“Coping Up”

I have often prided myself on being a good “coper;” a person who, when the times and events require it, can simply deal with a negative situation or result and get through it. As one of my sons once told me, when describing a tough patch in his life, “Dad, I have learned that sometimes the best you can do some days is get through the day, go to sleep and wait for tomorrow to come.” At the time, it struck me as a darned important thing for an 18-year-old to have learned.

And so it has been with me, sort of. For instance, when I was involved with politics, I came to realize that elections are very binary ventures; as complex and interesting, as difficult and divisive as political issues can be. When it comes to elections, you either win and serve or lose and go home.  And as much as I hated losing, I learned to deal with it when that was the hand that was dealt me. I was a “coper.” And coping meant dealing with it and moving on to the next thing. And so it has been at several junctures in my life where my aspirations and reality did not coincide.

But learning to cope does not only involve handling the negatives in one’s life. Coping also involves handling successes in a productive and thoughtful way. This was a lesson I missed several times in my younger days. And failing to “get” that lesson hindered my effectiveness in several cases. This is just one example.

When I was 24, I founded what is now the Community College of Vermont. It was, and still is, an unlikely success story for the institution and the people who worked there in the first 7-8 years, including me. Pretty heady stuff. As a result, when I retired from the presidency at age 32, I had never known defeat as a working professional adult. My mantra, unconsidered, was “If you work hard, things work out.” So, running for Lieutenant Governor of Vermont, which now looks as if it was a gross overreach, seemed like a reasonable next step at the time.

It should come as no surprise that as I headed into the home stretch of my primary election campaign –well ahead of my opponent, the incumbent – I had still not had to experience “Coping Down.” And as a result, I had no idea at all about “Coping Up” to deal with success.

In retrospect, my lifelong friend, Chuck Butler, tried to help me. Chuck had been a journalist and a political advisor to the Governor, and later went on to a distinguished career with Blue Cross in Vermont and then Montana. As I stepped forward to accept the victory that night, he whispered to me, “Be humble.”  And I was, speaking graciously about my now-defeated opponent and my upcoming opponent as well. In truth, however, as I think back on it, I took his human advice as merely tactical advice; a way to handle the evening. By Election Day, I had fallen from a strong front-runner to a narrowly-defeated candidate. Like I said, elections are very binary.

It wasn’t until almost 30 years later that I finally understood that coping with success was equally as important as coping with the negatives in life. I have come to understand that failing to achieve your expectations, whether personal or professional, can be a teacher of tremendous significance if you are ready for the lesson. Chuck wasn’t giving me tactical advice alone, he was trying to teach me  that success, as well as failure, is always qualified by factors beyond your control; by the contributions of others; by the turn of events, and, yes, sometimes by simple luck.

When you learn how to “Cope Up,” how to understand and handle success, it is a very humbling moment.

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