We Knew We Were Pilgrims

October 20, 2006   

"Organization can never be a substitute for initiative and for judgment."-Justice Louis Brandeis

As I write this, I'm on a train heading towards Boston to attend the annual weekend-long leadership conference at Brandeis University called BAMD! - Brandeis Alumni Making a Difference. While I was packing reading material for the trip, I decided to brush aside the remaining 150 pages of Wisdom of Crowds, and bring A Host at Last: Abraham L. Sachar's memoir on the founding of Brandeis University. Though I've read this inspirational and historical book several times before, I hadn't touched it since the founding of my own institution (indeed, a company is this!), and so I thought this trip back to my alma matter would be an appropriate time to re-read one of my favorite chapters.

We Knew We Were Pilgrims is just 7 pages of the 300 page memoir -- the shortest chapter in the entire book -- but it teaches what I think is the most important story in the book: the story of how Dr. Sachar came to decide to come out of retirement and assume the presidency of a troubled and nascent institution.

While the entire story of this final decision to take the helm moves me, there is one particular story he recounts that moves me to the point of empowerment. On his first trip to the East Coast to assess his offer from the founding trustees, Sachar stops in Washington, DC to meet with Brandeis cheerleader David Niles, who at the time was working at the White House serving as President Truman's administrative assistant. Sachar writes:

[Niles] reminded me that the issue was not whether there should be a Jewish-founded university, for that issue had already been settled; the commitment had been made. The only remaining question was whether the university would be a pedestrian undertaking, shaming the American Jewish community, or a high-quality institution that would meet the hopes of generations who had so long waited for fulfillment. (p. 25)

Indeed, this is the lesson for nearly every undertaking worthy of doing: It's not a matter of whether we will do something, it's how well we do it. Said differently, if you're going to do something, don't do it half-heartedly.

(I believe the book Getting Real, a staple for many web entrepreneurs these days, says this differently, though the meaning may be similar. "Build half a product, not a half-ass product," reads the first line of one of their chapters.)

As I get arrive here in Boston and get ready to hear the wisdom of so many Brandeis alumni who are making a difference in the world today, I'm quite sure they know this lesson well (and I'm also quite sure they learned some of the lesson at Brandeis!). What I'll be keeping my eye on is how they took this lesson -- that things worth doing must be done well -- and executed. Execution has been the subject of interest for me lately (and a post about it will soon follow), because as I'm learning, once you decide something's worth doing, and once you decide to do it well, figuring out exactly what that means is the most difficult task. Abraham Sachar figured it out, and so I feel lucky to have graduated from a place with such a legacy.

If I am to make a difference, it will happen because I too will choose to do things well, and then move on to do them.

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