The Secret of Success

Why moving on, or moving up, or moving out isn’t always the answer

Posted Oct 24, 2014

Since I did most of my actual growing up in south Arkansas, I found myself digging into Amy Chozick’s recent New York Times profile of Mike Beebe, the current Democratic governor of Arkansas. Born to a teenage waitress living in a tar-paper shack, Beebe never met his father. As a child, he and his mother moved constantly: from Arkansas to Detroit, then to Chicago, then to St. Louis, then to Houston, and then to New Mexico. They eventually returned to Arkansas, where Beebe graduated from high school at the age of 17.

After earning a college degree from Arkansas State and a law degree from the University of Arkansas, thus demonstrating an early instinct for straddling divisive fault lines, Mike Beebe was elected to the Arkansas State Senate in 1983, where he served for 20 years. His popularity was such that he never faced an opponent for reelection. After then serving as Attorney General for four years, Beebe was elected governor in 2007, a post he will relinquish in January because of term limits.

Chozick writes, speaking of Beebe, “Most people in Arkansas agree that few politicians have played so well for so long to so many, perhaps not even Bill Clinton.” She goes on to say that Beebe has won votes among Walmart millionaires and among poor row-crop farmers. Even as the state has shifted right in recent years, Beebe has remained remarkably popular across the political spectrum. In 2010, as the Tea Party pummeled Arkansas Democrats in congressional and state elections, Beebe swept all 75 counties in Arkansas on his way to re-election. With a current approval rating at 72%, Beebe is the most popular Democratic governor in the nation.

What’s the secret of Beebe’s success? Two factors stand out. First, he appears to practice politics in the oldest and best sense of that word: politics as the care of souls. Perhaps because of his hardscrabble upbringing, he seems remarkably and deeply concerned about the people of Arkansas, especially those who are struggling. Perennially ranked next-to-last on national indicators of well-being (a popular quip in the state is “Thank God for Mississippi!”), Arkansas has made significant progress under Beebe’s leadership – in healthcare, economic growth, and especially education. For the past two years, Arkansas has been ranked fifth in the nation in overall K-12 education.

The second secret of Beebe success, however, is probably more important. Unlike Bill Clinton, Beebe has always said that he has no ambitions to hold office outside Arkansas. Because he has been there so long and knows it so well, he says, he can actually get more done and have a greater impact.

Beebe’s long commitment in the same direction is worth thinking about. Being deeply rooted gives you the sustenance to grow stout branches and develop strength to endure storms. To use a different metaphor, if you have a deep keel, you can take on lots of sail, take risks, and explore new territory.

The farmer-poet Wendell Berry knows something about long commitments. His family has tilled the soil in Henry County, Kentucky for six generations. He wrote this poem for his wife, to whom he has been married for 57 years. Berry writes:

Sometimes hidden from me in daily custom and in trust,

so that I live by you unaware as by the beating of my heart,

Suddenly you flare in my sight,

a wild rose blooming at the edge of thicket,

grace and light where yesterday was only shade,

and once again I am blessed,

choosing again what I chose before.

Often the most important things in our lives remain hidden in plain sight, obscured by the rush of routine or the pull of progress. Sometimes, the most we can do is simply focus on the next thing, whatever is most urgent. In so doing, we slowly become oblivious to what’s most important. At other times, we succumb to the temptation of believing that progress means moving on, or moving up, or moving out. We forget that, in choosing what we have already chosen, we may have chosen well.

Make no mistake: sometimes we choose badly and end up in the wrong relationship, or the wrong job, or the wrong school, or the wrong town. We embrace the wrong set of values or pursue the wrong purposes. When that happens, we do need to move on, or move up, or move out. And sometimes we need help to make the move.

But we also need to learn the virtue of staying put and staying true, of choosing again what we chose before. Choose your home again. Choose your friends again. Choose the one you love again. Choose your commitments again. Choose again what you chose before.