I am indebted to Stanford University Professor James G. March for his inspiring and counter-intuitive lessons about Miguel de Cervantes’ iconic literary character Don Quixote de la Mancha. Although Jim offered his insights in the context of teaching about leadership—its heroes, its failures, and its fools—the lessons we can take from Don Quixote apply to us all.
To the outside eye, Don Quixote was a delusional fool (a psychotic in today’s terminology) who is wholly taken by the Romantic ideal and gallant tales of chivalry. He thus sets forth into the world to right its many wrongs and establish justice wherever his travels wend. Among his many misguided adventures, he flails at a windmill he believes to be a menacing giant. He proclaims the plain peasant girl, Dulcinea, to be the most beautiful woman. And he fights anyone who refutes his visions or disparages his intentions. For his unbridled actions and passion, Don Quixote is routinely mocked, beaten, and accused of being insane.
But Quixote is fully committed to the good and to justice. He is willing to surrender his pride and even his life to vanquish wrongdoing. He will not give up his quest and his way of being in the world. As Jim pointed out, “We live in a world that emphasizes realistic expectations and clear successes. Quixote had neither. But through failure after failure, he persists in his vision and his commitment. He persists because he knows who he is.” What price would we pay, despite the cost of heartache and ignominy, to really know ourselves and live steadfastly in that accord? What sacrifice would we bear to say, as Don Quixote proclaimed for himself, “Yo se quien soy.” I know who I am.