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The Summer Reading Assignment

Greatgatsby-cover“It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.” F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby

I knew my wife was right. I really needed to just hunker down and do it. At first, I gritted my teeth and stared at it from across the table. If a book could taunt a person, this one was thumbing its nose and sticking out its tongue at me. I wasn't to be bested by an inanimate object. So I grabbed it and started reading.

I have a confession to make: for the most part, I have avoided "great literature" all my life. I'm an avid reader, mind you, but my interests fall mainly with business books. I enjoy the occasional bout with fiction. However, in my almost 46 years on the planet, I had averted many of the big names unless unavoidable as curriculum in a required class. Both in high school and in college, lit instructors had a nasty reputation of "Read this and then tell me what I think it means or get a bad grade." Those who know me best know that I have never liked being told what to think. So good grade or bad, I wasn't about to "play the game." Hence, my reading stayed with business books and whatever else tripped my trigger.

That's almost unconsciable to a high school literature teacher, and through whatever twist of fate, that is the profession I married. Instead of going off to the East Coast to learn about the lives of the Transcendentalists or the writings of Ben Franklin, she decided to make ME her summer professional development project. She gave me The Great Gatsby, and the only condition she stipulated was we would discuss it when I was done.

So I picked it up. I had heard her talk about on numerous occasions as she taught it, so I had the most general of ideas of the plot and characters (the same tip of the iceberg understanding I'd developed about many of the greats I'd never read). I had never seen any of the prior movie releases either, so I couldn't cheat (nor would I).

A few nights later, around 11 PM, I closed the book.


I didn't let her down. I told her I thought it was rather presumptive that most people thought the eyeglass billboard of Dr. Eckleburg was the omniscient yet detached god watching over the characters, when it was clearly Nick Carroway himself playing that role - narrating, judging, positioning, observing - yet never really intervening until it was too late. I countered that Meyer Wolfsheim was his satanic counterpart,  who set up Gatsby during his lifetime in a counterfeit house of cards yet stated he didn't have use for the man after he was dead. I talked about looking up what the name Myrtle meant, and finding out it was an evergreen bough that was actually a symbol of love in mythology. Perfect for the woman who was "ever green" - vibrant among the Valley of the Ashes, yet was merely a symbol of love for both Tom and her husband. I agreed with the obvious assessment that Daisy, more than any other character, was the villainess, yet no character was really likeable.

"You should have been a lit instructor," she enthused, thrilled that I had taken so much away from my first foray in many years.

I countered: "No, I'm still not overly 'fond' of literature yet. And the only people who read Gatsby these days are English teachers who have read it a zillion times before and literature students who are generally too young to really understand human nature. I'm seeing it through the fresh eyes of a 45-year-old's life experiences."

And thus we get to the crux of this post: Who's reviewing your accomplishments? Are you giving them to the old and jaded of your own profession to look over and provide the same stale feedback from their commoditized ilk? Or are your accomplishments being judged by the young and inexperienced, performing it only as a function of duty?

Or are you seeking out that sweet spot combination of fresh eyes AND valuable outside experience?

Accomplishing great things is only part of the equation; finding the right people to give you the best feedback is the rest of the equation. A few years ago, I quit active networking with other project managers. (Don't worry, I still count some of them among my best friends.) I just decided that we all spoke the same language already. I started hanging out with marketing and branding and public relations people. I hung out with social media geeks and technologists and musicians and fitness hounds. And I learned from them. I learned about them. I learned with them. But the most valuable thing is I learned what they could teach me about what I thought I already knew.

And that was one assignment I'm glad I undertook.

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