Archive for the People Category


Posted in People with tags on January 21, 2008 by barbararuth

Six years ago, I took a trip to Atlanta. I visited the King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the family home where he was born. I also saw an unexpected photo of King at the Margaret Mitchell House — as a child, he sang with the church choir at the premiere of Gone with the Wind. As I sat down to lunch before heading for the airport, I realized I had forgotten to visit the grave.

 Yesterday I saw something on television that gives me a new take about that omission. I watched a biography of Alexander Hamilton. At its conclusion, the scholars commented on the fact that there is no fancy Hamilton memorial site. One said that “we don’t tend to memorialize people who make systems”, that we prefer to erect things like statues to commemorate things like battles. The final speaker said that there is no need for a “Hamilton memorial.” Since he was a primary creator of the Constitution, the federal banking system, and the army, “we live IN his memorial.”

In Atlanta, I was so caught up in the physical and verbal artifacts of King’s life that the grave seemed almost irrelevant.


Diane Middlebrook, 1939-2007

Posted in People on December 17, 2007 by barbararuth

I was sad to learn today that Diane Middlebrook has died. I never worked with Prof. Middlebrook at Stanford; my only encounter with her was over email. When I wrote to ask her for guidance about becoming a biographer, she advised doing what she did — “appointing” myself to a project and “bumbling along.” She offered to help me learn how to organize my research, a task which she said was one of the most challenging parts of writing biography.

I am happy now that I had the presence of mind to write back and thank her when my biography project was published.

Finding a Mentor — Tricky Business for Pioneers

Posted in People on August 22, 2007 by barbararuth

My grandmother died a few years ago. She was 93. At her wake, a 70+ year old friend of hers stood up and told the story of how she was always going to my grandmother for encouragement.

“I’d say, ‘I’m scared,’ and Sophie would say, ‘You just have to do it. Even if you’re scared, what choice do you have? Just stand up there and do it.'”

It made me think — the need for such encouragement never ends! As a child, one gets way too much advice and biased attempts at guidance. As an adult, one has to work at identifying mentors and crafting relationships with them. I hope my experience is unusual, but I have found it very difficult to find mentors who are willing or able to provide suggestions along alternative or unconventional paths.

The traditional role of the career mentor, as I’ve observed it, is to point out the hidden or unspoken realities of the normal path. What’s appropriate or not appropriate. Who to approach or not to approach. How to power-dress. I have gotten mostly unhelpful responses to questions like: “I don’t have a graduate degree or the money to get one. I know it’s not legally required; how would you suggest I get a foot in without going back to school?” or “I know the usual path is to start as an ‘assistant’, but I’m 40 years old with 20 years of work experience. Is there something else I could offer as I apprentice, other than entry-level, office work?”

The one exception I’ve encountered is telling. I have rarely met a self-employed PhD (in something other than academia or a licensed profession) who didn’t tell me that I don’t need one, that they don’t “use” theirs, and that they wish they’d use the time they spent getting it doing something else (often, that something else is “learning how to market myself.”)

I believe that what’s behind this is a form of insecurity — perhaps imposter syndrome. Even very successful people have bought into the notion that their specific education and training is what makes them qualified to do what they do. I don’t think it works that way.

It seems to me that we’re born with gifts, talents, and sensibilities that our educational experiences (and not just the formal ones) nurture. We all need to learn specific skills and gain particular knowledge to apply those gifts responsibly in the world; however, the notion that there is only one path to this learning is dangerous.

What gets lost to the world when we prevent talented people from sharing those talents because their dress and manner doesn’t please the people in position to hand out the credentials? Or, when the only credentials that count cost tens of thousands of dollars?

The King

Posted in People on August 14, 2007 by barbararuth

I still remember the moment I heard that Elvis had died. In August of 1977, a tell-all book by Elvis’ disloyal entourage had been released. I was 10 years old and had been completely hooked by the sensationalistic excerpts published in People — especially the story of Elvis’ spearing a woman’s breast with a pool cue and “paralyzing” it. My mother interrupted my TV watching on the afternoon of the 16th to ask, “Have you heard about Elvis?”

“Yes, and I want it!” I said, speaking of the book.

She gave me a puzzled look and said, “He died.”

Like most kids, I spent the occasional sleepless night trying to come to some peace with the idea of mortality. For some reason, this news about Elvis sent those ruminations in a different direction. I became obsessed with listening over and over to Elvis’ records, trying to apprehend how the man could be dead while his voice was still alive on a piece of spinning vinyl.

By the end of the year, I had come to a new relationship with mortality — and with history. I had lived, I realized, in the time of Elvis. The rest of my life would be spent in time not shared with Elvis. To this day, when I learn the ages of people who are younger than I am, I calculate whether or not they lived in the time of Elvis.

One clue — when I share my memory with post-1977 babies, many of them do not immediately get the reference to spinning vinyl!

Call to Greatness

Posted in Methods, People on May 31, 2007 by barbararuth

Before I heard the term “call to greatness” in coaching and new age circles, I had the good fortune to have an eighth grade teacher who was a master practitioner of the call to greatness. Part of his personal myth (probably true) was that his father had worked with Albert Einstein and that his childhood conversations with “the smartest man who ever lived” had served as part of his inspiration to become a math teacher.

He introduced to his honors algebra class an exercise he called the Test-a-Day-Experiment, “TADE” for short. Every class begun with a short test. Sometimes it was a mundane pop quiz on material covered the previous week. Other times, he would pick a topic in mathematics that would not be covered until several months later. We were pushed to deduce our way to answers as a foundation for deep understanding when the material was presented in the future. Then there were the days when Mr. Paige got creative, and the test would consist of a single question such as, “Which is warmer, love or a blanket?”

Every day that we entered that cozy room, which was washed in sunlight and smelled of the old wooden cabinets, we left “school” and joined timeless community of intellectual playmates whose members included the legendary Einstein.

With teachers like that, is it any wonder that I never developed a particular focus on grades?!

Dr. Edgar Shein on Social Coercion

Posted in Methods, People on May 12, 2007 by barbararuth

I found a fascinating autobiographical essay on Edgar Shein’s site at MIT. If you aren’t familiar with Shein, he is the author of a concept he has labeled career anchors. He says that in each of us, one of eight motivators predominates in our career choices.

For example, the autonomy anchor drives the field sales person who rejects a lucrative move into managing the team. The lifestyle anchor moves executives (these days, male and female ones) onto what has been called “the mommy track.” The technical compentence anchor may have been the one that led Microsoft Chief Executive Bill Gates to change his role to that of Chief Technical Officer.

In “The Academic as Artist: Personal and Professional Roots,” which can be downloaded in .pdf at his official site at MIT, Dr. Shein shares the academic and professional journey that has included studying brainwashing in POW camps and the indoctrination of corporate managers. He attributes his interest in this territory to his personal history as a refugee and immigrant.

What interests me in this essay is an underlying premise that I share with Dr. Shein — that there is an inherent tension between dependence and autonomy, between every individual’s desire to be free and any organization’s need (even legitimate need) to impose structure.

I have come to terms with the idea that it is growthful, and probably necessary to my life’s work, to have some involvement with institutions. (As I said, I’ve let go of the idea of living off the grid, literally or figuratively!) However, I still feel viscerally threatened by organizations. It is not yet the sort of dance Shein seems to have found as a professor.

Silly Post About Gilligan’s Island

Posted in People, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized on May 9, 2007 by barbararuth

As someone who grew up watching a lot of TV, I am always intrigued to discover the perspectives of early TV stars who grew up without it. I love their sense of wonder about something that is for me so mundane. It is corny and sweet, but I am touched by it. From the personal site of Russell Johnson:

“I have received mail throughout the years from young viewers from all over the
world, year after year, who were so influenced by the Professor’s smarts that they
became science buffs and are now Real Professors, Doctors and Scientists.
It makes me proud . . .

Believe it or not the cast of Gilligan babysat some of you, many a time in your
lives. The little boys and girls that we, the cast, baby sat are now serving our
country, putting their lives on the line for us everyday of their young lives.
Makes me proud of you . . .

Now, many of you with children watch Gilligan along with them. You laugh together.
All of it fills my wife Constance and me with major affection for you.
I am delighted to be a part of all your lives.”

I think it must be pretty nice to look back over your 80 years and feel that you were part of something new in the world and that made a lot of people happy, even a little happy.