# 351: Neither Defiance, Nor Fear


Graham, Katharine (1997). Personal History, 605.

Story behind the Passage

Today I watched a few minutes of a movie about a girl who works in a nursing home. One day she takes an old lady, who is really treated like a senile idiot by her children who just want her money, to her former work place — a hotel. All the staff members still recognize her and she enjoys the visit as if it were a Disneyland venture. It rejuvenates her, she does not even need her cane to walk anymore, and she appears 20 years younger. The day is a true highlight and she tells the young nurse the story of how she had managed to have a career there as a woman while her family did not want her to work there and nobody believed in her abilities. A few days after this episode, she falls ill and is about to die. She asks the young woman to leave her alone, so she can go in peace. But before, she passes on an important lesson to her:

“Do not allow anything to stop you — neither defiance, nor fear.”

These words of wisdom really touched me. Not necessarily the “do not let anything stop you” part but the “defiance and fear” part. It is so striking because both elements come from inside. Yes, obstacles, at least at first sight, come from outside but ultimately it is your response to them which makes you stop — or not. And defiance is a truly illuminating one. It speaks to me because when I hit a major obstacle, which usually involves other people, I tend to just say: “F* it, I do not want to mess with this anymore.” This is nothing but defiance. And it can really stop you because you are building your own prison. As soon as you start being defiant, it gets harder and harder to change your mind about something and to tell people that you might be sorry. Instead, you get deeper and deeper into the defiance mode.

This farewell advice from an old, dying woman to a young one made me choose a book about a successful grande dame today. I have to admit, I have not read the entire Graham autobiography but I know bits and pieces of it and about her life in relation to the Washington Post. Even before she becamse its head, she went through hell with her husband who ended up killing himself. And then, she went through professional hell with thte newspaper while being the first woman in the 20th century to actually hold this position. And we are talking about the publishing business here, one of the most difficult industries ever. So, in sum, Graham did not let anything stop her…

My Learnings

“After all the years of struggle, things had finally started to go smoothly for the company and for me.” The most outstanding thing that jumps at me when I read memoirs like Graham’s is the profound meaning of “years.” We are talking about a book that has around 620 pages. It brings together the life of an outstanding intellectual and manager. This is what memoirs are supposed to be — not some 150 page executive summary of some 20-year old startup millionaire. So, what I am trying to say is that “years” is an understatement. She refers to decades of hard work; long years of an individual life and of world history inseparabely intertwined. Graham’s biggest triumph, the publication of the Pentagon Papers, could just as easily have been her complete defeat. But she stood tall, she had the courage, and she said “yes,” we are going to print this.

But I do not want to get into politics here. I simply want to emphasize how enormous such a life achievement is. When she talks about “years of struggle,” she refers to her entire life time up to the point of writing. And she mastered all the ups and downs of an entrepreneurial life in the spotlight of public scrutiny and political mudslinging. Can anybody imagine this who is 30 or 40 today? I cannot. I have to admit, yes, I am a long-distance runner but really, because of the impatience that is still driving me, I always wonder if I failed completely if I do not achieve a goal within three years or so. Measured against the dimension of Graham’s scope of influence, this is nothing — really nothing, not even noteworthy.

So, success, after all, this is what her story and the stories of most other really successful men and women show, are about endurance and humbleness. This is it. And something like defiance does not have a place there. It is not only stupid, it is completely naïve to think that defiance will get you somewhere. You might say that defiance is just anger, which would be more obviously grounded in the human psyche, but really I do not think so. Fear is fear and you can overcome it as far as it is possible by learning and gaining more confidence in your decisions. Defiance is childish and needs to go if you want to get somewhere and leave this world just like the old lady in the movie — with dignity and peace about your life achievements.

Reflection Questions

1) If you were to die soon, at your present age, what would be the most important lesson you would like to pass on to a younger person?

2) Do you think that the ability to endure in order to achieve long-term goals naturally improves as you grow older? Why/not?

3) How do you personally define “humbleness”? When did you realize the importance of this concept in your own life?