Goethe on Your Career By Pepper de Callier

Time is a great evaluator of people and their impact on things.  Too often, especially in this age of instant, always-on information, after the test of time, we find that someone who was revered for something turns out to be much less impressive than we originally thought they were. 

The late eighteenth century, however, saw the rise of a towering intellect whose impact on music, drama, poetry, philosophy, and your career development (Yes, you read this correctly. More on this later) would be hard to overstate.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main on August 28, 1749.  His genius would be studied, analyzed, enjoyed, and felt for centuries to come. 

Goethe was a colorful and controversial character, to say the least, and one could enter into endless debate on some of his opinions and personal behaviors, but, as with true geniuses, much of what he had to say has not only withstood the test of time, it has gained new meaning with the passage of time.  I would like to draw your attention to one specific quote that some have attributed to Goethe that is of particular importance to building a successful career and is peerless in its wisdom as it relates to life in general: When you are the anvil, hold you still, but when you are the hammer, strike your fill.

Read this quote again slowly and think about it for a moment.  When I think about this quote, which is one of my favorites, I always think of the manager who has been described in countless MBA programs, who has only one tool in his tool kit of management skills: a hammer.  And since the only tool he has in his tool kit is a hammer, everything looks like a nail to him, so he hits everything—problems, disagreements, whatever he faces—with his hammer.  Life, to people like this, is all about hammering their way through and using force to accomplish any task they set out to achieve.  Timing means nothing to these people—“The right time is when I want to do it!” might be their observation on the subject. 

Unfortunately, these people will never realize the success they could have if they would heed Goethe’s words.  In order to be effective in life one needs to understand context.  In this case it means understanding who is best qualified to do what and when, as well as which role is most appropriate for you, given the needs of your interlocutor.  If it doesn’t make sense for you to take the lead on something (being the hammer), then you need to let someone else step forward who is better able to do, or say, what is needed (you become the anvil).  To take it a step further, this concept can be applied to timing.  If it’s not time to do or say what you want to say, you need to be the anvil until the timing is right, and then you can become the hammer, or speak. 

If you reflect on your past experiences with effective leaders you will immediately see that they have mastered Goethe’s concept of management, as I call it.  A good manager many times will encourage other people to have their say by asking questions before they speak.  This helps the manager not only understand the issue under discussion better; it also allows them to understand the other person’s perspective and thereby structure a more effective presentation of whatever it is they want to communicate.  This is an essential tool of leadership.

Life begins to look different through the lens of wisdom such as is displayed in Goethe’s words.  One begins to see the need for others to use their “hammer” at times.  They may not be ready to become the “anvil” you want them to become until they feel they’ve got all their hammering out of the way.  This is especially effective in building relationships.  When we first met, no one who knew us both could believe that my future wife, Priscilla, and I would ever get along.  “You both have very strong personalities.  It will never work!”  Fortunately, for us, we grew to respect each other’s strengths and began switching roles of hammer and anvil, depending on what issue we were facing or topic we were discussing, without realizing what we were doing.

It is not an easy concept to master in all interactions, however—I haven’t yet—but it is certainly one worth practicing.  It shows a level of respect and maturity that resonates well with those with whom you interact, whether they are superiors, subordinates, peers, or loved ones.  So, the next time you’re talking with someone, imagine Goethe whispering in your ear asking, “Hey, who do you really need to be in this interaction, the hammer or the anvil?”

Good luck on your way up!

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at

Follow Pepper on YouTube: A new inspirational video message is posted every Monday - Common Sense Wisdom: Thoughts to Live By. 

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