Saturday, July 27, 2013

George Marshall and the "It changed my life" memory

Continuing with the last post's theme of memory, I just finished Ed Cray's biography of George Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff during World War II and chief author of the postwar Marshall Plan for European reconstruction (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize).  Talk about an individual who had a big impact on the world . . .

His prospects didn't start out looking very good, though.  As Cray reports, the young Marshall was a mediocre student.  Planning to attend the Virginia Military Institute for college, Marshall overheard his older brother urging his mother not to send George there, because he couldn’t cut it.  Hearing that, Marshall said later, gave him loads of extra motivation; in terms of the science of consequences, it considerably changed the reward value of academic and military success.  In his first year, Marshall worked hard, was ranked 18 out of 82 academically, and was named "first corporal" for the following year, a distinct honor. 

That's all neat and tidy, and I'm not doubting that this one overheard remark did have a big impact.  But in any human life, so many things influence consequences and motivation, it seems important to remember that they act in a messy, cumulative way. (It's a system!)  That's taking nothing away from the good story value and real significance of the "It changed my life" memory--which I appreciate as much as the next person.  Indeed, I have a few of my own . . .

Perhaps we all are under some pressure to develop rather simplified answers to common questions like "What's the secret of your success in school/your chosen career/your marriage?"  Think about the consequences for long, rambling, indeterminate answers.

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