I knew things were bad when my eye started to twitch — a physical manifestation of extreme nerves I hadn’t experienced since eighth-grade algebra.
It was (hopefully) my last year in college, and it was time for me to give an oral presentation of my thesis to the Department of Cultural Anthropology Chair. Now, this guy scared the heck out of me, unlike the archeology professors who always seemed ready to grab a beer. Dr. G — let’s call him — had, let’s say, a limited sense of humor and, I thought, less than a great impression of me as a serious student. And I suppose he had a case. I mean, liked anthropology, but to say I wanted to make a career out of it would have been less than sincere.
However, I’d taken this project seriously, knowing that if I didn’t get a sufficient grade from the good doctor, I wouldn’t be getting a diploma from my college. My thesis was that those who visited museums didn’t bring with them a critical eye for what was presented, that they merely took everything as fact from on high, and my exit questionnaires from museum-goers showed as much. I spent many hours outside of the Smithsonian in order to get a sufficient number of folks to them filled out. I took time calculating my numbers and framed them in a well-written context. So, despite my twitching eye, I got through the presentation and received the green light to get out of Dodge.
Now, knowing that moment was a particularly important one, requiring particularly extreme effort, wasn’t hard, but one of my few skills has been a knack for recognizing important opportunities or hurdles when they come along. Based on many of my readings, this is a true key for success in life — it’s not a marathon, it’s a series of sprints. The interesting thing is that it’s on you to recognize when you’re in one.
I got to thinking about the importance of recognizing opportunities while watching a fantastic new documentary on CNN the other night: “Race for the White House.” Now, I’ve almost completed watching all six episodes in the series, but the one I’m specifically referring to is, “Kennedy versus Nixon.” And one of the most interesting and important things we learn in the show is that Nixon did not appreciate the impact or the importance of the first televised presidential debate that he and Kennedy would be starring in.
We know he didn’t take it as seriously as he should have by his behavior on the day of the debate — he kept his usual schedule (while Kennedy relaxed by a pool) and showed up tired, unshaved and nervous. He’d spent the day meeting a few hundred people, forgetting that, that night, he’d be “in front of” 60 million — a number which, at that time, constituted almost 100 percent of the electorate.
Nixon should have put days, if not weeks, into preparing — hiring the best advisors who understood the nascent art of how to look good on television, and how to come across effectively. He should have suspended his manly bravado and accepted makeup (which Kennedy did secretly after first refusing in front of Nixon) so he didn’t look like a propped-up cadaver. He should have, in short, understood the importance of the event and gone all in on preparation.
The result was the same one you will see every time your competitor understands the importance of a moment when you do not — Nixon lost the debate (at least according to those who watched on television), and lost the election (vote rigging in Chicago and Texas aside). To his credit, however, he did understand the impact that contesting the election would have had on the country and the legitimacy of Kennedy’s presidency, and so declined.
Like most of us, Nixon won some and lost some (true, he suffered one of the biggest “losses” of all time). He understood the importance of some moments and not others. But he, like most others, would agree, it is getting these distinctions right that makes all the difference.