Dr. Christian Barnard, of Cape Town South Africa, performed the first successful human-to-human heart transplant surgery. It was a very big deal then, although now we know a lot more about heart transplants and have performed even more successful surgeries than his.
The doctor, who happened to be young and photogenic at the time, became the toast of the media. An international celebrity, if you will. I mean, he performed the world’s first successful heart transplant for crying out loud! Of course, it got into his head. He very soon divorced his wife and married a much younger, more photogenic one, a South African socialite. They both became celebrities.
He appeared on TV shows around the world, which is fine. But those TV show hosts were not really interested in asking him boring questions about heart transplant surgeries. I mean, they feigned interest at first, but I suspect that his answers were lost on them, and they were probably losing some of their audience.
So, what did Dr. Barnard start talking about on TV all over the world? Not about heart transplants, not about where technology was headed, and not about how all of this was going to work in the future. All that would probably have been just fine for the brilliant doctor to talk about and stay within his discipline. But that wouldn’t have assured maintenance of his celebrity status, you see.
He instead started answering questions about marriage, international finance, politics; you name it. And the show hosts? Oh, they sat in awe of his so-called brilliance and insight as he advised the world on these.
Well, as you may have guessed, he ended up making a fool of himself as he sat in all those shows, pontificating on things he knew absolutely nothing about. His personal life wasn’t the best for emulation either, as he ended up with two more divorces – a man who was giving marital advice on TV.
Had he stayed on topic, he would have been taken more seriously. But he wouldn’t have been as famous. Bright lights, they say, are enticing.
Another good example of someone who veered off topic to some form of detriment is Lee Iacocca of Chrysler. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, tells a story that illustrates how this happened:
“Lee Iacocca, for example, saved Chrysler from the brink of catastrophe, performing one of the most celebrated (and deservedly so) turnarounds in American business history. Chrysler rose to the height of 2.9 times the market at a point about halfway through his tenure.
Then, however, he diverted his attention to making himself one of the most celebrated CEOs in American business history. Investor’s Business Daily and the Wall Street Journal chronicled how Iacocca appeared regularly on talk shows like the Today Show and Larry King Live, personally starred in over eighty commercials, entertained the idea of running for president of the United States (quoted at one point, “Running Chrysler has been a bigger job than running the country… I could handle the national economy in six months”), and widely promoted his autobiography. The book, “Iacocca”, sold seven million copies and elevated him to rock star status.
Iacocca’s personal stock soared, but in the second half of his tenure, Chrysler’s stock fell 31 percent behind the general market.”
Both these stories of Barnard and Iacocca highlight something you can’t miss. They are about people who succeed at one thing and decide they have automatically become experts at every other thing, only to find out – the hard way – that that’s not the case.
That could be us if we let it; if we’re drawn by bright lights, by fame. It is indeed enticing. But that’s on a large scale. Many people would say this does not apply to them since they haven’t done huge things like these on a large scale – and don’t plan to in the near future.
But just consider your small, personal life for a moment. You are approaching the New Year and that means you’re already thinking about your resolutions. Before you do that, reflect on whether you’re taking on things you know (deep inside) that you can’t handle. You’re probably doing so right now because you hit a couple of your goals this year and you feel like such an expert that you can take on anything.
No, stay focused. Stay on topic. Focus on doing the one thing that makes doing all the other things (on your list) either easier or unnecessary. Focus your goals and resolutions on the essential areas of your life, the areas that can make or break you – your faith, family, finances and friends. And don’t veer off topic. Don’t start chasing after things outside of your essential circle. Don’t leave your life pillars to live in a world that will soon come crashing down on you.
These public stories about public personalities are out there for a reason. Not for us to envy, crave the limelight, or bitterly criticize as though we wouldn’t fall for the same temptations when put in similar circumstances. They are there for us to examine, to draw lessons to apply to our lives – yes, to our small personal lives. And what these two teach us today is to stay on topic, because that’s the only way to stay on top.