If You Really Want to Matter in a Significant Way, Stay Open-Minded

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 15, Issue No. 4a
August 1, 2016

By Dan Coughlin

I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell. He spent sixty years studying ancient mythology and extracted lessons from those myths that we can use in modern-day life in practical ways. He called his most famous set of lessons, The Hero’s Journey. Here’s a short explanation of the Hero’s Journey:

An ordinary person hears a call to action to find the Holy Grail. The person leaves his or her community and along the way finds a wise old mentor who provides guidance on the journey. Then this person is confronted by a dragon who is protecting the Holy Grail. The mentor gives the person a magic sword, which he or she uses to kill the dragon. This person becomes a hero when he or she brings the Holy Grail back to his or her community.

(Author’s Note: You can learn a lot more about the Hero’s Journey by reading The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers or The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Or you can put this into your Google Search Engine: The Memo that Started It All by Christopher Vogler. That will take you to a relatively short paper that explains the Hero’s Journey in a very straightforward way, and how it has affected hundreds of films and novels.)

The Holy Grail is Personal Significance

In my opinion, the Holy Grail in business and in life is to really matter in a significant way. I define personal significance as making a tremendously positive and lasting impact on a meaningful outcome. The rewards (salary, bonus, house, cars, retirement package, etc) are nice, but I think what drives people the most is to know their lives made a real difference at home, at work, and in their community.

But it’s vastly harder to make a significant difference than it is to talk about making one. Just like the Holy Grail in ancient times, it’s often pursued but difficult to attain. So how does a person get there?

Arrogance is the Dragon

First, understand the dragon that is protecting the Holy Grail of personal significance. It’s arrogance.

There are two ways to define arrogance. There is external arrogance and internal arrogance.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines arrogance as an insulting way of thinking or behaving that comes from believing that you are better, smarter, or more important than other people. That’s the external version of arrogance. It’s usually a big turnoff except in the rare situations where some people want an arrogant person to lead them out of a crisis.

The internal version of arrogance is even more dangerous than the external one. Internal arrogance happens when a person believes he or she knows everything and has nothing left to learn. When that happens, all growth has come to an end. The person’s odds of making a tremendously positive and lasting impact on a desired outcome go down greatly when he or she is done learning.

31 years ago today (August 1, 1985) I started my career. I’ve had one job for 31 years. My job has always been to work directly with people to try to help them achieve what they want to achieve. I don’t gather statistics and put out reports. I work every day directly with people, and I get to see which of their approaches do and don’t work in achieving what they want. I’ve had the same three roles for all 31 years: teacher, coach, and guide. I explain ideas, I observe and listen to people and offer my suggestions to them, and I guide a group of people toward an outcome by asking questions and getting them to think and share their ideas.

I can unequivocally say that the people who ruined their chances the most toward making a significant difference were the ones who thought they had all the answers and refused to learn any new ideas from anyone else.

Arrogance happens to small groups of people inside of organizations as well.

I remember sitting in a meeting of top divisional leaders in a Fortune 50 company about 15 years ago. One person said, “We have all the smartest people in the division in this room. If we can’t solve the problem, no one can.” I thought, “Huh? You have thousands of people in this division. There are great ideas all over the place. The ten of you should get out of this room and start talking to people all across the division to see what ideas they have. The power of this group is in expanding the reach of great ideas, not in shutting out great ideas.”

18 months later all ten of those divisional executives had been replaced.

If you’re in such a group, think of yourself as a butterfly net, not a jar. Go out of the room and reach for ideas all across your business and bring them back to the room. Don’t just be satisfied with the butterfly you caught last year and kept locked in a jar.

Open-Mindedness is the Magic Sword

The opposite of arrogance is not humility. It’s open-mindedness. Humility has come to mean two things: putting the good of the organization ahead of your own good, and putting yourself down as though you have nothing to offer. The first definition is healthy, and the second one is most definitely not healthy, but either way humility is not the opposite of arrogance.

Arrogance is about being closed-minded. Your mind is shut. You believe you already know everything. If you want to get to the Holy Grail of personal significance, of making a tremendously positive and lasting impact on a desired outcome, then you have to fight arrogance with the magic sword of open-mindedness.

Open-mindedness means you believe other people can have powerful ideas and you are willing to consider their ideas, and it means you believe you have good ideas and you are willing to offer them. Through this collaboration of considering other people’s ideas and offering your own, you are able to build even more powerful ideas. And that becomes an incredible force in getting to the Holy Grail of personal significance.

You are the Hero

In this story, you are the hero. You have the opportunity to pick up the magic sword of open-mindedness and slay the dragon of arrogance. If you do that consistently over the long term, you can find the path to the Holy Grail of personal significance, of making a tremendously positive and lasting impact on very important desired outcomes for your organization, your family, and your community. It’s your choice.


To learn how to work directly with Dan Coughlin as an Executive Coach, click here.