What If…I’d Been Meaner?

I read an article last weekend in USA Today about the new Steve Jobs movie. There was a quote that struck me, that to me really cuts to the core of the trade-offs we make every day.

The question is, “Had he been a bit nicer, could he have put a dent in the universe the way that he did?” Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson told reporters at the New York Film Festival Saturday. “I hope people see this movie and have those arguments in the parking lot after,” Sorkin added.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, nor was I one of the millions that read the biography on which the movie is based. This blog is called Too Much Mel, so this isn’t about Steve Jobs. My question is this: could I make a dent in the universe if I was a bit meaner? If I was little less concerned about my impact on others, and less interested in helping others grow, could I make a bigger difference?

Boy, is that hard to contemplate.

It’s hard because breaking your whole person up into pieces and trying to hold some elements constant while you vary others is a crazy abstraction. Sure, it works in a science experiment but it doesn’t work so neatly in real life. Keep the drive, intellect, creativity and passion. Let go of the empathy, mentorship and balance. Be ok leaving carnage. Or more accurately, do not even notice or recognize the carnage. I don’t know that person. She is so foreign to me that I am unable to anticipate her actions.

But, I am certain that she would have made a bigger dent in the universe.

Why? Because in 2004, my job asked me to be that person. I was offered, and accepted, an international assignment. It was a great opportunity, the kind of opportunity that few people are offered and sets the stage for future doors to open. Every career-driven part of me reared up to grab hold, take notice and kick ass. I was in full dent-making mode.

And then my family started to fall apart. I had started the job a scarce three months after my second child was born, flying there alone for a month to set-up my department and our home. We returned together and I settled into helping my family build a new normal. But my husband struggled to adapt to a foreign culture and to take care of an infant and a toddler on his own without his support network. I thought of and executed a number of plans to try to improve the situation, but nothing seemed to help. I was fighting a war on two fronts: at home to ensure my family was strong and healthy and at work to deliver an entirely new business capability.

In that moment, I had the chance to embrace my inner dent-maker. I knew that I could put my husband and kids on a plane, send them back to what they needed and focus my attention on the job. Or, I could figure out how to abort and get us all home. At that time I saw clearly the two paths and what they would mean. If I chose the job, the odds of keeping my marriage together were slim. If I chose my marriage, the odds of advancing to the level I wanted to in my career were even slimmer.

I chose to be nice, I chose my marriage.

I’ve shared the story many times over the years and I’ve shared my regrets. I regret that I thought we would be capable of being successful overseas. I regret that I couldn’t help my husband find the joy in a new culture. I regret that I let down my leadership and that I couldn’t take the work to the finish line. But, I don’t regret the decision to be nice. I have never had anything more than calm certainty around that.

So, I know that I will not be a dent-maker. Because in the end, when push comes to shove, I will be nice. And, there will always be be someone as smart as me, as motivated as me and as passionate as me — and just a bit less nice. Someone for whom being nice is less important. Someone who needs to make a dent in the universe more.

And thank goodness for that, because I really love my iPhone.