Finding The X-Factor

“Life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base” — John Bowlby

On a summer day in New York City, my wife and I took the New York ferry to Liberty when the urge came over us to do the tourist thing. After disembarking on Liberty Island, we ascended the 354 narrow steps all the way into her crown while a gaggle of young children brushed past us, racing to the top. Their parents yelled from behind, “slow down,” but what self-respecting five-year-old does not run up a flight of stairs? When we reached the summit, we were drenched with sweat from the humidity but hardly noticed as we gazed at the scene. Across New York harbor, ships were shipping, tall buildings stood taller than the laws of gravity, and Ellis Island looked for all the world like a sentinel standing guard over all that entered. She was retired now, but for sixty years that was her main job.

The family with children reassembled at the top. When mom saw Ellis Island, she became all starry-eyed and said, “your great grandfather came through here.” The boy wondered. Does she mean he came over on the Statue of Liberty?

Kids see things with preternatural wisdom. No matter where we are born or wherever we end our lives— all lives for that matter — begin as immigrants in a strange place. When we find the promised land, nothing stops us from racing up her stairs.

The steamship L’Isere

June 17, 1885

The steamship L’Isere dropped off a cargo of crates with French export stamps on the shore of Bedloe’s Island. Although France was known for fine linens, a woman wheeled down the ramp had on only a robe and a torch in her right hand. She looked tired and forlorn after a 27-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean through treacherous storms and high seas.

Her birth name was “Liberty Enlightening the World,” a collaboration between sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and framework architect Gustave Eiffel. She was the twenty-year-old brainchild of Edouard de Laboulaye, a French anti-slavery activist who wanted to commemorate the Declaration of Independence (which influenced the 1789 French Revolution) and the end of slavery. France had re-abolished the practice in 1848. Our two countries were partners in the ideals of liberty, and to mark the occasion, Bartholdi added a broken shackle and chain at her feet.

Bartholdi completed her in 1871, and De Laboulaye convinced him to find a suitable site in New York City. The sculptor selected Bedloe’s Island, now called Liberty Island, and typical of Manhattan real estate, he chose it for the view. From her perch, she could watch over every ship, a “gateway to America.”

The Statue of Liberty was conveyed from Rouen to New York harbor weighed down by luggage like immigrant families at JFK. She had claim tickets for 200 wooden crates, some of them 20 feet long containing 225 tons of copper and metal waiting to be assembled like a jigsaw puzzle. Liberty looked more like the parts of a carnival ride than an icon of freedom. At three times the heft of six 18 wheelers, she was decidedly overweight, but that was not her problem. Like most immigrants, she had no place to stay. (*The Isere would continue doing noble work until she was sunk in 1943 during World War II.)

Construction on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on Bedloe’s Island. National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM.

Previously, on July 4, 1884, the completed Statue was presented to the U.S. minister to France then disassembled before being shipped to its final resting place. Two hundred wooden crates landed upon Bedloe’s Island with a thud like the flotsam and jetsam of a castoff shipwreck on June 17, 1885. Having delivered the bounty, the French felt it was now the United States’s turn to build a pedestal, but there was no budget. Like like all immigrants, she now looked for a way to make some money.

Emma Lazarus (1849–1887) (photo: Wikipedia)

Emma Lazarus was already famous. She began writing poetry as a teenager when her father privately printed her first book of poems in 1866. Her works included translations of Goethe, Heine (still considered the best in English), Dumas, Hugo, and Schiller. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a close friend who influenced her and to whom her poetry is dedicated.

As a leading American poet of the nineteenth century, she also happened to be exquisitely pretty, smart, outspoken, influential, and rich — just the sort the committee had in mind. More to the point, Lazarus was known for compassion.

The Liberty Committee approached her about writing a poem. At first, she refused.

Lazarus was involved in raising awareness of the plight of Jewish refugees from eastern Europe, victims of Russian pogroms following Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881. The brutal violence or pogroms that descended on Russian Jews was the cause she cared about most fervently. Some convincing and a bit of metaphorical logic made her realize that the same fate awaited immigrants who arrived without a helping hand. About 1881, with the wave of immigration to the United States from European and Russian ghettoes, Lazarus took up the defense of persecuted Jews. It began her work on behalf of immigrant relief. She wrote a book of poems to this cause, The Songs of a Semite, which included her sonnet “The New Colossus.” It was chosen to be inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, the monument it celebrates a powerful American ideal: “Give me your tired, your poor,” the sonnet concludes, “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Lazarus’s iconic lines were written in 1883 and donated to the Bartholdi Fund for the Statue of Liberty, called out to the old world, “Keep your ancient lands, your storied pomp,” and beckoned immigrants to the New with a promise to embrace: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Lazarus divided the world into two; the old chained to status, the new chained to seeking a way out of poverty. It was it the latter to whom she gave hope and the former that rallied to her cause. With her contribution, the pedestal was built.

In 1892, a fortuitous coincidence took place. America’s first national immigration center for Europeans and others venturing to the New World opened called Ellis Island. It was conveniently located near Bedloe’s Island (renamed Liberty Island in 1956), and for 62 years, Lady Liberty stood guard over the 12 million immigrants who sailed into New York Harbor.

Lazarus’s poem found its metier.

The story of Ellis Island deserves mention. Named for Samuel Ellis, the merchant who sold it to New York State and then the federal government, the Army attempted to use the island “for the convalescence of immigrants” as early as 1847. Our nation’s immigration laws were a jigsaw puzzle of obscure and bureaucratic regulation. Finally, on April 11, 1890, the government ordered Ellis Island to be named the U.S.’s first federal immigration station. Notables who have arrived through Ellis island include bodybuilder Charles Atlas, actor Cary Grant, mafia boss Joe Bonanno, and author Ayn Rand. The success of immigrants still depends on resilience, entertaining the locals, occasionally skirting the law, and shrugging while carrying the world on broad shoulders.

The postscript to Ellis Island was a war of words between New York and New Jersey. Both claimed a right to the venerable landmark. As the locals know, there is no love lost between the two states. In college, my Brooklyn roommate was a professional bowler. He told me that a strike from the right side of the lane is called a “Jersey Strike.” I asked what do they call it in New Jersey?

He said, a “Brooklyn strike.”

Author at Forbes Magazine reception with Rudi Guiliani

Since Samuel Ellis first built his tavern, the two states have vied over who owns Ellis Island. In what could be called a literal “landmark” decision, the Supreme Court deemed it belonged mostly to New Jersey. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York informed the world of how he felt: ‘’No matter what the Supreme Court does — and I have great respect for the Supreme Court, and this ends it as a matter of law — they’re still not going to convince me that my grandfather, when he was sitting in Italy, thinking of coming to the United States, and on the shores getting ready to get on that ship in Genoa, was saying to himself, ‘Thank God, I’m coming to New Jersey.’ ‘’

In 1887, Lazarus penned her last book, a series of prose poems published under the title By the Waters of Babylon, before dying at age 37 from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on November 19. We know little about her other than her talent and ability to inspire the better angels of our nature. She did not live to see her poem on the pedestal. She never knew the impact Ellis Island would have on immigrants or their descendants. However, her contribution to the Statue of Liberty marks one of the implicit gestures of pure generosity in the history of humankind.

Without structure and support, we are jellyfish.

What It Means To Be Extraordinary

“Extraordinary” — from the Latin meaning beyond the normal order.”

“God is dead,” exclaimed Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1882 book of aphorisms, The Gay Science. Contrary to what people assume, the existential philosopher wasn’t making a case for atheism. He was clamoring for people to start taking more personal responsibility. It would have been more accurate and less controversial to write “God is awol.”

But who am I to edit Nietzsche?

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche 1844 — 1900

What is also interesting is that Nietzsche was born just five years before Emma Lazarus (1849). She wrote her poem in 1883, one year later than Nietzsche wrote his aphorism, telling the world it was our turn to fix things just as he had done. Was there a telepathic connection? That is a question for more occult types, but what is certain is that they were saying the same thing for the same reason. It suggests they observed the same ethnic and religious strife and came to the same conclusion. Although we can’t say they were soulmates when I find a striking coincidence it means something larger and more universal may be at work.

Nietzsche’s quote is rarely rendered in its entirety: “God is dead…Must we ourselves not become gods….” After witnessing the 19th-century brand of industrial-scale warfare, Nietzsche made a fateful and frightening calculation. The disasters led him to doubt the efficacy of old-time religion, concluding the watchmaker had left the scene and it was time for us to become self-winding (“Must we not become gods?”). It meant we should start taking responsibility, or we might all perish.

While her language is different in tone and content from Neitzsche, Lazarus is saying the same thing. “Keep, your ancient lands, your storied pomp…Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me!” She means the time has come to take care of our forlorn and homeless immigrants, and we can no longer hope for divine justice. To solve this monumental problem, we have to take matters into our own hands. Both Lazarus and Nietzsche were asking a question at the center of the Victorian intellectual heatmap ever since On the Origin of Species was published in 1859: what is to replace the guiding force of religion in a post-Darwinian world?

Nietzsche divided the human race into two mindsets: Dionysian or Apollonian. The first likes “disruption, freedom, individualism, expression, and limitlessness.” The second requires “order, rules, community, control, and boundary.” When they are in harmony within the same culture, Nietzsche believed that happiness would reign. This was a well-known Enlightenment principle memorialized in our Declaration of Independence, “life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Here was the conundrum. Without divine oversight to guide us, how much freedom is good? How do we control its excesses? If we take in immigrants, as Lazarus suggests, will the natives start building walls? If we refuse to let them in, will the brightest minds in the world, including Einstein’s, go to the enemy? Which outcome makes us happier?

Indecision is no solution. As John Stuart Mill said in 1867, it makes things worse, “Bad men need nothing more than good men should do nothing.” Often attributed to Edmund Burke, the point is that a refusal to find the answer invites tomorrow’s new tragedy. The argument can have a global impact, as in the war on terror or immigration. It can also be banal as in finding work-life balance. Nietzsche and Lazarus were among the first to realize our responsibility — and not God or government — to figure it out.

The life stories of the people we interviewed made it quite clear they were good at this. They continually found the right balance that is neither too restrictive nor loose. They had an uncanny ability to adapt how they lead, govern, love, and work to the circumstance as required. The rhythm of how they organized their lives was like listening to a Mozart sonata. Since we saw this as a requirement for an extraordinarily successful life, we called it the X-Factor.

The X (Extraordinary) Factor

Who is extraordinary? What does it mean to lead an extraordinary life? As the Latin origin of the word suggests, it means someone “beyond the normal order.” After analyzing 1500 hours of interviews with forty ultra-successful people (and couples), we had some answers.

  1. Find Your Footing — They find their balance under duress. Extraordinary people don’t break the china the moment something crazy happens. Buffett was lied to by a key employee who nearly brought the federal government down on his head. He has a jet fighter pilot instinct which allows him to be detached under fire. When I asked where did he get this, the answer was always — my parents. In some cases, mentors were bosses, coaches, and teachers. as Nikki Haley said, “I am my parents.”
  2. Feed The Brain — Contrary to the famous expression “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” extraordinary people start learning why. They learn by experience, training, reading, and thoughtful conversation. None of our subjects were big talkers, but all were great talkers. In a time of black swans, what could be more valuable? It inspires them to think of new worlds. Think of Elon Musk producing Teslas in the early stage of the financial crisis when most people were worried about paying electricity bills.
  3. Build a Dream Team — They surround themselves with supportive relationships we call dream teams. Some reimagine their upbringing, taking the best from their childhood and leaving the rest. Although many were introverts, they were also “people people.” They didn’t rely on online chums like in an Instagram feed, but a chosen network of robust, smart relationships that play devil’s advocate and moral bell ringer when the need is there. It begins with good parenting in most cases and took off from there. It is why Steve Jobs and Danny Kahneman made a habit of going for walks with a colleague when they were dealing with problems.
  4. Turn Boulders Into Gravel — When they encounter problems, they are resourceful and look for quicker and cleverer ways to solve them. We call it turning problems into possibilities. It starts with pulling them apart, holding off on a decision until the best (not always optimal) solution becomes clear. Eventually, a problem starts to resemble a solution (think Amazon and AWS).
  5. Ready To Shift Gears — They alter personal strategies as circumstance demands. Physicists call this a ‘quantum leap” or moving from one energy level to anothe. When Michael Milken’s career as a financial genius was toast, he turned himself into a philanthropic genius. It is also known as ‘seeing the big picture. If orthodox reasoning works for the ‘herd,” extraordinary people are ‘heterodox,” as John Maynard Keynes famously said, “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

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