Four years ago, a friend in the US wrote me this email, and I posted it on my old blog.
At the time, I was working at a company that I didn’t particularly enjoy after a failed attempt at entrepreneurship. I started a blog in my free time, writing about my life as a runner and corporate Joe with a sprinkle of self-improvement. At its peak, a few hundred people would visit the site daily, but it wasn’t going to amount to anything and I began to wonder about the purpose of keeping a blog. My friend, a retired Air Force officer, shared with me a few anecdotes. Now reading it again, a few years older and hopefully wiser as well, it still resonates the same also different ways simultaneously, and continues to inspire as I embark on new journeys.
“…is there anybody out there?” – Pink Floyd; The Wall
As much as we all have that inner Pink Floyd voice asking, “Is there anybody out there?”, we have to make peace with the fact that some things we do…we do for ourselves (which can also help others…as we’re a better person to be around).
I once told my mother that when I died I was going to be cremated (not a popular societal position at the time). I informed her of my views of the “waste of (cemetery) space” and the “I’m done with this body” philosophy. She listened as mothers do then said “Make sure you prepare a place where your loved ones can go talk to you and try to deal with their struggles.”
I’d spent many days sitting next to the grave of my childhood best friend, talking about everything…and nothing. Although he didn’t hear a word, I needed the chat. I just needed to work out some issues and bounce them off of him (me).
Sometimes we write just to “see” what we’re thinking. It is difficult for most to get a thought and re-think it until they have dissected it to the core issue. I find that writing FORCES me to be deliberate in my choice of words; whereas my mind normally processes thoughts the way a blender processes a smoothy—dump it all in and see what comes out. Writing allows us to put down our thoughts, then think them through. It is a form of meditation.
If you are someone who needs feedback, then it will be a challenge for you to satisfy that need in your blog. You can see how many “hits” your blog got, but what does that mean? Did they read it? More importantly; did they “get it?” I think the hallmark of any writer/orator is that they are remembered and/or cited/quoted.
In 2010, I sat in a one-hour lecture about “How to be a good officer.” I can’t remember most of the cookie-cutter ideals that were espoused, but I clearly remember one: “Be sure you control your emotional wake.” At the time I did not think much of it, but I understood the concept of a boat creating a wake that rippled out and impacted others—long after the boat had passed. Clever.
Years later, as I move higher in my corporate structure, I pay attention to this (and also share the concept with others to consider). The quote I heard is more meaningful to me today than it was a few years ago.
Your story may not have the relevance you want it to…yet. Don’t worry…and don’t be surprised if your words are found to inspire later.
In 1998, I was the Course Supervisor/Lead Instructor for 40-some 18-20 year-old Air Force troops who had just graduated basic training. My job was to guide them through their 13-week technical training in preparation for their Air Force careers.
One of these individuals (“George”) was a tall, lanky kid with a chronic “whatever” attitude. His not-caring attitude did not serve him well during his training, and was viewed by the staff as someone who would probably not make it past the first year. He was greatly lacking self-motivation, self-worth, self-esteem, and a sense of vision.
One weekend I took the class to the local homeless shelter. I normally did this to show them 1) they don’t have it as bad as their whining suggests; and 2) how good you feel when you are benevolent towards others.
The shelter was having trouble getting someone to cut the grass that was continually growing in the fence-line. They asked if we could lay down railroad ties parallel to the fence to keep the grass from growing up the fence. I assembled my team of young, strong backs to distribute the 50kg ties in the 100F south-Texas sun. George was on this detail.
The process went along smoothly, laying the railroad ties end-to-end along the fence- line…until we came across a small hackberry sapling. This baby tree was not more than two feet tall, but was in our path….it had to go. Equipped with a pick-axe (with a broken handle) and a short-handle shovel (with a dull blade) my boss (a higher-ranking officer who volunteered to join us that day) and I began to dig out this plant. Thirty minutes later—with sweat pouring off of us in the steaming parking lot—we managed to knock the top off the small tree…”almost” level with the ground.
The young men grabbed a railroad tie and put it in place. It slightly teetered from side-to-side as the remains of the tree acted as a fulcrum in the middle of the railroad tie.
George called out, “Good enough for government work!”
My boss and I exchanged glances. We removed the railroad tie and began to work on what was left of the tree. George looked at us and asked, “Why are you worried about that little rocking in the railroad tie?”
My boss—whom I shared many motivational conversations with, quoted (part of) one of our favorite sayings—said, “Sergeant. What happens when you lick the lollypop of mediocrity?”
I quickly replied—not pausing from my work on the tree root — “Lick it once, you’ll suck forever!”
George and the group of young men continued quietly to watch us assault this tree.
After thirty minutes more, the root held its ground. I told the crew to go inside for a short break and to hydrate before we continue this job. While inside cooling down and chatting, I noticed George was gone. I panicked. He was a mischievous one. I looked outside and saw him with a busted pick-axe in his hand, wailing away at that stubborn tree root. I went outside, and was followed by the group. He hacked away until the tree root gave up its ground and surrendered to his efforts.
He held the root up with no less pride than any trophy that had ever been raised in victory. We finished the project in short work, and called it a day. I never thought about that day again.
Six years later.
I was reading the Air Force listing of individuals promoted to Staff Sergeant; a milestone that guaranteed a lifelong pension once 20 years of service had been served. I saw George’s name on the list and remembered how most thought he would not make it past a year or two. I immediately called him to congratulate him on his accomplishment.
He was surprised and happy to hear from me. He thanked me for the congratulatory remarks then said, “Do you remember that day at the homeless shelter?”
It was vague. I had gone there dozens of times with hundreds of students. I said, “Kinda”.
He continued, “You remember that tree we dug up?”
It was vague. I had drank a LOT of beer since that day. I said, “Kinda.”
He went on to re-tell the story with incredible accuracy. He then finished with, “I still have that root. I sanded it down and it sits on my desk to remind me that it’s easy to accept mediocrity. Thanks for showing me that.”
Stunned. Floored. Inspired. Proud. A whirlwind of emotions generated by a small act I had performed six years earlier. I now know that story with precision, and share it with others as an example of how we unknowingly inspire others.
Simply living your life with honorable character can have a tremendous ripple effect — inspirational wake.
I also tell people about the old man who I watched run 100km in bedroom slippers. I don’t know anything about him — income, social status, arrest record, education — but he left me inspired (and it’s hard for me to whine about something being too physically demanding when his image pops into my mind).
I encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing, and continue to strive for personal excellence — in your career, family, and social interactions. You don’t have to make the front page to make a difference. You already have.
Go have some ice cream. You earned it.