A great post from a remarkable leader writing on the Catalyst website...I read this story in the Starbucks book I read this summer...and believe deeply in his leadership perspective...
These days, it’s tempting to size your impact on the world by how many Twitter followers you have. Or unique hits to your blog. Or people in your pews. Or revenue targets achieved. Or whatever. It’s always been this way, I guess, though the metrics we use are always changing.
I believe we’re all hardwired pretty much the same way—to want recognition and praise, to be affirmed for the good work we’re doing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but too often we make praise the point.
I think God operates in a totally different economy, one that’s not dependent on optimizing search engines, percentages, or any other feathers in our cap. Instead, I think God’s smile is the biggest when we are secretly incredible and when our leadership changes one life or a thousand lives without a lot of fanfare.
There is an old friend of mine, Don, who’s since gone home to be with God—he was secretly incredible. Don was a cell biologist who loved to climb mountains, sleep in the woods, and race cars. He was also wicked-good at science and pioneered some new freeze-drying methods. He was a researcher at his day job but would work off hours to freeze dry all the foods he loved for his excursions into nature. What could be wrong with freeze-dried beef tenderloin while you’re dangling from one carabineer on a cliff face, right?
Secretly incredible Don loved good coffee. He couldn’t handle steeping packets of store-bought mix or the freeze-dried crystals your grandparents liked. So he worked his science magic on some really good coffee from a local coffeehouse near the pier in Seattle. After a few test runs on his freeze-dried home brew, he was soon taking this high-end stuff into the mountains and sharing it with his friends.
Word got out within a small circle of friends about this revolutionary stuff. Pretty soon, Don was making it for other hikers, enthusiasts and whoever wanted to up their coffee game on the trail or the cliff face or wherever.
It wasn’t long before a little coffee shop heard about his invention. Actually, by this point, it wasn’t a little coffee shop anymore. Howard Shultz, the founder of Starbucks, hired Don to head research and development for the coffee giant. So Don got to combine his gifts in science with his passion for delicious things and worked for Starbucks for many years.
For decades, while he worked on other projects, he kept trying to convince everyone that Starbucks should package his freeze-dried coffee and sell it to anyone who wanted it. But because Starbucks’ identity was based in an authentic, Italian coffeehouse experience, Don could never push it through. The freeze-dried stuff was just too much of a shift for the company. Fast-forward a little bit . . .
I’m skipping a lot of the story here, but late in his career and life, Don was fighting a losing battle to cancer, a battle that eventually took him. To commemorate his life and his contribution to Starbucks, Don Valencia’s secret creation was finally released as Starbuck’s Via.
Via was more than just a name that sounded pretty Italian, it was a subtle homage to Don’s last name, the first and last letters of it at least. Don probably wouldn’t have even wanted that kind of acknowledgment, really, but he would have been gracious and let them abbreviate it. I think he felt the same way when his short life was abbreviated.
Don was one of those people that made you feel braver and bigger whenever you were around him. He was an intense person, too, who worked hard and focused on the task at hand. Don was magnanimous, but he wasn’t bigger than life. He was just him—nothing more, nothing less. And he liked it that way.
As I look around, and as I look inside, so many of us are trying to seem bigger than life. We’re trying to get noticed, do something grand, invent something new, or change people’s minds. But what I learned from Don is that the real power of being secretly incredible is leaning into your own unique hardwiring. Being secretly incredible means knowing who you are and, perhaps more importantly, who you aren’t . . . then giving everything you have with a focus that is genuinely you.
I believe that God made us all to be slightly different. It’s when you partner with God in your uniqueness that you can really make a difference. It may not get you on the evening news or a hash tag that trends, but you’ll get something much better, much richer: true satisfaction.
It’s not our role to create the breadth of our impact—that’s up to God. Our job—our purpose in life—is to find out what God made us for and then do that with reckless abandon, with whimsy. The ironic thing is, when we find that sweet spot like Don did and we stop talking about it all the time with our friends on Twitter or our website or our pulpit or our board meeting, the praise and recognition we once sought won’t be on our radars anymore. We’ll have traded up weak praise for an unshakeable, soul-level satisfaction. If you can cultivate that, you won’t need the fanfare anymore. You will be secretly incredible. And those are the ones who God always seems to pick to change everything.