By Angela Noel
August 31, 2016
At six foot four, broad-shouldered and bearded, Joseph Vasterling looks every bit like the guy who earned a scholarship to play football at a now Division 1 school. At a practice before his freshman year even began, his hip flexor, the ghost of an old injury, screamed. His football career on the line, his coach asked, “Are you hurt or are you injured?” The implication was clear; if you’re hurt, rub some dirt on it and get back out there, but if you’re injured . . . goodbye scholarship. He walked back out onto the practice field under the blazing South Dakota sun only to watch the running back collapse. Joe decided then that football, a game he excelled at with minimal effort, wasn’t for him. He called his parents and boarded a bus for home. On that day and many since, he proved he has more in common with a reclusive 19th century poet than he does with a stereotypical jock.
Emily Dickinson, now famous for her thoughtful–some would say rebellious–poetry, was an introverted thinker unwilling to follow the path shaped for her by the expectations of others. Motivated by an intrinsic desire to observe and wonder, Dickinson refused to obey conventions in her poetry and in her life.
Joe, unlike Emily, won’t be talking to visitors only through closed doors, dressing all in white, or writing death-themed poems anytime soon. But he shares her thoughtful introversion, keen wit, aversion to social stereotypes, and her simple, often quoted philosophy, “If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves. You can gain more control over your life by paying closer attention to the little things.”
From his early years, Joe sought a version of what Buddhists call “the middle path.” Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment describes the middle path as one that “. . . gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nirvana.” Joe learned, for example, that earning an A in school would lead to high expectations from his parents, high expectations led to pressure. Pressure was bad. In contrast, earning a C meant uncomfortable conversations about applying himself and studying harder. Uncomfortable conversations were worse. Joe purposely earned a steady B average, balancing quality with productivity, effort with reward. The middle path avoids extremes, remaining neutral and centered to allow analysis of the situation from all angles. Joe’s teenaged goals were not quite as noble as the attainment of enlightenment, but his practice of finding the middle way had begun.
After his departure from the University of South Dakota, his father gave him one day to take stock and figure out next steps. He could either get a job or find a school. Joe quickly enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls. When classes began Joe confronted an uncomfortable truth, easy subjects in high school weren’t easy anymore. A disappointing first semester forced Joe to take stock a second time in less than a year. But now, no dad or coach sat across from him. He had reached a fork in the middle path. Joe analyzed why he felt compelled to leave USD, and why he struggled at previously “easy” things. His conclusion: Unless you’re a mountain stream, the path of least resistance isn’t always the right path. His motivations had moved from extrinsic, avoiding expectations, pressure, and censure from parents and coaches, to intrinsic. What he earned from now on was entirely up to him to create.
Joe worked at The Hartford after finishing college. A mentor offered him this advice: “Do A+ work on every project, no matter what it is. People will notice.” Blogger Suzie Speaks recently wrote a post on 15 Things That Don’t Require Qualifications or Talent. In it, Suzie points out common sense actions or character traits anyone can employ to improve career prospects. She lists things like: smiling, self-motivation, doing your best, and being trustworthy. Costing nothing and requiring no training, leaders and employees often discount the value of these simple practices. Never pushy nor arrogant, Joe practiced all of Suzie’s 15 things and followed his mentor’s advice. His leaders noticed, promoting him to trainer. Even after several rounds of layoffs, where peers with more training experience were let go, Joe remained. Through it all Joe never worried. “Worrying makes me inefficient,” Joe says now, smiling.
Philosopher Alain de Botton in his TEDtalk A kinder, gentler philosophy of success says, “It’s perhaps easier now than ever before to make a good living. It’s perhaps harder than ever before to stay calm, to be free of career anxiety.” De Botton highlights the importance of defining success on our own terms, not based on what our parents or society requires. Emily Dickinson didn’t produce poetry to get rich or famous. In fact, only 10 of over 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. She wrote to explore her own boundlessness.“My business is to love. . . . My Business is to Sing,”she wrote. Similarly, Joe refuses to be confined by convention. He does good work because doing good work feels good. Having an answer when an answer is needed feels good. Re-finishing a basement, even when the only time to do it is after 10 p.m., when all three of his little boys are asleep, feels good. Coaching football teams for elementary school kids feels good. Agreeing to get a pedicure with his wife, Amy, on their anniversary, that too, just feels good.
Joe’s goals are simple:
- Be dependable.
- Raise children that are kind and respectful.
- Be a good person.
- Have fun.
He’s not immune to wanting recognition for good work, like promotions, bonuses, and more vacation time. He just doesn’t define success by what he is awarded by others. He defines success by how he is playing the game of life, according to the rules he has defined for himself, based on the person he wants to be.
Joe does the small things like being prepared, doing the work, smiling, learning from failures, and being sincere in his commitment to others, thereby allowing the big things to take care of themselves. But something even more important rests at the core of his success. It matters what he does, but what matters more is who he chooses to be while he’s doing whatever he does. For example, he seldom complains about being up all night re-tiling the bathroom, he simply celebrates that the bathroom got re-tiled. Dr. Brené Brown talks about resilient people, like Joe, who weather change and heartbreak better than most. These people participate in something she calls “wholehearted living.” Wholehearted living means “. . .engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’” If Joe doesn’t finish tiling that bathroom, he won’t worry about it all night. He’ll just get up the next day and get at it again.
Joe Vasterling stands out, not because he’s exceptionally tall, or even exceptionally educated, talented, or skilled (though he is). He stands out because he chooses his own path, does the little things right, and practices wholeheartedness in everything he does, every day.
If Joe can do it, so can I. So can you.
Be awesome in real life.
When have you chosen your own path? How did it feel and what did you create in your life as a result?