On the Shoulders of Giants

am deeply grateful to Malcolm Gladwell for his 2008 book, "Outliers - the Story of Success." What Gladwell does is debunk the myth of the self made "man." He illustrates how the "greats" got to their "greatness" only through a combination of timing, circumstance, upbringing, culture and, I would add, luck. This is not to argue that the greats did not contribute their own considerable talents, tireless efforts and keen insights. Rather, it is to acknowledge that, in one way or another, all the greats stood on the shoulders of someone or something else.

Debunking the myth is important because we often see certain figures as "models" that establish a "path" for us to follow in our own career development. We believe that, by studying the lives of others, we are offered maps to new territory. Gladwell shows us that these maps may be of limited value.

My interest focuses on another element of what often is lost in seeking advancement through such modeling. In following the greats, we too often fail to understand, and acknowledge, the contributions of all the others who make our lives wondrous as they are. And, equally important, we fail to express our gratitude to those who have made much of our current circumstances possible.

Gratitude is an extremely important element to our development as humans. Developing a practice of gratitude accomplishes three things. First, it makes us more aware of the world around us. Answering the questions: "How did I get here? Who made this possible?" offers great learning. Second, gratitude confirms our relationship to others. Growing your relationships with others, grows you. Finally, gratitude connects your head to your heart. Your emotional development follows a different path than your cognitive development. Becoming aware of the contributions of others may be a cognitive skill, but being grateful is entirely emotional. Opening the heart for gratitude, opens it for appreciation. If you live in gratitude and appreciation, you will change your relationship with others. And, others will change their relationships with you. It is a self reinforcing phenomenon.

I have become increasingly aware of my need to give thanks to those to whom I am grateful. I have begun by picking up the phone or sending a note to people whose acts of kindness or generosity have brought me to where I am today. Unfortunately, some have passed before I could fully acknowledge my debt to them. However, I have also learned that an expression of appreciation is never in vain.

In the fall of 1966, I was summoned to the principal's office of Santa Cruz High School. Unfortunately, such a summons was not unusual for me. I was a bright kid, but I was frequently bored by the curriculum. Despite excellent grades, I often spent time with the principal on "nonacademic" issues.

On this occasion, the principal advised me that a visitor had wanted to meet me. Stanley Meyer, I was told, wished to discuss with me my plans for college. I met a man in his late 40's, dapperly dressed in a dark gray suit. He stood well under six feet, but held himself in such a way that he seemed very substantial. Stanley, as I would later address him, explained that he was from Southern California and was involved in the television industry. He explained that, as California was becoming one of the most powerful states in the union, a new generation of leaders with sufficient sophistication and experience was needed to guide it. His goal was to help create that leadership.

Stanley asked me where I planned to apply for college. At the time, my three leading choices were Stanford University, U.C. Berkeley and UCLA. While he praised my choices, he suggested that I consider applying to the Ivy League. He felt that power in the United States was highly concentrated in the Eastern seaboard and that the country's leaders could be expected to arise from the ranks of Ivy League institutions.

In Stanley's view, if California was truly to maintain leadership status, it would have to have leadership with connections to the Eastern establishment experience. And matriculating from an Ivy League school was the best way to make those connections. He was traveling up and down the state, searching in public schools for candidates to undertake this mission.

Needless to say, all of this was extremely flattering albeit a bit opaque to me, at 17. Although I was not a great swimmer, I was interested in pursuing the sport in college. Stanford had a highly regarded swim program, offered close proximity to Santa Cruz, yet provided an exceptional educational experience. If I should fail to get into Stanford, UC Berkeley and UCLA were pretty good second choices.

Stanley asked if he could meet my parents. A few weeks later he returned and had a similar conversation with my parents. Despite not having completed a four year program, my Mom and Dad were savvy, and what Stanley told them seemed eminently sensible. Stanley made the Ivy League sound almost magical, evoking images of vine covered gothic structures, preeminent, quirky professors and proximity to the nation's great cities like New York, Boston or Philadelphia.

Stanley was a compelling salesman, and we agreed that I would follow his advice. Stanley set up a series of interviews for me with local admission representatives from Ivy League schools. I remember entering the University Club on Nob Hill (which I later would represent as a client) and being struck by the understated elegance of the building. I met with men established in major national companies, who agreed to support my applications. I ended up applying to three Ivy League schools while I also continued my pursuit of the original California trio. Stanley and I would talk about my status periodically by telephone.

We developed a unique relationship. At 17, young men don't have many adult male friends. But Stanley was both engaging and open, which made his "adultness" irrelevant. I learned how he actually was one of the early producers of syndicated television shows. He had come out of the business of owning and operating movie theaters. He produced such early TV shows as "Have Gun Will Travel" and "Gunsmoke." Stanley, through his Mark VII Production Co., created "Dragnet," a leading television series of its era. Stanley knew all the "stars," but was just a regular guy - a guy you could talk to, a guy who actually cared about what a young man might say.

In the winter of 1966, I received notice of early admission to Stanford University! The following week, I attended a swim team practice with some friends and was awed by my presence at the pool with future Olympic stars.

That week, Stanley called.

"What's up, Tim?" He asked.

Stanley was a friend, so there was no fudging on this one, "Well, Mr. Meyer, I just sent in my acceptance card to Stanford University. They admitted me early."

"Oh, I see. Will you and your parents be home this weekend?" He asked.

"Sure, I think so." I replied.

"Fine, then I will be up to see you and your parents on Saturday morning."

"Sure, Mr. Meyer."

Stanley arrived and sat with the three of us in our living room. He explained that while I had gotten into Stanford, I would get into the Ivy League as well. He was concerned that I would not have the opportunity to experience the richness of learning and culture available at those institutions and to make the connections that would arise from the experience. Stanley again was compelling. I withdrew my early acceptance at Stanford and took my chances on the Ivy.

That April, I got good news from two of the three Ivy League institutions. Based on the fact that I had no knowledge of either venue, Princeton was an easy choice. It was a small community, in my mind like Santa Cruz. Its focus was the undergraduate program. New York City was an hour and half away. So the decision was made.

Princeton turned out to be more than I ever had imagined. Its dedication to the undergraduate student was remarkable. Before I was done, I would enroll in the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, receive a certificate in Latin American Studies and be designated as a University Scholar, which meant that I was able to fully customize my undergraduate program. Princeton taught me to love learning, a lesson that has served me well.

I corresponded with Stanley throughout my undergraduate education and law school at UC Berkeley. Following law school, I occasionally had the privilege of sharing time with Stanley and his wife Dodo. Somewhere along the line Stanley would tell friends that he was "my second Father." And, to a certain extent, he was. I haven't really had a chance to connect with his children since his passing in 1999, but I hope that this might reach them. My message to them is "Your Father was really something. My life wouldn't be the same without him. I am enormously grateful for his generosity in supporting me, and so many others, to experience an extraordinary education."

Continue Reading