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Executive Insight

We Climb As High As The Ladders We Stand On

We are all shaped by a dual inheritance: the fusion of our DNA and the cultural background that is reflected in our parents, demographics, finances and views of the world. Taken together, these forces form a ladder of sorts that determines how high, creative, ambitious and courageous our vision of the possibilities before us is -- and, in turn, how far we go in our careers, professions, lives.

Given the fact there are these dual forces of nature and culture forming who we are and what we become, we are not frozen in by any one type of ceiling or another. If our DNA is wanting, our cultural background can compensate--and visa versa. But in the end, it is the height of the ladder we stand on that drives how far and wide we can see -- the scope and breath our of vision and imagination -- and thus (in most cases) the high point that we reach.

To me, one of the great influencers in all of this is that we all have a handful of great teachers. From my personal experience and in talking with others, the number is three but that is certainly not a hard and fast number or an exact rule. More important is that these men and women who cross our paths and sometimes change their direction is so powerful to understanding how we arrived at where we are and how we can rise to an even higher rung.

This is a wonderful time of the year to think back to the great teachers in our lives and ask a) what they taught us and b) are we still practicing the lessons and applying the insights they generously passed along?

My extraordinary teachers were as follows:

*My Father:

We had a strange brew of loving and yet tempestuous relationship -- and he died a sudden and tragic death at age 40 (when I was 17) -- but in the brief time I knew him he taught me to:

*Never quit anything you start

*Always treat everyone you work with, at any level or stature in life, with absolute dignity

*When your back is against the wall, push off and fight harder than you ever have

*Read everything of quality that you can get your hands on and look for the epiphanies embedded in the words

*Louis The Produce Manager:

When I was a high school student, I landed a job at a local supermarket. The person who hired me for after-school work, assigned me to the produce department. There I fully expected to go through the motions, earn my pay and leave as fast as I could to rejoin my friends.

But Louis would have none of it: he saw a capable young man and wanted me to become a produce expert. Not to stock fruit and vegetables, per se, but to understand them. To know how to thump a watermelon to test its ripeness. To smell an onion and understand that it is something that made you cry when you peeled it could also be as fragrant as a sweet summer morning. Louis' primary lesson, taught in his own working class way, was that when you have a task in front of you, don't try to get through it: learn to master it. The lessons will carry through your entire life.

*John Hay Whitney:

I never met the man but in college I worked on his estate. He was one of the wealthiest men in the world and his mansion was testimony to it. There were nearly 100 people in full-time staff, thousands of acres, prize horse stables and a botanist in chief (my boss) who was cultivating new species of orchids in the name of the Whitney family.

This was hardly a form of intimate knowledge sharing but as a lower middle class kid, I never knew that this world existed. That there were such wealthy and powerful people. That the sky truly was the limit. That the goals my parents had set out for me were small in comparison and that if I wanted to build an enterprise, own a horse farm, publish a newspaper (as Whitney did), I could aspire to that. And that if I achieved it or not, it was up to me and no one else.

Three amazing teachers. Three dramatically different people and circumstances. Three forces that impacted my inheritance.

Three people who increased the height of my ladder


Mark Stevens

CEO of marketing firm MSCO, Inc.| Bestselling Author of Your Marketing Sucks & King Icahn