The Next Larger Context


There are three brothers.

The youngest delivers milk to institutional customers each night until he slips on ice in the darkness, suffers a hairline fracture of a collarbone and dies days later from a resultant blood clot.

The middle sibling leaves college three-fourths of the way to his baccalaureate and finds work as a bill collector until he succumbs, an amputee, to adult-onset diabetes.

The third brother, the oldest, is me.

My wife and I are at Fordham University in New York City this weekend for our class reunion. And to reminisce about our mutual good luck in registering for Mr. Jay’s English Lit class—where we met.

But I’m also thinking about my brothers, and why our lives turned out so differently.

In this country, we raise our children to accept the romantic notion that “if you can dream it, you can do it.”

That’s bumper sticker thinking.

I remember meeting Matt Biondi, who explained how he became one of the all-time greatest Olympic Gold Medal swimmers:

There are literally hundreds of thousands of swimmers who have the ability to win a gold medal, and hundreds of thousands more who have the motivation and drive. But there are only three or four who have taken the time to sit down with themselves and decide what they have to do to win.

Notice that the dream starts with a gift, usually an accident of birth. You’re musically talented. Or intellectually acute. Or tall. Or good looking.

The point is, there’s more to achievement than determination and drive. There has to be luck. But most of all, there has to be willingness to change—to run the risk of pursuing the next larger thing.

Eliel Saarinen was a Finnish architect famous in the early 20th century for his art nouveau buildings. His guiding principle:

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.

The next larger context.

My brothers and I came from the same parents, same house, same ethnic and religious background. But I was the brother who got the lucky breaks—and acted on them.

I was such a dutiful altar server, for example, that I was offered entry to a minor seminary, with classes taken at a New England prep school. It meant leaving home just shy of fourteen. But I ran with it, and entered a larger, vastly different world from the factories and refineries of my New Jersey hometown.

Later, as a newspaper reporter with a growing family, I realized that my salary wasn’t easily paying the bills. I answered a blind ad for a corporate job. It turned out to be IBM. It meant relocation, and starting over again as a small fish in a very big, multinational pond.

Twenty years later, when IBM needed to downsize, the company offered almost two years’ salary to incent employees to leave. Divorcing myself from this stunningly powerful and paternalistic corporation was a move I had never entertained. But my decision to resign led to the establishment of my own consultancy, Executive Media, now celebrating its twentieth year by winning two new clients.

In each case, opportunity presented itself.

In each case, I accepted change, disruption and risk.

In each case, I stepped into the next larger context.

In my next blog, “The Coywolves of Cape Cod”

Read my newest book, Fat Guy in a Fat Boat, in print or Kindle from Amazon:

Also available is my e-book, A Light from Within, about the small moments of our lives that seem commonplace until they are examined under a creative lens.


Showing 3 reactions

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  • Donna Parrish
    followed this page 2015-06-13 18:17:21 -0400
  • Katie Mcadoo
    commented 2015-06-10 18:48:57 -0400
    Age old question…Nature vs. Nurture
  • Bill Makley
    commented 2015-06-07 08:17:10 -0400
    “In each case, I stepped into the next larger context.” Something to think about, Peter, thanks.