently in The Wall Street Journal about business school test scores – “On B-School Test, Americans Fail to Measure Up.” This is not really a new trend, but foreign students, particularly from the Asia- Pacific region, are far out-pacing American students on the quantitative portion of the business school entrance exam called the GMAT. According to the article, U.S. student’s raw scores have remained flat over the past decade, while scores from international students have risen dramatically. The article also points out that Asian students spend nearly two and a half times more hours studying for the exam than do U.S. students. While these trends are disturbing, what bothers me more is the response from some business school administrators. Apparently, some are trying to redesign how the tests are measured. In essence, they are trying to segment U.S. from International students in order for U.S. students to rank higher. Is this really how we want to achieve success? By pulling out the scores of kids we can’t beat, who are working twice as hard in preparation for the exam?
In my day, (the older I get the more I seem to say that..) virtually all the high achievers had one thing in common. They all had a chip on their shoulder. They just went through life a little pissed-off, trying to prove they were better than somebody thought they were. In our country’s day, so to speak, Americans collectively had a chip on their shoulder. That attitude fuelled our work ethic, and paved the way for our country to build the largest and strongest economy in the history of mankind.
Do we really now only want to compete when the odds are stacked overwhelmingly in our favour? Is it really a great accomplishment for an NBA all-star team to win the Olympics? Wouldn’t we all rather strive for another Miracle on Ice experience, like when a bunch of college kids upset the heavily favored and much older Russian hockey team on their way to winning the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics? The virtue in competition lies in how one competes not in the outcome of competition. Lasting character is forged through building extraordinary teamwork, and by outworking and outthinking opponents regardless of the final score.
For America to once again lead the world, and break out of this period of low growth, underemployment, and under achievement, we must regain the chip on our shoulder. We must embrace challenges, not shrink from them. We must raise the level of expectations for all, not lower it through dependency and excuses.
Which brings me to the election… The messages, at least to me, are clear. Now is the time for government to start working to improve the economy. Now is the time for compromise to replace partisanship. Now is the time, as Lincoln so eloquently stated, for government of the people, by the people, and for the people. I just hope we get it.