I recently read the most gripping book, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown— the story of all the players and creators of the eight-oar crewing team from the University of Washington that won the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. At first, the author draws you in through the personal stories of the athletes, most of whom had to deal with financially and emotionally impoverished backgrounds to attend the university and then to be selected to crew for the boat destined for the Olympics.
At the same time, I also read Yes, Chef— the memoir of a brilliant, young chef, Marcus Samuelsson, who’s Ethiopian-born, raised in Sweden, and now a citizen of the US, living and working in Harlem in New York City.
What’s the connection? For me, a vital one is the counterpoint of Samuelsson with the highlighted crew member, Joe Rantz, in The Boys in the Boat. Both had natural talent for their winning directions, and both had to learn under extremely challenging circumstances that flair, ambition, and even intensive practice can only take you so far.
To take the big leap towards your vision of success, you have to acknowledge and accept the communities that still nourish you— where you were born, who raised you, who mentored or coached you, who your lasting partners are, who you can love and trust absolutely (who’s “got your back”). To live out your dream, to go for the gold, you must anchor yourself— your skills and your genius— in the community that has grown around you or that you’ve designed for yourself.
As George Yeoman Pocock, master crew shell (boat) maker and spiritual guide to Joe Rantz and his crew team, shared with Rantz:
“What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them . . . ‘Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined….’” (from The Boys in the Boat)
Rantz, however, had such a hard-scrabble life— abandoned twice by his father after his mother died and from childhood having to work for his living— it was remarkable that he made it to college, hanging on financially by a hair during the Great Depression days. As for Samuelsson, he almost died of TB as a child in Ethiopia before being adopted by a working-class couple in Sweden. Both gained from that experience a hard-work ethic and reliance on themselves. Seeking and acknowledging the need for community support in meeting incredibly challenging goals was, understandably, a tough proposition for both.
“The psychology is complex . . . Rowers must subsume their often fierce sense of independence and self-reliance, [while] at the same time they must hold true to their individuality, their unique capabilities as oarsmen or oarswomen or, for that matter, as human beings.” (from The Boys in the Boat)
As Marcus Samuelsson found out, where he could be his most authentic self as a multicultural person of color, where he could best bring all his gifts as a master chef, was far from rural Sweden where he grew up— at his own restaurant, Red Rooster, in Harlem-- the famous and infamous ghetto and cultural nexus of African Americans in New York City. This is where he, his partners, his staff, his old friends, his new friends from Harlem, his family from Sweden and Ethiopia, and all his new and old customers could gather, eat, celebrate, and be at home.
“Food memories give people something to talk about— our food, our culture, our journey . . . The restaurant [Red Rooster] had to be a place that honored and mirrored the mystique of the renaissance but showed the new Harlem— inclusive of both old and new. The menu had to tell the story of all of Harlem’s residents— Latin, Southern, Caribbean, Jewish, Italian. When I cook, I see faces: When I make meatballs, I see my grandmother and her smile….” (from Yes, Chef)
Success like this goes beyond even the biggest imagining of Marcus Samuelsson. To create a place that sings and delights the palate and brings people, past and present, together from around the world into community— that is more than a goal— that is the gold!
As Joe Rantz discovered, in the best boat possible, with the right group of crewmates— the ones he could relate to and do his best with— he found both the support and the power of community— the joyful vehicle for the ultimate success of his and their dreams.
“That’s the deepest challenge. Even after the right mixture is found, each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her place in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are. The intense bonding and the sense of exhilaration that results from it are what many oarsmen row for, far more than for trophies or accolades.” (from The Boys in the Boat)