On merit and other gift words

By Jim Hayhurst Jr.

I recently heard the story of a young man’s visit with the legendary Robert Frost. The student presented his writing and eagerly awaited the old man’s approval. After some time, Frost looked at him and asked, “What do you do, son?” The young man replied proudly, “Well, sir, I am a poet.” Frost sighed and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “No, son, not yet,” he said gently. “The term ‘poet’ is a gift word; and you cannot give it to yourself.”

Since hearing this story,I have begun to reflect on the various other gift words that I may have given myself over the years. I was a “mentor” to young entrepreneurs, a “coach” for my kids’ soccer teams and a “leader” in an organization. The presumed authority of these titles was often meager at best – and most certainly premature. Just because I signed up for a school’s mentorship program didn’t make me a mentor. The fact that I was the only parent with soccer experience didn’t mean I couldcoach. And simply having direct reportsin my first job didn’t make me a leader.

Each of these words needed to be first used as a verb by the receiver (“He mentors me, coaches us, leads our team.”) before being used as a nounby the provider (“I am his mentor, their coach, a leader.”). There had to be value in my role, not merely activity. I needed to embody the spirit in my practice, not simply print the title on my jacket, resume or business card.

In other words, I needed to earn something that only another person could give me in order to merit the description.

As a word, merit is probably the purest of the gift words. There are few circumstances in which it can be self-imposed. Merit is awarded, conferred, recognized, judged, or bestowed by someone else. It’s not often you will hear someone claim that they merit something; more likely, they think they deserve it. And there is a big difference.

These days, our Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts are defined by the circles we put them in, the permissions we afford them and the algorithms that determine how often we show up on each other’s status pages. Our digital world makes adding dots easier and connecting them more fun. But really understanding them… that’s a bit more complicated. By outsourcing the definition of our relationships – with people, brands, news, or ideas – we may be losing the opportunity to define their merit on our own terms. By ceding to impersonal code, we may be abdicating the responsibility of taking the time to understand the true value of individuals and of the communities we construct with them. Indeed, we may begin to lose perspective on who and what merit our attention.

But I am an optimist (a word which I gift to myself every so often). I believe we are adapting to the cacophony of digital inputs, the shrinking of our ‘Google Mapped’ world and the perceived (if not entirely calculable) homogenization of the human experience. I believe we can still see the exceptional all around us – the great mentors, coaches and leaders – if we only take the time to unwrap those gift words and guard their delivery to those who merit our appreciation.

Jim Hayhurst Jr. (UCC ’87) is an executive, board member and advisor with more than 20 years of international experience in cleantech, emerging markets and social entrepreneurship. From 2005 to 2012, Jim was a member of the executive team at Triton Logging, a Canadian company that reclaims forests flooded by hydro dams. Jim helped expand the company’s operations on four continents; raise more than $30M in angel, venture and private equity capital; and achieve global media recognition including in Forbes, Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, NBC, and the Discovery Channel.

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