First Hit The Little Ball

To change the world, start with what you want to do, not what someone says you should do.

“Hit the little ball before you hit the big ball.”

Golfers use the expression above to prevent taking a large divot before striking the ball. When you don’t follow this rule, it can be very unpleasant as dirt flies in the air and the ball barely moves or is shanked into the rough. People will look the other way and smirk, “He hit the big ball first.”

The meaning is clear — hit the golf ball first and then the big ball, which as you may have guessed is the planet Earth.

It is also true for those who play the game called changing the world. Whenever I hear someone say, “have goals that are bigger than yourself,” I realize they may mean well, but what they are saying is hit the big ball first or stop thinking of yourself and start changing the world.

It doesn’t work in life any better than in golf. It also suggests they may be offering expensive golf lessons.

When fame is the currency of the realm, as in the era of social media, the very act of shaming manipulates public opinion like nothing else. We are suckers for shame as there is no snappy comeback to “you aren’t doing enough.” Some people use this weapon with great skill, and we call them by various names, including influencers, social justice activists, climate change consultants, and even occasionally, journalists.

“I’m not a social worker. I do it for the church.”

— Saint Teresa

Contrary to popular perception, Mother Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu, honored in the Catholic Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, was an Albanian-Indian Roman Catholic nun and missionary who may not have been as saintly as presumed.

According to a helpful journalist, Douglas Robertson of the Independent, this was the verdict: “Mother Teresa wasn’t saintly — she was a shrewd operator with unpalatable views….who knew how to build up a brand.” Seeking to be portrayed as more sympathetic than that sounded, he added, “I’m not going to go down the well-trodden route of criticizing a person that Christopher Hitchens once famously dubbed ‘a lying, thieving Albanian dwarf’ — but I do intend to let you know about the truth surrounding this mysterious saint (and it’s not all peace and love).”

Not All Peace and Love

Let me be sure here. Is The Independent is a brand or not, for starters? Based on his definition of organizing a movement, aren’t we all potential brand managers? Secondly, since when is shrewdness a sin? Wouldn’t that make “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s sinful? Although the seven deadly sins are all too familiar, I doubt that Pope Gregory Ist, who came up with the idea, would have intentionally left that one out. Do we now have to recompute for eight?

When Mother Teresa started the Missionaries of Charity, she recruited 13 members. By the end of her life, there were over 4,000 worldwide whose efforts help people in great suffering and distress. An old African proverb says it takes a village. It also takes a shrewd operator.

Let me add one who’s sinfully shrewd.

The Big Ball’s Challenges

Why do you think the world picks extraordinary people to take on big challenges? Because most of us are not nearly as dedicated or talented, we would probably fail if we tried to run the show, and it is why leaders come in all shapes and colors but never in a perfect size. Mother Teresa was given a gift and among the many things she was able to do was organize. Millions were grateful. One was not.

Make that two.

The aforementioned master of the dwarf put down, Christopher Hitchens, traveled all the way to the Vatican to argue in front of the Pope that Teresa should be denied Sainthood. Hitchens made a career out of playing “devil’s advocate” against her. That is not an expression in his case, but a canonical right of the church which has come down to us in the form of a famous expression which today means someone who questions conventional wisdom. In his case, it was neither unconventional nor wise.

As he is called by friends of whom Teresa was decidedly not, Hitch testified that “Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor.” How did he come by this insight? Because when pressed about her purpose on earth, he recalled Teresa saying, “I’m not a social worker. I do it for the church.” Hitchens found this unspeakably rude. What was his problem? That she didn’t do it so that she “could be bigger than herself,” you can hear his outcry.

First Class Journalist

Hitchens flew to Rome to challenge her beatification (first-class, I might add). Not only did he get an audience in the Vatican, but he also got a story out of it, which goes to the point about those who shout the loudest care the least. Thankfully, he failed, and Teresa was sainted, but it leaves the feeling that if you think you have enemies, now wait until you qualify for sainthood.

What isn’t a mystery is that we judge others by inputs instead of outputs, the way we want to be judged ourselves. Hitchens suggested that good only happens when we do good things for no particular practical reason. This is an impossible situation. It sounds like insanity more than charity.

The Greatest Vacation

In 1879, the French scientist, Louis Pasteur, researched the cause of chicken cholera to help the local farmers (to be sure he had an incentive) and instructed an assistant to inject the chickens with a culture of viral bacteria.

You can hear Hitchens saying, all he wanted to do was cure chickens! How pedestrian!

The assistant went on vacation and forgot Pasteur’s instruction. When he returned a month later, the chickens were injected but only showed mild signs of the disease. When they regained their health, Pasteur injected them with fresh bacteria. The chickens did not become ill this time. Pasteur reasoned that what made the bacteria less deadly was exposure to oxygen during the assistant’s vacation. It revolutionized the world of infectious diseases and marked the birth of immunology. In the process of helping civilization, you might say, Pasteur developed a brand.

The point is that luck or circumstance plays a large role in our motivation. The country doctor and the village nun have various reasons for sacrificing their lives for the greater good, but selfish ambition is usually among them. Once motivated, natural creative instincts take over, and the result is as good or better than if a saint had done the experiment.

That is unless you happen to be a journalist.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes