My grandmother passed away several years ago. To her, I owe a great debt. When she was alive, I referred to her affectionately as “Granny.” From a young age, I would frequently stay with Granny each summer for a couple of weeks during school break. She lived in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York – near the end of a long, steadily climbing mountain road. During those weeks, I would pick berries, hike in the woods, play card games, go camping, read books, eat ice cream, and climb trees. As a young boy, I loved to climb trees – the higher the better. I would disappear into the branches and leaves, reaching a point where I could not be seen, only heard. I’d shout down to her, “Granny, I’m almost at the top.” And she’d reply, “Well, why don’t you stop when you get there.”
Granny and I had a couple of activities that we especially liked to do together. One was to go “camping.” To get to her camp we had to walk into the woods along an overgrown dirt trail that she said was a logging road at one time. Her camp was a simple wooden cabin with no running water or electricity. It had two main rooms – one a sleeping and sitting room – the other a kitchen. In the kitchen was a cast iron wood stove – made for heating and cooking. It was on this stove that she cooked some of the best breakfasts that I ever had in my life. Blueberry pancakes made with fresh berries that we picked were my absolute favorite.
Let me tell you about a fellow named George Rarey. On June 21, 1944, George, an American soldier, woke up in France. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his wife on that very day:
Every night I crawl into my little sack and light up the last cigarette of the day and there in the dark with the wind whippin’ around the tent flaps I think of you – of your hair and eyes and pretty face – of your lovely young body – of your warmth and sweetness. It isn’t in the spirit of frustration but of fulfillment. I’ve known these things and knowing them and having them once, I have them forever. That wonderful look in your eyes when we’d meet after being apart for a few hours – or a few weeks – always the same – full of love. Ah, Betty Lou, you’re the perfect girl for me – I love ya’, Mama!
George Rarey and millions of other people like him have served in the military service for the United States of America. This essay and others to follow are dedicated to George and all the people that have helped you and I live a life full of opportunity. It is a celebration of individual contributions and sacrifices for me, for you, and for all of mankind.
On his audio tape, Small Comforts, Tom Bodett tells a story about a little boy, dressed in a raincoat, armed with a lunch box and a box of crayons – waiting for the school bus on the first day of school. Tom described the look of fear on his face and how he was visibly biting his lip. But in his eyes, he could see the boy was resolute – he was going through with it. The moral of Tom’s story was, “If you want to get anywhere in life, you’ve got to be willing to get on the bus.” It takes courage and persistence to overcome anxieties and step onto that bus.
Never underestimate the power of any person who possesses a persistent disposition. For example, ask any parent the meaning of the phrase, “My son (or daughter) wore me down.” Here’s a story about my daughter, Courtney, that demonstrates this idea. When she was four years old, her mother (Deb) was reading her a book. The main character in the story was a zebra. At the conclusion of the book Courtney pointed to the cover and exclaimed, “Giraffe.” Deb said, “No – that’s a zebra.” Courtney replied forcefully, “Giraffe!” This exchange went back and forth for what seemed like an eternity. At one point, Deb tried to reason with her, “Look honey, see it has black and white stripes and it does not have a long neck. It’s a zebra.” One last time Courtney insisted, “Giraffe!” At this point Deb threw up her hands and said, “Fine – you win – it’s a giraffe.” The little girl on her lap looked up at her with a broad grin on her face and said, “See Mommy, I told you it’s a giraffe.”
Press On. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful individuals with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
– Calvin Coolidge
At a Toastmasters district conference in 2002, I had the good fortune of meeting Darren LaCroix, the 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking. In a workshop he presented at the conference he shared his “success story.” Shortly after graduation from Bryant College, Darren decided that he wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He told his family and they replied, “There’s one problem – you’re not funny.” But Darren felt they were comparing him to comedians like Jerry Seinfeld – a man at the top of his game. Undaunted by skeptics – Darren committed himself to becoming funny. He accepted every chance he got to perform – in local comedy clubs, open microphone nights, and two hour trips to Maine where he would perform for a mere 5 minutes. He practiced his craft relentlessly. He audio or video taped every performance – including his debut in 1992 – which he played for us. In his debut he was so nervous that his hands were visibly shaking as he perused the notes he kept on a barstool beside him. He got one laugh – when he messed up a line in the act.
For the next 10 years he persisted – and put himself in a position to eventually succeed. He not only realized his dream of becoming a professional comedian, he also became a fabulous public speaker. At the workshop, he told us about something that irritated him following his Championship Speech – the comments by people that he had a natural gift – and that he was lucky to have it. He told us, “Yea, I was real lucky, if you discount the hard work in the 10 years preceding the contest.” Darren knew he had triumphed with persistence and determination alone.
Plaque hanging in my friend’s office: “Your intelligence will get you hired, but your character will allow you to keep your job.”
I read a study that two-thirds of the people who were fired from their jobs were fired because they couldn’t get along with people, not because of technical difficulties. Put another way, they had attitude problems.
We have a poster that reads, “Attitudes are contagious. Is yours worth catching?” It has a picture of five side-by-side matches – with the first one ablaze – and the second on the verge of igniting. There is little doubt that all five matches will be engulfed in flames in a short time. When you come home from work or school and another family member is in a bad mood … how long does it take before you catch their attitude?
Most people avoid individuals with a naturally negative attitude and gravitate toward individuals possessing a positive attitude. I have learned that a persistent positive attitude (PPA) can allow anyone to overcome their shortcomings. You will be amazed what people will overlook if they know you always have a smile on your face and good intentions in your being. With a PPA, you don’t have to be the best looking, bravest, or brightest – all you need is an attitude worth catching.
In prior essays I suggested that you embrace failure as a means to an eventual success. Also, that a byproduct of coping with failure is developing the wherewithal to handle difficult situations. In this essay I will share a bit of my own story and how I put this philosophy into action.
Over the past three years I have faced multiple health issues, including severe back pain. Since doctors were unable to diagnose the cause of my back pain from x-rays and MRIs, I tried numerous forms of treatment in an attempt to get well. Below is a list of the modalities of treatment that I tried:
PDTR (Proprioceptive Deep Tendon Reflex)
Trigger Point Injections
Facet Joint Injections
Platelet Rich Plasma Injections
One of my doctors told me he had never seen a patient willing to try so many different forms of treatment. He once quipped, “I swear, if there was a witch doctor in the middle of the Amazon rainforest you thought could help, you’d be dropped by helicopter next to his hut.”
“I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.”
– Henry David Thoreau (from Travel in Concord)
In preceding essays, I have been encouraging you to “Dare to Fail.” By now you might be asking yourself, “Why put myself through all of this in the first place?” It really comes down to your goals in life. As Thoreau wrote, do you wish “to go before the mast and on the deck of the world?” Or, do you wish to play it safe and “go below”? Before you choose, consider these words by someone who had every excuse to just play it safe:
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
– Helen Keller (Deaf and blind from the age of nineteen months)
So, what is the advantage of taking a position on the deck of the world, being exposed to wind, rain, and other unknown assaults? How about developing the ability to handle a tough situation? Or, acquiring the wherewithal to get back on your feet after getting smacked to the ground? How about possessing the poise to carry yourself with dignity and pride when others are cowering around you? If you desire these qualities, then I suggest you follow Ms. Keller’s advice, and make your life a daring adventure!
“If you keep playing, eventually there will be music.”
– Author Unknown
When I was 42 years old, I made it to the District 53 round of competition in the Toastmasters (www.Toastmasters.org) International Speech Contest. Our district included slightly more than 100 clubs in eastern New York, Western Massachusetts, and Connecticut. I had won three prior rounds of local competition. However, for the district contest, I had to travel to Springfield, Massachusetts. I had been warned that the competition would be much tougher there. Now keep in mind that I had been in Toastmasters for less than a year – and really had no idea what I had gotten myself into at this point. I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable about the whole thing.
In order to respond to failure, sometimes you have to be willing to feel failure. Several years ago, when I was hitting practice shots on the golf range, my instructor said to me, “Neal, I want you to hit a poor shot. I want you to top the ball so that it skims along on the ground.” I looked at him incredulously and asked him why in the world he wanted me to hit a bad shot. He replied, “Because you need to know what it feels like.” He suggested that it is good to know what a bad shot feels like – so when it actually happens on the course you understand the cause and know how to correct the problem. In other words, you are prepared to respond to the failure. What does it feel like to slice a ball to the right? What does it feel like to pull a duck hook to the left? And more importantly, what caused the shot to move in that manner – and how are you going to respond to it?
In my prior essay, Dare To Fail … Terrifically, I used the swaying rope bridge in Indiana Jones as a metaphor for overcoming the feeling of unease that inevitably comes when you try something new. When I look back at my life, I wonder how it would have turned out if I had avoided all of my wobbly bridges. For example, when I was twenty one, I was a junior in college. Even though I had never seen a computer in my life, I decided to take a computer programming course as an elective. Unfortunately, I entered a course with Computer Science majors, using a scientific language (FORTRAN), programming scientific applications. I happened to be an Accounting major at the time, in the business division of the school.
Believe me when I tell you that during this class, I was swinging and swaying on that metaphoric rope bridge. I vividly recall my feelings when I labored away in the computer lab as my peers came and went; completing their projects in a fraction of the time it took me. As I sat there late in the evening, sometimes alone, I felt utterly stupid, thinking “What am I doing here?” Long story short, I failed the course terrifically.