June 2008 Reflection

“That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life,” Mortenson says. “We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly…Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.” – Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea

I think the tendency to want to accomplish everything quickly is especially encouraged in college and university life in the United States. It is, of course, one of the most energizing aspects of an American university education, but perhaps the great blessing of this year has been the opportunity to put this gear in reverse and slow down. For Mortenson, that lesson came in the high mountains of Pakistan; for me, it has been a lesson that I have begun to absorb while studying and living in Ireland.

I think I learned over the year the same lesson that Haji Ali taught Mortensen: that the pace of our lives determines how successfully we can manage our relationships and friendships, and that these two are essential to our ability to find purpose and success in our work. I wrote about friendship in an earlier journal entry, but I can’t help but revisit the topic now, on reflection, because it has been the singular part of the Mitchell experience. Certainly my most enjoyable memories from this semester have involved the other scholars, particularly those moments when we debated public issues long into the night, making our case for this or that candidate or policy.

I understand better now why the organizers of a scholarship program would want to explicitly combine an emphasis on leadership with the opportunity to build friendships. The plain truth is that the US-Ireland Alliance could, if it had wanted, given us each a stipend for our studies and then left us to our own devices, not organizing any shared programming or experiences. But, this would seem to me, now, to be inconsistent with the mission of encouraging public leadership. In Aristotle’s Ethics, which is written as an introduction to his Politics and is divided into ten books, the only subject to receive two books is friendship. This is deliberate. On Aristotle’s view, friendship was essential to living a good life because friends encouraged what he called “mutual correction.” That is, our friends would be responsible for our growth just as we would be responsible for theirs.

We all know and recognize leaders, past and present, whose close friends and advisers have played a vital role in “correcting” them, helping them to reach the limits of their potential. We also can probably name leaders who do not have the luxury of such friendships. I can’t help but think that, by design, this year has guaranteed for each of us a set of friends who will push and provoke at just the right moments.

For that, and the other experiences, I owe the Alliance, Mary Lou, Trina, and the 11 other Mitchells a tremendous debt of gratitude.

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