My father was a doctor. When he finished medical school, he planned to pursue a career with some prestige attached to it. He was going to become a surgeon or physician in some teaching hospital. He would work his way up the hierarchy until he was like Sir Lancelot Spratt, with a host of nurses, doctors, medical students and sundry allied health professionals traipsing after him, writing down his pronouncements and doing his bidding.
My mother had a different view of what sort of life would suit them and she persuaded my dad to instead become a country GP in a relatively poor part of Derbyshire. He spent much of his working life visiting patients in their cramped terraced houses or sitting in his surgery looking into the ears of snotty nosed children. He was not followed around by an entourage. His work was not with the rich or the famous and he didn’t become rich or famous himself. On the surface, he might seem like a relatively insignificant figure.
But if you walk into the local newsagent with my father, who has been retired for 14 years now, it is very likely that someone will rush up to him and say something like, ‘Oh Dr Collis, It is my lovely, lovely Dr Collis’.
In his small way, in this small village in the middle of England, my dad is famous. He is famous to these people because he was very, very kind and caring to them at a point in their life when they needed this more than anything. Because he listened to his patients with great interest, even if they were telling him about problems with endless green snotty noses. He started with the assumption that his patients mattered and their worries were important and that meant everything to them.
My mother is also ‘famous’ in this small village in Derbyshire. She is famous for her stalwart support of people through the tough times of life, for her capacity to be with people through the periods of grief, loneliness and overwhelmingly bad odds that visit us all. People often say to me, ‘I don’t know what we would have done without your Mum when…happened.’
My parents remind me of the wonderful poem, ‘Famous’ by Naomi Shihab Nye, here is an excerpt:
The river is famous to the fish
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
There is so much written about how to become successful. But the success these articles describe is about fame and fortune rather than the gratitude of a middle aged lady in the local newsagent. And that is a problem.
It is a problem because chasing money and status sucks vitality out of life.
It is a problem because chasing prestige leads you to focus energy on things that aren’t really important to you:
“What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world…..Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like but what you’d like to like…Prestige is just fossilised inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious…
Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule to simply avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.’ Paul Graham
When you are in your late 70’s, as my father is. What will touch you most:
- That you rose through the corporate ranks?
- That you earned lots of money and drove a fancy car?
- That you were, in your own world, a Lancelot Spratt?
- That somewhere there is a person; someone who, like you, is insignificant in the scheme of things; and they remember how you treated them?
- That somewhere there is a piece of work, something that was done really well…by you.
If you were famous in these small ways – what would you choose to be famous for?