Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Tip from Malcolm X: Reach for the Clean Glass

I finished reading the bestselling book, The Help, which centers on racial relations in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960's, so The Autobiography of Malcolm X was my natural next choice when browsing my roommate's book shelf. Before reading his autobiography, my knowledge of Malcolm X was limited to a few lines of text from a history book as being the most aggressive voice in the African American civil rights movement. But, who knew... Malcolm X was buds with Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and lead the prayer before Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the WORLD heavyweight champion title. Factoid du jour.

Malcolm X's life story is powerful. He left 8th grade after being discouraged from pursuing... anything, and then hustled on the streets of Harlem and Boston. At age 20 he was caught for burglary and imprisoned 6 years. He made the most of his time in the big house by homeschooling himself. He copied by hand the ENTIRE dictionary, read extensively and developed his verbal skills in debate groups. He said, "the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive," and that "months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life." He sounds like a person of flow (the concept created by one of my favorite psychologists, to read and pronounce, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

Malcolm X publicly demonized white Americans for oppressing the black man for 400 years, and with this in mind, I pick his favorite lesson from his mentor, Elijah Muhammad--add another tally mark to the "irony of life" list.

One day, I remember, a dirty glass of water was on a counter and Mr. Muhammad put a clean glass of water beside it. "You want to know how to spread my teaching?" he said, and he pointed to the glasses of water. "Don't condemn if you see a person has a dirty glass of water," he said, "just show them the clean glass of water that you have. When they inspect it, you won't have to say that yours is better."

I discussed this gem with the great Margie and recognize that this is her approach in teaching me about triathlon and life. She provides me with unconditional acceptance, fostering an environment where I am truly free to fail. I either get it right, or am closer to figuring it out. I can't recall ANY instance when I have been condemned or gotten in trouble about a decision or action I made. I am responsible for my performance as an individual and the person I answer to at the end of the day is MYSELF, who is a hard enough critic. Being encouraged to think for myself, whatever the outcome, is what gives me the freedom to find my clean glass of water.


  1. Great piece of writing! Malcolm X's biography is only a short ways down on my own reading-list. When it comes to your process, the results definitely speak for themselves and it's a unique pleasure to peak behind the curtain a bit.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on Malcolm X. You have peaked my curiosity and I may have to go read about him myself!

  3. When I read "the big house" my first thought was, do we still call it that? I think that's what Bugsy Malone and his notorious team of gangsters called it in the 1920s. Or the slammer.