There once was a young man living in Brooklyn. A bright lad, full of enthusiasm and interest. A boy who could finish what he started, and do a fine job getting there.
But he had no career. He was good at almost everything he turned his hand to, and his father one day asked him what he wanted to be. “You have lived under my roof long enough. Its time you decided on a future. So from this moment on you must find your own way in the world. But I won’t send you off empty handed. The advice I was given by my father when I was your age made all the difference, and so you will start out knowing what I know. He told me this:
“Decide where you want to be at the end of your career. Now look at the gap between the two. Work backwards and write down the steps you need to take. Then start taking one step at a time.”
“That is all I can give you, but it is enough. Some may be better educated than you, some will be stronger. Some may have more fortitude, and others will have greater financial backing. None of that matters. You have the necessary wisdom to succeed.”
And with those words his father turned him out of the home he had grown up in, out into the street and out into the world.
The young man wandered for days not knowing where his direction lay, not yet having found his purpose. Nothing seemed to call to him as where he wanted to be when his career was over. But he knew the steps he would follow: Find the thing he wanted to end up doing, and fill in the gaps to getting there.
Then one day he saw a billboard proclaiming:
Wanted: Shift laborers, Great pay, Room and Board, Benefits.
Apply to The Pritchard and Jones Mining Co. San Francisco
There’s gold in them thar hills!
And suddenly he knew what he wanted. He would be a miner. A successful miner. He would pan for gold or dig it from hillsides. He would be rich! He would retire with nuggets of gold in his pockets!
The question, then, was how to get to San Francisco. He knew he would have to cross wild country, over land and over water. And so he did what his father had done in his own time and put one foot in front of the other, heading West, heading to his destiny.
The road was long, but he learned to live off the land. He rarely went starving but was always hungry, and he always gave a pleasant welcome to the people he met.
One day he came across a man struggling to drag an ox from the ditch where it tangled. The young man, being a helpful lad, jumped down and lent a shoulder, and together they got the ox back into the field. The farmer shook his hand and offered a seat at his table once the furrows were done plowing. The young man heartily accepted and gave his help driving the ox the rest of that day.
Later they broke for the evening and the farmer offered him work in exchange for a place to sleep and some solid eating, saying, “You are strong and true, but you could use some more meat on those bones! Let my daughter and I fatten you up if you can help us plant our crops and bring in the harvest.”
The young man could feel how satisfying the day’s work had been and how much better it felt to have a good home cooked meal filling his belly. He agreed, and for the next several months he helped the farmer and grew close to him and his daughter.
As the season was winding down and the crops were almost harvested the farmer voiced what he knew was on his daughter’s mind, offering the young man a permanent place in his home if he would take his daughter’s hand in marriage.
The young man was thrilled to be offered such generosity and kindness. He felt the love they had for him and knew his own heart to be swayed. But he also knew the gift his father had given him, and it was more precious than anything else. He was on his way to San Francisco to be a successful miner and this was just one step on the journey to get there.
And so he left the farmer and his daughter. And one day long after he came to a pasture where cows were grazing. He knew cows from his time on the farm, and he saw that one of them was having a difficult time delivering its calf. And so he stepped into the field and made sure the cow and calf were both safe.
As the calf was being born nearby cowboys witnessed the events and invited him back to the ranch. The boss offered him a place at his table and a job with the herd, saying, “You are strong and true, but you could use some meat on those bones. Let my crew and I fatten you up if you will help us drive our herds across to Abilene.”
It had been many days since the young man had been well fed, and the chance to work for a living out in the sun and with animals he knew and felt comfortable around was a good opportunity when it came.
And so he helped them run the ranch and drive cattle across to Abilene. And because he was strong and true he became well loved and valued. Eventually the rancher invited him to take over bossing the place, as his current manager was due to retire. The man, no longer exactly young, thought how kind and generous the offer was, and how much he valued being respected and appreciated for a job he truly liked doing.
But the man also knew something more important than all that. He knew what his father and grandfather had both known. The important thing was to know where you’d be at the end of your career, understand the gap, and work out the steps needed to get you there.
And so the man declined, saying “Although this is work that makes me happy and I have come to love both you and my fellow ranch hands, I am a miner, and I have an appointment in San Francisco.” And the next day he rolled up his blanket and left.
A few years later the now old man came across a commotion down by the edge of a town he was passing. There were people yelling and tempers flaring. Arms were being waved, and some had guns in their hands. It was all about to boil over when he showed up, but one mighty shout brought the attention to him. He asked what was going on and heard them out.
Being a still strong and still true man he gave them his advice and after a few moments of silent deliberation the town’s people agreed. Frowns turned to smiles and anger to joy. They invited him to stay with them, as the town was growing and had need of strong and true men.
He accepted and grew comfortably from the many home cooked meals that were delivered to him over the next several years.
And then one day the citizens approached him with the offer of making him their mayor, saying “You are wise and true, and have brought much success to our simple lives. Will you live here as our mayor and guide us to the end of your days?”
The old man responded, “I’m afraid I need to be going. I am a miner after all, and I’ve just now remembered that I have an appointment in San Francisco. Thanks for all the hospitality, but I’m afraid I must be on my way.” And with that he packed his bags and took the next stage for San Francisco.
Years later travelers might come upon a hillside with a tombstone set under a tree. The man’s name is on it, along with the following:
He left it all behind to be a miner. Sadly, that day never came.
Oh, and P.S., I actually found the father’s quote in an article pretending to be advice for artists wishing to have successful careers. Do with it what you wish, but when I saw it I know I nearly choked.
Do better than having even a good plan.