Cup 11

Person: Lisa Gnass

drink: several cups of fresh brewed

On Friday, while enjoying my 11th cup of coffee at the Soup Spoon Café in Lansing, Lisa Gnass told me a parable:

One morning, an American businessman is sitting on the pier of a little coastal town when a small boat docks alongside him. Inside is an old man with four large fish. The American, clearly impressed with the fisherman, asks why the fisherman stopped fishing so early when he was clearly having a good day.

The fisherman replied, “I have caught all that I need to provide sustenance for my family. Now I can go home and enjoy lunch with my beautiful wife, relax with a good book this afternoon, and tonight I will go play guitar and sip wine with good friends.”

The businessman is astounded at the response—this man is not living up to his full potential! He says to the angler, “You are talented! If you fished longer, you could catch enough fish to buy a bigger boat!”

To which the fisherman asks, “And then what?”

“Well, once you had a bigger boat you could catch enough to hire men to help you catch even more fish. Then you could buy more boats and hire more men.”

Again, the fisherman asks, “And then what?”

The businessman replies, “Then you would have a fleet and large profits so when you were ready you could sell your business and amass a small fortune. You would have become very successful and could retire nicely.”

 “What would I do once I retire?”

The businessman answered proudly, “That’s the best part! You’ll have enough money you spend your days relaxing by the water, having lunch with your beautiful wife, reading in the afternoon and playing your guitar at night!”

Lisa, whom I met through a mutual friend, was making the point that all to often, we get caught chasing a very narrow ideal of success and in the process forget the reason we are chasing success in the first place. Instead of climbing the corporate ladder to achieve the lifestyle we want, we live the lifestyle of ladder climbing in hopes that happiness will be waiting at the top.

Lisa wasn’t immune to this lifestyle. When Lisa left college she started climbing—she was smart, ambitious, talented, and a naturally competitive person. She wanted to prove herself and create an ideal life, so she followed the steps and landed a respectable job at a government agency. Each morning she put on her suit, arrived on time, punched in, and worked her eight hours before the boss let her leave.

Then she woke up the next morning to do it again.

After working weeks without being late of asking for a day off, Lisa asked her boss if she could come in an hour late the following day so she could go to the courthouse and sign her marriage license. Her boss, shocked that she had the audacity to make such a request, replied, “Your life should revolve around your job—not the other way around.”

That’s when she realized this was not the place for her to thrive.

So she made a change. During her time with the company, she realized she had a talent for writing and marketing communications, so she worked out a situation where she could do contract work with the company instead of being employed fulltime. She found more clients and started consulting independently.

The job fit her lifestyle. It allowed her to help her husband, Cameron, who was running his own creative studio. They had student loans to pay back, but they lived within their means and worked hard as they each grew their businesses. Eight years and three kids later, Lisa returned to organizational life as the Executive Director of the Mid-Michigan Ronald McDonald House. She wasn’t looking for a way back into the office world, but she was on the organization’s board and when they couldn’t find a director she stepped up for the position—it was a cause that was worth putting on a suit.

That’s what I really liked about Lisa. Well, one of many things. I got the impression she doesn’t spend too much time worrying about what others think about her. Lisa has three wonderful children, a great husband, a job that is meaningful, and a list of hobbies she enjoys. Like the fisherman, those are the things that matter to Lisa, and she invests her time and money into the things that make her successful and happy.

As I listened to Lisa tell her story, thoughts were bouncing around my mind like crazy. I understood where she was coming from, I would much rather spend $300 dollars on a plane ticket to visit a friend than the hottest new handbag. That said, when I look into my future, I picture a big house fitting in somewhere—I live in a society where a big house equals a successful life—and like any serious college student, I want to succeed in life.

But Lisa proves that success looks different for everyone. The cup of coffee (and a delicious breakfast of eggs and bacon) helped me realize that we have to decide for ourselves what it means to be successful and strive for that goal—not the goals that others determine. But, more importantly, we must accept that if our view of success differs from the norm, people will likely judge us.

That, at some point, will happen to me. And hen that day happens I will look back on my conversation with Lisa and remember that what others think shouldn’t trump what is best for me and those most important in my life.

I will also think about my dad. Because he was the first person to tell me the story of the fisherman. We were sitting by the beach listening to the waves roll in one Easter while on vacation. At the time, I took the parable for face value. But as I look back on that serene moment, I realize my dad was telling me I didn’t need to build a metaphorical fleet of boats to be a success—I could if I wanted to—but he was more concerned that I build a life that made me happy.

The American businessman might not understand, but that’s alright—it’s not his life.