Lessons on change from a clumsy family photo
For Thanksgiving, my nieces went to rummage in Grandma’s attic for pictures. One of the children was preparing a presentation about my mother’s youth, and the mission required a photo of Grandma at the time.
When the initial foray was unsuccessful, my sister and son decided to join the mission, and they returned with a photo of Grandma taken just after WWII. But the real prizes were a quartet of wire-bound notebooks filled with Kodaks from my siblings and I when we were kids.
As Will and his cousins scanned the books, hilarity ensued. The main source, I soon learned, was a photo of myself taken in my early teens, posing topless in my best Charles Atlas impersonation.
A week later, I thought of that grinning photo when Susan Prescott brought me a book that had belonged to her late husband and my dear friend and former boss of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, Dr. Stephen Prescott. It was a collection of writings by Heraclitus, one of the first Greek philosophers.
As Susan handed me the book, she showed me how Steve had placed post-its next to various passages and wrote the name of an administrator or scientist on each note. I immediately remembered why: Shortly after joining OMRF in 2006, Steve had used these passages as a kind of icebreaker during a leadership retreat.
In my office later, I flipped through the pages. The section Steve had chosen for me struck me as mundane. But I stopped on one of Heraclitus’ reflections that he had marked for someone else: “Just as the river where I walk is not the same, and is, so I am.” which I am not.
I was here, a 53-year-old administrator at a nonprofit medical research institute, contemplating philosophical statements made thousands of years ago. Yet I was also – and was not – this awkward teenager with braces, vainly flexing the (rather modest) muscles I had worked so hard to develop in my parents’ basement and the ward. from my high school bodybuilding.
Pieces of this adolescent remain lodged in my psyche. I still enjoy physical fitness. I keep trying to challenge my body.
Nonetheless, I now care less about what is happening on the surface and more about what is going on inside my body. My days of preening for the camera are long gone.
The way I see the world, the values that guide my day-to-day decisions, the goals I have in life, all of these things have changed dramatically over the past four decades.
The question of identity, of constancy versus change, is not limited to people. Organizations face this same problem.
Right now, we are facing it head-on at OMRF. Following the death of Dr Prescott, Dr Andrew Weyrich will soon take the helm as the new president. So what does this mean for the institution?
On some level, we will remain the same OMRF we were: a nonprofit medical research institute that aims to help people live longer, healthier lives. Yet Dr. Weyrich is his own person. He will identify scientific and administrative priorities that will inevitably deviate from those Dr Prescott mapped for the institution.
Does that mean we’re not the same OMRF we were under Dr Prescott? And was this OMRF incarnation, with nearly 500 employees, a new research tower, and next-generation DNA sequencing capabilities, the same one that first opened with a handful of staff and a tiny physical fingerprint before the DNA was even identified? ?
I told Will about all of this. “You mean Theseus’ ship,” he said.
I looked at him blankly.
He patiently explained that the ancient Greeks posed the question of whether a ship whose parts are gradually replaced as they decay over time remains the same object.
I couldn’t help but smile. A few years ago, Will hadn’t been that different from this awkward, flexing version of me in the snapshot. And now he’s graduated from college with a minor in philosophy, and is teaching his father metaphysics.
This river continues to flow.
Adam Cohen is senior vice president and general counsel and interim president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Lessons from a clumsy family photo