Heartbreak and principles

Sometimes what we work so hard to accomplish and produce, even in the face of relevant experience and exquisite talent, just doesn’t materialize. How sad to view that as failure. Or rather, how sad to view the outcome as the only measure of success, when you have the opportunity to measure success by examining how you are working along the way.

One of my favorite short stories is “Ball of Fat” by Guy de Maupassant. It concerns a group of six citizens fleeing the oncoming Prussian army by stagecoach, attempting to find safety in a town far away. One of the characters is a plump prostitute nicknamed “Ball of Fat”. The others in the carriage are a range of upstanding citizens who view her with equal parts contempt and curiosity.

As they make their way the group gets hungry. The other five become irritated and cranky, hoarding what little food each has brought. Eventually Ball of Fat produces a veritable travelling feast, and generously shares the food she’s thought ahead to pack. A change in her status takes place, that day’s journey ends with the group treating her almost as an equal.

They don’t make the progress they expected, and have to stay the night in a town that they discover is occupied by the very army they’re fleeing. Circumstances are dire. Will they be held for ransom? Imprisoned? It turns out Ball of Fat is well known to the commander, and when he indicates he will set them free in exchange for an evening with her, the group takes a principled stand protecting her. But time wears on, and it becomes clear there is only one way out of this town. So Ball of Fat, against the protests of her carriage-mates, agrees to this bargain for the good of the group.

In the morning, all is well, the carriage is provisioned, and the group boards, but unlike the sense of shared destiny of the day before, the group shuns Ball of Fat, passing severe judgment on a woman who would “sell” herself. The atmosphere is cold and harsh in the carriage. They make their way along, and members of the group get hungry.

This time the others have planned ahead, and produce a wonderful array of food. Except Ball of Fat, she had no time to think about food (she was busy securing their freedom).  But no one offers food to her, in fact, food is shared liberally to everyone else, but her. The scorn heaped upon her is overwhelming. She slowly begins sobbing. The story ends.

Well, one reaction is “jeez, how bleak and sad”.  But is it really?  Ball of Fat acted generously and bravely, with a clear sense of herself and her values. She made her way through uncertain and ambiguous circumstances making clear decisions and tradeoffs based on principles that were transparent and honest.

My former assistant thought it was “the worst blog idea she’d ever heard”. And she’s partly correct. The message – it’s not about the destination it’s about the journey – is obvious and well trodden. Except because it’s so familiar, I think we spend a lot less time examining this than we would like to admit.

It’s easy to focus on the journey when the terrain is familiar, with familiar unpleasant junctures.  But when truly severe shocks occur, it can be hard to hold onto those principles to guide you. 

This is why I love working with people who have experienced spectacular failures.  You learn a lot about yourself and those around you when the product you’ve been developing and counting on doesn’t work and you miss your revenue plan, strain or destroy customer relationships, and all you know is only time and more hard work will solve the problem.  How you respond then matters a great deal.

Because Ball of Fat is so heartbreaking, it’s too easy to focus just on the heartbreak, and not on how she navigated the heartbreak.  Those principles produced honest and generous responses in the face of stingy and uncomfortable circumstances.  There’s no heartbreak in that.

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