Lessons from Shawshank

Can you think of someone in your life—other than a family member—who you would help in a heartbeat, no questions asked, with no expectation of help in return?

If so, what are the characteristics of that person? 

Are they:

  • Kind?
  • Helpful?
  • Considerate?
  • Hard working?
  • Generous?
  • Empathetic?
  • Driven by what seems like forces for good you could only hope to tap into?

Further even, does s/he personify what you would like to be one day?

If so, this individual is the embodiment of magnanimity (aka the state of being the bigger person).

The magnanimous among us are a rare breed. They are unique in their ability to suffer minor insults with ease; to let small annoyances roll off them, like water off a duck’s back.

They don't take hardships personally, focusing instead on what is personal and controllable: their reactions, their emotions, their chosen next steps. 

In short, they do the right thing, at the right time, and for the right reasons. Even when it is likely to cost them dearly in the short term.

I guess you could call that an ability to endure short term pain for long term gain, even when that gain is nothing more than the satisfaction of knowing they took the high road.

I say these people are few and far between, but they don’t need to be.

Most of us do good deeds every day. We may hold the door open for others. We say please and thank you. We do small favours for others, sometimes unprompted. 

Moving From Good to Great and Beyond

I think we can agree that people are good to one another, for the most part.

So how do we move from just being “good” to being “great” and eventually—hopefully—to being exemplary?

I don’t think there can be any shortcuts here, so my answer would simply be by:

  • Working at it
  • Assuming the best in people as opposed to the worst
  • Investing in others for the long term as opposed to seeking the short term quid pro quos
  • Being a “giver” and not a “taker” or a “matcher” (as Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take” would say)

My personal role model in the art of being magnanimous is Andy Dufresne in the Stephen King  book turned movie "Shawshank Redemption" (here's the trailer).

Fantasies about dramatic exits or exacting revenge are good fun—but acting on them may hurt you more than your tormentors. And resisting the temptation can be tough. When people feel as if they are being treated like dirt, many feel a mighty strong urge to [react] in abrupt or confrontational ways.
— Robert I. Sutton, "The Asshole Survival Guide" (2017), p. 45.

Andy is an inmate who was wrongly convicted of killing his wife and her lover and spends nearly twenty years in prison, being repeatedly brutalized by fellow inmates, and manipulated by guards and by the warden himself. 

He has every reason to be bitter. Angry. Resentful. He has every reason to act out, to take his frustrations out on others. And yet, he chooses to take that energy and turn it into positive outcomes:

  • he revamps the prison’s library
  • manages to get coveted work details for his friends
  • helps his fellow inmates get their GED, and more

He focuses on what he can control and leaves the rest alone, even when that means letting go of the fact that he knows the warden is aware of his innocence and yet keeps him locked up for his own purposes.

Magnanimity personified.

By using his skills and good judgment, Andy Dufresne manages to escape from prison, save his best friend “Red” from certain death and builds a new life for himself.

As Red would say: He “crawled through a river of sh*t and came out clean on the other side.”

“It’s on you to craft a blend of tactics that is right given the nuances and quirks of your predicament; your strengths, weaknesses, and goals; and how you want to feel about yourself when you look back later on.”
— Robert I. Sutton, "The Asshole Survival Guide" (2017), p. 92.

That's why, when I feel wronged in some way, big or small, I try to tap into my inner Andy Dufresne to help me avoid the knee jerk reactions that may feel good in the moment but that can be costly to my sense of self over the long term. I have yet to regret taking the high road but almost always regret the alternative.

What about you? Are you working on becoming a better version of you? If so, how? Who do you look to for guidance?

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