The Absolute Improbability of You

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It is a degradation to man to be reduced to the life of the present...unless at the same time he holds close to his heart the recollections of the past.
— William E. Gladstone (British Prime Minister, 1868-94)

A piece dedicated, in equal adoring measure, to Archibald Reid and Adaline Sarah Reid: a life passed and a life just beginning.

What can we appreciate from a family tree? And what does a walk among the branches of a life do for leadership? Two volumes of a famous genealogy, a birth, and a death all came together to help me reflect on these questions.

What’s in a (Drake) name?

In 1588, Sir Thomas Drake and his wife Elizabeth welcomed their son and first child, Francis, into the world. When baby Francis was born, Thomas was working in Plymouth, at the most southernly reaches of British Isles, about 10 miles away from the opulent family home of Buckland Abbey. At that time, Sir Thomas was assisting in his brother’s naval conquests around the globe (his brother, Sir Francis, after whom baby Francis was named, was the famous English sea captain who was the first to lead a complete circumnavigation of the globe).

In naming their son Francis, Thomas and Elizabeth Drake were doing more than carrying on the name of Thomas’ famous seafaring brother, they were seeding the namesakes of Francis Drake down the ages.

Baby Francis, Thomas’ son, grew up to be another Sir Francis Drake, just like the uncle who protected Britain against the Spanish Armada. The name was carried by the nephew and not the son because Sir Francis Drake died on a voyage far from home, twice married but childless, in the delirium of fluid-draining dysentery.

Baby Francis grew up to become the first baronet (a British hereditary title like a knighthood) of Buckland Abbey, and was a serving politician in the Devonshire area. For another four generations, a Francis Drake, each with his own life and dealings, became the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th baronet of Buckland Abbey. The name ‘Francis Drake’ stretched unbroken from 1588 to 1794, for over two hundred years.

The view from above

Despite how impressive a two-hundred year lineage might sound, a birds-eye view of the Drake family tree, and the stories therein, are required to understand just how fantastical lineage of any sort truly is. Our baby Francis in this story was christened on the day of his birth, on 16th September, 1588, apparently for fear that he may be too frail to live beyond securing an anointed place in the Heaven his parents believed in. That same Francis, the first of the five successive baronets of Buckland Abbey, suffered the loss of his first wife, Jane, as well as the loss of their only child, Dorothy, who died an infant. It was only with Francis’ second wife, Joan, that the next Sir Francis Drake, the future 2nd baronet of Buckland Abbey, was brought into existence.

Further down the branches of the family tree, Francis Drake, the third baronet, was not the son of the second baronet who (like his great uncle the naval hero) died without a direct heir. Instead, this next Francis, born almost 100 years after the death of the first and most famous Francis, was son of the brother of the second baronet. What’s even more incredible is that the third baronet was not even the first Francis born among his siblings. Another Francis - who presumably would have rightfully been the third baronet - died as an infant. The partial Drake family tree starts to make clear just how unlikely a life of any sort can be.

Simplified Drake family tree, showing the name ‘Francis Drake’ descending over 200 years. The slightest variation in events would make the tree unrecognisable.

The Francis that might never have been

Even in the adventurous life of the original Sir Francis Drake, chance and fortune played their part in moulding the heroic naval figure after whom five generations of heirs were named. Had his father, Edmund Drake, never sent him to work on a ship, the entrepreneurial Francis would never have had a ship bequeathed to him in a will. He never would have had a ship to sell on before taking to the seas under command of his enterprising cousins.

The fact that it was a fluid-draining illness that eventually claimed Francis Drake is made surprising by account of the grave battle injuries he endured on several occasions before his delirious demise. He could so easily have been one of his unfortunate brothers, Joseph or John, who both died during the brothers’ shared battles at sea.

Whilst I write here about Sir Francis Drake, his brother Thomas, and the bicentennial descendants who carried on the name ‘Francis Drake’, it is still only a small slice in genealogical time. The Drakes before the first Francis arrived in Devon (at the South West base of the UK) around the mid-1300s. Their full story was documented in 1911 by Lady Elliott-Drake, then the latest descendent in the 500 year-old family. Those earlier Drakes before Francis all had their own lives and loves and misfortunes to bear, all in just the right order to grow the family tree towards Edmund and Mary Drake; all to eventually bring one of the most famous sea captains the world has even known into life.

Innumerable branches

The amazing case of the Drakes is by no means the only famous family tree known. The longest known family tree is derived from the Chinese thinker Confucius (551-479 BC).  For more than 2,000 years, his family tree has stretched through time, sprouting over 80 generations. At the last estimate, Confucius had more than 1.3 million descendants alive in modern times. Confucius, by the way, was the philosopher who popularised the practice of paying divine respect to one’s ancestors.

Turning inward

My grandfather (Archibald Reid), and grandmother (Margaret) meeting their great granddaughter, Adaline, a few weeks after her birth and a few weeks before Archie’s death.

Originally, I’d planned to document some more stories of the Drake lineage here. But I was recently given cause to consider the grand fortune of family trees on a more personal level. A few weeks after the birth of my daughter, she met her great grandparents. As she lay smiling in my grandfather’s lap, with my gran smiling on, my camera captured the meeting of two people spanning four generations. Little did I know that it would be the first and last time baby Adaline would ever see Papa Archie. A short time later, Archibald Reid passed away.

The incredible unlikeliness of my own life can be partly appreciated through the story of my grandparents. The late Archibald and his wife, Margaret (my grandmother), met over 50 years ago, in Glasgow (Scotland). At that time, the city was still bitterly and religiously divided between Catholic and Protestant upbringings.  Archie was raised Catholic, Margaret was Protestant. Like the old phrase about East never meeting West, the shared attitude of Archie and Margaret’s strict parents was that “never the twain shall meet”. In their minds, Catholics and Protestants were simply not supposed to mix. So, when Archie and Margaret announced their intention to marry, Archie’s father all but disowned him. Neither his nor Margaret’s parents attended the wedding. Where would I be if my grandparents didn’t have the wits to ignore the senseless sectarian environment they grew up in? Why should I care?

A perspective on gratitude

In my professional life, whenever my role as a leader becomes stressful, I try to remember what a tremendous privilege it is to be in that position at all. Being a leader is a privilege because, from the perspective of a family tree, it’s an improbable privilege to be anywhere at all. It’s a way of thinking that helps me remain truly grateful to have been born somewhere in the world where exciting leadership and a comfortable family life are both possible.

A frank and articulate view on being thankful for who you are comes from legendary Hollywood manager Shep Gordon (who counted Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd among his clients). As a fortunate American with an illustrious career, Shep said:

 “...just where you drop out of the womb, you won the game…You have a chance. You can get clean water. You get food. Hopefully you get some love. There’s not a bomb dropping on your head every second. That alone is something to meditate on every day…”

When we peak behind the label of a name, it is simply being alive and surviving your ancestors that is the real lottery win in life. Everyone’s family lineage is the longest lineage known, regardless of the name. Evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins puts this eloquently:

“No doubt some of your cousins and great-uncles died in childhood, but not a single one of your ancestors did. Ancestors just don't die young!”

Thinking about the decorated randomness of a family tree is one example of a gratitude exercise. Gratitude exercises help people take the time to be mindful of what they have, rather than fretting about what they don’t.

If you consider your own family tree, whether it can be traced back 10 generations, 20, or 200, it doesn’t matter. Your family tree is as long as that of Confucius or the Drakes, because you’re here, now. Your ancestors have brought you into the world, and given you a shot.

What are you grateful for?