Clarence wants to know, "Is he sick?"
"No. Worse," said the head angel, "he's discouraged."
It is worse. Discouragement is like a slow-acting poison that saps our vitality, enthusiasm, and determination. This article is an antidote for that poison.
Before we get started, I want you to know I wrote this for both you and me. I wrote it for those of us who have heartfelt aspirations that mean something to us. I wanted us to have something we could read when we feel like giving up on what we really want to do.
We're going to read about the setbacks and heartaches of great and successful people, and it'll remind us that they doubted themselves at times, and they felt discouraged lots of times, and if we feel that way at the moment, it doesn't mean we're a failure. In fact, it probably means we've got guts enough to try to accomplish something out of the ordinary.
But I have some bad news. In the process of accomplishing your goal, you'll probably experience failure, criticism and ridicule. Some people may even try to stop you. And to top it all off, your goal will probably take longer to accomplish than you think it will.
That's both the bad news and the good news. It's bad news if these things haven't happened to you yet. It's good news if they have, because, as you'll be finding out in a minute, people who accomplish extraordinary things usually experience all of these. So if they're happening to you, you're in good company.
As Micky Rooney once said, "You always pass failure on the way to success."
Milton Hershey went broke twice before succeeding in the candy bar business. The Pepsi company went bankrupt three times. RH Macy started a department store that became world famous. But first he went broke six times.
You've probably seen M.A.S.H. — the television series about a medical station in Korea. It was one of the longest running, most popular television programs ever created. But did you know it was turned down by 32 different producers? They just didn't think the program would appeal to people.
Robert Pirsig's manuscript for his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values was rejected by more than 120 publishers. As of this writing, it is 17 years after its publication and it's still selling at the rate of a hundred thousand copies a year.
These examples are not unusual. They're the rule rather than the exception. People tend to pass failure on the way to success.
Lisa Amos, a professor at Tulane University's School of Business, says that, according to her research, entrepreneurs average 3.8 failures before they finally succeed. The same is true for writers, actors, salespeople, painters, and so on. People who succeed, generally speaking, experience failure and rejection and plenty of it.
SLOWLY BUT SURELY
When I went out for track in the eighth grade, I immediately set the school record in the long jump. I was thinking success was going to be easy, but then a strange thing happened. Every jump I made after that was shorter and shorter. The more I practiced, the shorter my jumps were.
I remember walking home from school one day after practice, a sad and worried little eighth grader, "How could this be happening," I wondered to myself, "I'm supposed to get better the more I practice. Is there something seriously wrong with me?"
I went to a doctor and after a thorough examination, the doctor looked at me solemnly and said, "Son, I'm afraid you've got Osgood-Slaughter's Disease."
"Oh my God!" I was thinking, "Osgood-Slaughter's Disease!" I was ready to ask him how long I have left to live when he explained to me it simply means I'm growing very fast and the long jumping is putting a strain on my knees and they aren't able to keep up with the speed of my growth if I keep long jumping. So I took the year off from track, and my knees glued themselves back together.
The next year I went out for track, the coach looked at me and said, "We need a high-hurdler. You're tall and lanky, so you'll be it."
Well I gave it my best shot and I was terrible. Sometimes in the Junior Division I was the only hurdler, and since it was a guaranteed 5 points, my coach made me run the race by myself. I was so embarrassing. All these people watching while the starter went through the whole ritual. "On your mark...set...POW! And I take off down the middle lane all by myself, awkwardly bounding over the hurdles, smashing into them, knocking them over, and generally making a complete fool of myself as the people in the stands tried not to snicker.
But one thing that usually characterizes the road to success is perseverance — to keep at it, to keep learning, and to never give up. The next year I was a little better. I kept studying about nutrition, exercise and muscle growth, and I kept practicing. And a little upon a little, I got better.
As a general rule, goals take longer to accomplish than we think they will. But if we persist, our chances of succeeding keep increasing.
By the end of my senior year of high school I had the school record for the high and low hurdles, and won the CIF championships for both the high and low hurdles. CIF is like a state meet for Southern California.
I learned something from that experience that I think is very important. When we first start anything, we're very likely to be awkward, uncomfortable, terrible at it and people will probably laugh at us. A lot of times we don't start things because we're afraid we might start out so badly. Well, we can cast aside our fear: I can put that worry to rest right now: We WILL start out badly. It happens to just about everybody when they start on something new. It definitely happened to a boy named Sparky.
In eighth grade, Sparky flunked every single class. He was the worst Physics student in the history of his high school, flunking it with a ZERO. He also flunked English, Latin, and Algebra.
He went out for the high school golf team. But at the only important match of the year, he lost. There was a consolation match, but he lost that one too.
He was very awkward with people when he was young — sort of a non-human to his classmates. That is, he wasn't either popular or unpopular. And in his entire Junior High and High School career, he never went on a single date. It was clear to everyone that Sparky was a loser.
He thought he was good at drawing, but no one else thought so. In his senior year of high school, he submitted some cartoons for the yearbook, but they were rejected. He still thought he was good, so he decided to become a professional artist. And he even took some action on this goal. He wrote to Walt Disney Studios and they wrote him back, saying, basically, "Make a cartoon out of this subject and send it to us, and we'll take a look at it."
Sparky worked hard on the project. When he was satisfied it was the best he could do, he submitted the material. And then he waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Finally he got a reply from Disney Studios. Sorry Sparky, another rejection.
So Sparky wrote, of all things, an autobiography! He made a biography of himself in cartoons. In the cartoons, he called himself Charlie Brown. Sparky, known to the world as Charles Schultz succeeded beyond his or anyone else's wildest imagination. He literally failed himself to success.
What about you? Do you think you have a talent but other people don't think so? The only way to find out who's right is to refuse to give up, to press on and keep pressing on, and when you get knocked down by ridicule or rejection, just get back up and keep moving toward your goal.
That's not to say, "Don't listen to anyone." Sometimes even painful criticism can be valuable information and can help you achieve your goal. Just don't be stopped by it.
Now that's easy to say and harder to do, am I right? I don't know about you, but when someone laughs at my idea or puts me down, sometimes it takes the wind right out of my sails. I start thinking, "Maybe it is a stupid idea. Why don't I give it up and quit beating my head against the wall. I haven't got a chance."
The truth is, anyone saying that to himself is probably not going to move ahead very well. Which is why I wrote this article. When you or I feel discouraged, let's re-read this article and get some perspective. Let it remind us of the lessons of history. Since the beginning, innovators and achievers and leaders have been ridiculed by the people around them, and it still happens today.
As Eric Fromm wrote, "He who has a conviction strong enough to withstand the opposition of the crowd is a the exception rather than the rule, an exception often admired centuries later, mostly laughed at by his contemporaries."
When we get discouraged, let's remember that Marconi's friends (remember Marconi — inventor of the radio?), his own friends had him taken into custody and tested in a mental institution. To them, he had obviously lost his marbles since he was going around telling everybody he had discovered a way to send messages through the air without using any wires.
When you and I feel that people don't yet appreciate our worth, let's remember Abraham Lincoln — the greatest president in history in my opinion. Two years before he became president, he went on a lecture tour. It was a miserable failure. In one town, not a single person showed up to hear him speak.
While Lincoln was president, the general of his army, George McClelland, once remarked that Lincoln "was nothing more than a well-meaning baboon."
In 1863, in a commentary in the Chicago Times, the Gettysburg Address was severely criticized. The Gettysburg Address! One of the most eloquent speeches ever delivered. It was summed up as "silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances."
We recognize great contributions in retrospect, but often, at the time, people don't understand it. They don't see it. Or they're envious.
John Adams once called George Washington "an old muttonhead." He said Washington was "too illiterate, unread, and unlearned for his station and reputation."
THE EXPERTS MIGHT BE WRONG
When you get criticized, remember that when Beethoven was being taught music, his composition teacher said, with an air of complete authority, that Beethoven was a hopeless dunce.
When Marilyn Monroe's contract elapsed in 1949, Columbia Pictures did not extend it or make a new one. Why? Because producer Harry Cohen thought Marilyn Monroe "lacked star quality."
Gilda Radner, one of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, once did a show called "Gilda Live." When it opened in Boston, the newspaper had a review with this headline, "Gilda Radner has no talent. Zip. Zilch. Zero."
Lucille Ball was on the chorus line of a road company when she was fired and told, "You're not meant for show business. Go home."
The first reviews of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales said, "Quite unsuitable for children. Positively harmful for the mind."
When Ronald Reagan tried out for the leading role in a film called The Best Man in 1964, obviously before he was a politician, he was rejected because, "he doesn't look like a president." Is that ironic or what?
Rudyard Kipling had already written what is now considered one of the best short stories ever written — The Man Who Would Be King — when he was fired from his job as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. His boss said, "I'm sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language. This isn't a kindergarten for amateur writers."
When Albert Einstein was in school, his Greek teacher told him, "You will never amount to anything."
Napoleon Bonaparte once listened to Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamship, and when he couldn't stand it any more, he interrupted Fulton, "What sir?! You would make a ship sail by lighting a bonfire under her decks? I pray you excuse me. I have no time for such nonsense."
Fulton wasn't fazed a bit. By this time he was used to people telling him it wasn't possible. In fact, the whole time he was building his steamship he didn't hear a single encouraging remark. People made fun of him and his crazy idea.
It turns out that steam power revolutionized the shipping industry. You can't trust popular antagonism to a new idea.
At the end of the sixth grade, Bill Cosby's teacher wrote the following criticism on his report card: "He would rather be a clown than a student, and he feels it his mission to amuse his classmates." She had no idea.
Winston Churchill was a rebellious youngster, and in school he did poorly in every subject except history. He hated school. He was late for class repeatedly. Different teachers at different times wrote the following descriptions of him on their school reports:
- a regular pickle
- very naughty
- very bad
- a constant trouble to everybody
Robin Williams was criticized by his elocution teacher in college. The teacher said to Williams, "You're mimicking people. Where is your voice?" His claim to fame, his amazing ability to imitate voices, was criticized. There he was, a nobody, a college kid, and "The Expert" is telling him that what he's doing is wrong and he should change. He should become more like everyone else.
WARNING WARNING: This is subversive material you're listening to. I'm encouraging you to be a nonconformist. I'm encouraging you to go against the tidal wave of forces that want you to be anybody but yourself.
Generally speaking, people don't want you to be what you are. They would rather you were more like what they want you to be. People want you to become "well adjusted," which means you should adjust to their values and biases. But, as Earl Nightingale said, "Advances don't come from happy, well-adjusted, well-integrated people. They come from non-conformists who refuse to buy the status quo."
J. Paul Getty, who was the richest man in the world when he died, said, "There are many pressures that try to force the young person of today to be a conformist. He is bombarded from all sides with arguments that he must tailor himself, literally and figuratively, to fit the current image, which means that he must be just like everyone else. He does not understand that the arguments are those of the almost-were's and the never-will-be's who want him as company to share the misery of their frustrations and failures."
As Herbert Bayard Swope said, "I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure: try to please everybody."
Ferdinand Oliver was a woman who lived with Picasso for seven years. The whole time they were together, they lived in poverty. She didn't like Picasso's paintings. She especially didn't like the paintings he did of her. She thought they made her look ugly.
In 1912, after seven years of squalor, she moved out and never saw Picasso again. In 1966 she died, still in poverty. A few years later, one of those unflattering paintings of her by Picasso sold for $790,000.
Now what if Picasso had said, "All right Ferdinand, I'll paint it right," and then painted a picture to please her, a picture she would consider flattering? If he had tried to please her, we never would have heard of him. His greatness was in following his own way. He went against the forces that would make him be like everyone else.
If there's a certain thing you want to do — like Picasso, who wanted to make a certain kind of painting — and people tell you, "It's no good, it'll never work, it's a crazy idea, why don't you knock it off and do something productive, just say, as Edward R. Murrow used to say, "You may be right," and continue doing what you want to do. If you think you have talent and some person, even an expert, comes along and tells you you're no good, pursue your talent anyway, because they just may be dead wrong.
At age 18, Anita Baker almost gave up on her goal of being a singer when a record executive, after he had listened to her sing, told her bluntly, "Anita, you have no talent."
Even Jack LaLanne, a man now respected and admired all over the world, had a hard time at first. When he opened a health club, people thought he was ought of his mind. Really! His was the very first health club ever opened in the US. He was trying to convince people that daily exercise was a good idea. What a nut, huh? He was labeled a charlatan and a quack. But he didn't give up. He himself was thoroughly convinced of the benefits of healthy living. So he built a gym in his back yard and started working out. After awhile, other people wanted to use it, so he let them. Then he started charging a little fee for people to come use it, and eventually he opened his health club.
At the time doctors actually warned their patients not to go to Jack LaLanne's club. "You'll get a heart-attack," they said, "You'll get hemorrhoids. You'll lose your sex drive. If you're an athlete, you won't be able to throw the ball."
He wasn't stopped by these criticisms. He was a non-conformist. He followed his own way and pioneered our present respect for exercise. And he is living proof that the old status quo was wrong and needed to be changed. At 77 years old he was breaking records he set when he was 21.
Speaking of health, have you ever heard of a man named Paracelsus? He did a very good thing for you and me. In the year 1500 AD, the doctors in Europe studied the work of a man named Galen. His works had been respected for 1300 years. That's an incredibly long time. You talk about well established! What he wrote became like sacred doctrine. If Galen wrote it, it was so, and that's all there was to say about it.
Now a lot of the things he wrote were accurate. But a lot of it was garbage. For example, supposedly inside each person were what were called the Four Cardinal Humors. Humor comes from the Latin umor meaning fluid or moisture.
The four Humors were Phlegm, Choler, Blood, and Melancholy. In order to be in good health, so the theory went, a person had to have a proper balance between these humors. The whole thing sounds pretty humorous, don't you think? But if you didn't have enough of one of these humors, or if you had too much of one, then you were sick. That's what disease was. So to make you well, the doctor's job was to restore the balance.
Galen also believed that each person had a certain balance that was just right for that particular individual. Therefore, each illness in each person was unique.
So the doctor, with his special knowledge, might find you had, say, too much of one of your humors, like blood for example. And he would treat you by making you bleed for awhile. One of their techniques was to attach leaches to your body to suck out some of your blood. And then you would be well. Now this sounds like a good Monty Python gag, but here were well-respected authorities, diligently studying for years to get their "Doctor of Physic" degree so they could go out and make people sweat and purge and bleed and vomit, and thereby supposedly make them healthy. A lot of the time, as you can probably imagine, the treatment killed the patient. But after 1300 years, this was a very well-established status quo.
Then along comes a rebel by the name of Paracelsus, who came up with the scandalous idea that something from outside your body, like smoke or germs, could make you sick. What a radical! He was viciously attacked by the medical profession so he never stayed in one place very long, and he lived his life in poverty.
But he never gave up. He felt pretty sure he was right, and he knew if he was right, it would have an enormous impact on the health of everyone.
Since he had no Doctor of Physic degree, he was never allowed to publish his ideas — including his studies of people who worked in mines who all seemed to die of the same thing (now called Miner's Disease) which seriously put in question one of Galen's "sacred" ideas that all diseases were unique.
It wasn't until a couple of decades after Paracelsus died that his work became known and published. He turned out to have been right, and although he never knew what he did, he opened up the way for a whole new approach toward disease, and doctors dramatically increased their effectiveness because of that persistent rebel.
Now some people might consider themselves a failure if they lived a life like Paracelsus — in poverty and scorned and all. But there are more important things in life than just winning or getting everyone's admiration, or collecting and spending a lot of money. Nothing wrong with these things. Not at all. But there's at least one thing that's more important: Being true to your own aspiration.
If it stirs you, if that vision captivates you, if the ideas for that invention haunt you and won't leave you alone, if you have a goal that may even seem petty to others, but it's something you feel is good and right, and you want to try...then do it, no matter how long it takes or who thinks you're a fool. Never give up on something that matters to you.
Go ahead and give up on other things, but never let your dream die. Did I say go ahead and give up on some things? Hey! What's going on here? In an article called Never Give Up I'm saying go ahead and give up?
You bet. As Joshua Leebman wrote, "Every person who wishes to attain peace of mind must learn the art of renouncing many things in order to possess other things more fully."
Or as Dr. Michael Broder put it, "You can have practically anything you want, but not everything you want."
I've never met anyone who doesn't want more things than they have time to pursue. There's an important principle in writing and public speaking that translates well into life: Cut out the unimportant and the important becomes clearer and better.
Now most people don't live so simply. There are a lot of people trying to "have it all," and even more who have completely given up on, or forgotten, the goal that really means something to them. And one of the ways we human beings know how to behave and what to do is by looking around and seeing what other people are doing. You won't see many people trying to renounce some things in order to possess their dream more fully.
So when people see what you're doing, they will probably have something to say about it. They will comment on your life.
If you do something remarkable, people will remark about it — especially your family — and most of them will have only negative things to say. As William Thakary put it, "If a man's character is to be abused, there's nobody like a relative to do the business."
When Winston Churchill was young, his father concluded that Winston was "Unfit for a career in law or politics" because he did so badly in school.
Barbra Streisand's mother told her directly that she wasn't pretty enough to be an actress and she would never become a singer because her voice wasn't good enough.
Conrad Hilton, who created a business empire with his Hilton Hotels, once overheard his father say to his mother, "Mary, I do not know what will become of Connie. I'm afraid he'll never amount to anything."
When Charles Darwin wanted to go on his five year expedition on the Beagle — the voyage that began his rise to fame and secured his name in the highest rank of scientific achievement, his father was against the whole idea. All he could see was that his son was drifting into life of "sin and idleness."
How many discoveries and accomplishments have never been realized because so many people listen to the criticisms of their relatives? That may be the most significant statement in this article.
The Native American tribe, the Osage, had a saying that if you want a place in the sun, you'll have to leave the shade of the family tree.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger discovered weight lifting, he started working out 2 hours before school and 2 hours after school every day. His parents thought he was out of his mind. Arnold wanted to be the best built man in the world, and then he planned on going to America to be in movies.
When his parents found out that was his goal, they seriously talked about sending him to a psychiatrist. How was he able to keep going even as a young man in the face of the opposition from his parents? One time when he was fifteen years old he'd had a particularly grueling workout, and at the breakfast table the next morning he was so stiff and sore, that when he tried to take a drink of his coffee, he spilled it all over the table.
His mother came over to the table and looked at him. "What's wrong Arnold? What is it?"
"I'm just sore," he said, "my muscles are stiff."
She yelled out to Arnold's father, look at this boy! Look what he's doing to himself!"
In his biography, after relating this incident, Arnold makes a comment that reveals the attitude that allowed him to continue in the face of the opposition. He wrote, "I couldn't be bothered with what my mother felt."
He was so intent upon his purpose, he just couldn't be bothered with it. He didn't fight it, he didn't try to change her opinion. He simply went about his purpose. A lot of people would have stopped what they were doing to try to make their mother happy. That's one way aspirations die.
George Washington's mother was a harping, complaining, self-centered woman. She put down Washington's accomplishments, and didn't show up to either of his presidential inauguration ceremonies. She was always whining when her children neglected her, and she was especially enraged when her son George ran off to command the army for the American Revolution! She honestly believed it was George's duty to stay home and take care of his mother. I'm sure glad he didn't think that was his duty.
In the sixteenth century there was a young man named Tycho Brae. His parents had money, and sent him off to a prestigious school to study law, but he wasn't interested in law. The love of his life was observational astronomy. The only problem was, there was no such subject as observational astronomy. So he studied law during the day to keep his parents happy, but at night he went out and watched the movements of the stars and planets, and kept records of these observations.
It was the records that eventually made a difference in the history of science. But his parents didn't like him wasting his time stargazing, and insisted he concentrate on his law studies. They hired a tutor to keep him focused. But while his tutor slept, Tycho Brae was out observing the stars.
Had he obeyed his parents, history would have been different. But he followed his own star, so to speak, and eventually found himself teaching others his methods and findings. Among these students was Jonas Kepler, who studied Tycho Brae's huge collection of recorded observations, and then, based on these, created the Three Laws of Planetary Motion, which brought into being an entirely new science: Physics.
And all this came about because Tycho Brae followed that deep impulse, against the wishes of his well-meaning parents.
There's a moral to these stories. Don't try too hard to please your parents. They have goals for you that may not match your goals for you, and it's your goals that must be satisfied by your actions. If your parents have goals, it's their job to accomplish them, not yours. Your job is your own goals.
In his youth, Leonard Bernstein, one of the most talented and successful musicians in American History, was continually pressured by his father to give up his music and do something worthwhile, like help out in his family's beauty-supply business. In Bernstein's early days, his father was disappointed that his son was so interested in music.
Later, when his son became famous, he was asked about that, and he said, "Well how was I supposed to know he was the Leonard Bernstein?"
Let this be a lesson to us, both as parents, and as children. If you're a parent, your child might be the Leonard Bernstein, or the Picasso, or the Tycho Brae, and if you're a child, and you have a goal your parents don't support, take heart! They don't know that you are who you are, and they won't know until you've done it.
Most of us want our parents to approve of what we're doing. But disappointing them, at least for awhile, might be something you'll have to live with. Sometimes they don't want you to pursue your goal because it's risky, and they don't want to see you suffer failure. And since you don't want to fail either, their arguments against your goal can be very persuasive, because failure is, apparently, the worst thing that could happen.
But maybe it would actually be worse to not even try. "Many people die," said Oliver Wendell Holmes, "with their music still in them." That's tragic.
Failure is a possibility. No doubt about it. And it wouldn't do much good to ignore it. Maybe your manuscript will get sent back. Maybe you won't get the job. Maybe your idea will be a flop. Maybe the thing you fear will actually happen. Since, when we begin anything that requires any skill or creativity at all, we're going to be making mistakes right and left, the only road to accomplishing our goal is through making mistakes, is through failing. What a bummer, huh? But not really. Because after awhile you kind of get over the bummer of making mistakes, and you begin to see the value that's there.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner wouldn't miss." Or as Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld wrote, "There are no circumstances, no matter how unfortunate, that clever people do not extract some advantage from, and none, no matter how fortunate, that the unwise cannot turn to their own disadvantage."
FAILURE AND SUCCESS
"When I was young," said George Bernard Shaw, "I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work."
Winston Churchill said, "Success is going from failure to failure with great enthusiasm."
Buckminster Fuller said that parents kill off the genius of their children by making them afraid of making mistakes. When you're afraid of making mistakes, you initiate fewer actions, and when you initiate fewer actions you don't fail as much, but you also don't learn as much. Being afraid of making mistakes prevents you from becoming as good as you could be. That must be why Thomas Watson said, "The way to succeed is to double your failure rate."
Watson was working for a company called National Cash Register, otherwise known as NCR, when he was fired. This was a failure. But he vowed that he would develop a company that would dwarf NCR some day. He went on to create a company called International Business Machines, otherwise known as IBM.
Watson once gave some advice to a writer who was discouraged because so many publishers had rejected his manuscripts. Watson told him, "You're making a common mistake. You're thinking of failure as the enemy of success. Every one of those manuscripts was rejected for a reason. Have you pulled them to pieces looking for a reason? You've got to put failure to work for you. Go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember, that's where you'll find success — on the far side of failure."
"Fear nothing," said Katherine Tingley, "for every renewed effort raises all former failures into lessons, all sins into experience." Every time you pick yourself up and try again, you transform your failure into a lesson. Remember that quote as you listen to an ironic true story of a clergyman in his fifties.
One of the major goals of this clergyman was to get his manuscript published as a book. He kept sending it to publishers, but all he got back were rejection notices. One day he finally had it. He gave up. In defeat, he threw his manuscript in the trash.
His wife knew how much that manuscript meant to him, so she reached into the wastebasket to pull it out. "We've wasted enough time on it," he told his wife, "I forbid you to take it out of there."
The next day she was thinking about it and she got an idea. She took the manuscript, still inside the wastebasket, to another publisher on her own. The publisher was intrigued by this unusual way to bring in a manuscript, so he read it. And he published it. And boy is he glad he did! The book sold 15 million copies and is still selling. The clergyman is none other than Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. The book is The Power of Positive Thinking. Good thing for Norman his wife used the power of positive thinking and didn't give up.
I'll tell you about another person who didn't give up. He was a man who wanted very much to be an actor. But he was turned down by hundreds of agents. Now, rejection has got to be one of the hardest things in the world to take. But he took it, one day at a time, and although it hurt, he didn't let it stop him.
Nobody wanted him as an actor, so he bought a book on how to write a screenplay and wrote his own movie. His plan was to sell a package deal: You want the screenplay? I'll sell it to you if I get to play the leading role. But again, nobody was interested. He was rejected again and again, but he kept at it.
Then a company made him an offer just when he desperately needed money. His wife was pregnant, and they had less than a hundred dollars to their names. He was offered two hundred and sixty five thousand dollars for the script...on one condition: That he wouldn't star in it. They wanted someone like Burt Reynolds or Warren Beatty.
But he wrote it, and he thought his movie would make him a star — but only if he starred in it. So he bit the bullet and refused to sell out.
Boy that must have been tough. And you know, no matter what your goal is, it will probably be tough. It's important that you make up your mind to be willing to sacrifice some comfort for the sake of your goal, because it will be necessary for your goal's achievement.
An interviewer once asked Ray Bradbury about the sacrifices he made early in his career. "Wasn't it hard to make sacrifices? Didn't you have to give up most of the things people feel they have to have?"
Bradbury said, "Well, it depends on what you have to have. You can get along on a very small amount of money." Then he talked about not going to the theater, giving up movies, not buying clothes, and eating lots of macaroni and cheese and cans of soup.
You know what kills a lot of aspirations? Impatience. People don't want to sacrifice the nice car and the stylish clothes and the great stereos and all those other luxuries that seem like necessities, so they buy them, and then they're in debt, so they don't have the freedom to do what they want. They don't have any money to finance their goal, so the goal gets shoved aside. After awhile, they forget it's even there.
Big obstacles didn't kill the dream. Impatience did.
A friend of mine told me the other day she's tired of the fashion industry and she wants to do something meaningful with her life, but she doesn't know what that would be.
"If money wasn't an issue," I asked her, "what would you love to do?"
Oh!" she said immediately, "I've always wanted to work with troubled kids."
"Well there's your answer," I said, "How about getting out of the fashion industry and working with troubled kids?"
She looked at me as if I was unbelievably naive. "There's no money in it," she said. And with simple statement, slammed the door on something that may have made her life satisfying.
She has charged so much money for clothes on her credit cards, she couldn't realistically get into another line of work that pays less for at least a couple of years. It would take that long to pay of the cards. That would be hard. She could do it. But it would be hard.
Being willing to sacrifice, being willing to delay gratification, gives you power. We may not like driving the old car. We may prefer to have all the nice things everyone else has. And if we sacrifice and keep pursuing our goals, we'll probably be able to have those nice things. But for sure we'll have something that's way more valuable: We'll be satisfied with our life.
So what happened to our would-be actor and screenwriter? The company offered him $265,000 but he refused because he wanted the leading role. He went back to knocking on doors and finally a company took a risk on his movie and his acting. But they lessened their risk by paying him only a little bit up front and then ten percent of the profits.
The movie was Rocky and it won academy awards for best director and best picture and made an unknown man named Sylvester Stallone into a star. Four other Rocky films were made, grossing more than a quarter of a billion dollars.
Stallone, the actor and screenwriter, had the courage to keep trying. There are millions of people who would like to succeed but very few of us are willing to suffer and sacrifice and keep going because it's tough, it's discouraging and to keep going we need that rare and precious quality: Perseverance. As Samuel Johnson said, "Great works are performed, not by strength, but by perseverance. He that shall walk, with vigor, three hours a day, will pass, in seven years, the circumference of the globe."
Case in point: John Johnson, the richest African American in the country, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazine, owner of a multi-million dollar cosmetics and insurance empire, and a man with formidable perseverance.
He started out dirt-poor, barefoot, and living in a tin-roofed shack in the deep South. His first publishing venture, when he was 24, was a little magazine called Negro Digest. He went to get a loan to start his business, and they laughed in his face. The assistant to the assistant was the only person he could talk to at the bank and he told Johnson, "Boy, we don't make any loans to colored people."
No banks were willing to invest any money in his enterprise, so his mom let him put her furniture up for collateral on a $500 loan. He wanted the African Americans in the South to read his magazine because a lot of them thought they were inferior people. They had been suppressed for generations. They needed to be inspired, and Johnson knew his Negro Digest would do that.
The problem was that the police in the South were hostile to black-oriented media. So Johnson got clever. He had his agents board a bus and secretly sell the Digest, working from seat to seat to the next stop. Some of these agents were caught, beaten, and jailed. But they kept at it, and Negro Digest became a success.
When Johnson started Ebony Magazine, he had a hard time getting companies to advertise in it because nobody wanted their advertisements in a magazine for blacks. He sent letters and made phone calls. He personally made 400 phone calls to a single CEO. The car industry was the hardest. As Johnson said, "We sent an advertising salesman to Detroit every week for ten years before we broke our first major account." Now that's perseverance!
John Johnson got his accounts, kept his magazines going, and inspired millions of people in the process.
Perseverance isn't a single, massive effort. It's constant effort over a long period of time. For example, in the Guinness Book of World Records, there's a man who ate a bicycle. Yep, swallowed a whole bicycle.
If you think about doing that yourself, it sounds pretty difficult, doesn't it? And when you and I hear about the successes of others, and we think about doing it ourselves, it sounds pretty difficult too. But if you watched the bicycle-eater perform his seeming miracle, you would recognize that you could do the same thing...if you wanted to.
And that's also likely true about the successful people we know about. If we followed them around night and day, week after week, after awhile we'd realize that we could accomplish the same thing if we wanted to.
The secret of the successful people, and the bicycle-eater is to do what you can for today, and keep it up most every day.
The bike-eater had his entire bike ground into a fine powder, and every day he added a little of this powder to his meals. It took him awhile, but he eventually ate the whole bicycle. Pretty easy. Yes. And that's the point. There may be things along the way that are difficult to stomach. I'm sure it wasn't easy for John Johnson to be rejected so many times. But he didn't try to get every company to advertise in one day. And the bicycle-eater didn't try to swallow the whole bike's worth of powder in one day. It would have killed him.
They did what they could each day, and kept doing that most every day for a long time. By the way, I told a little fib. The guy who ate the bicycle didn't really eat a bicycle. He ate ten bicycles. His name is Michel Lotito. He lives in France. Since 1966, he's eaten ten bikes, a supermarket cart, seven TV sets, six chandeliers, and a low-calorie Cessna light aircraft.
A little every day adds up to a lot.
We just need to do a little today, and a little more tomorrow. The effect will accumulate. Sometimes what we do will be successful, and sometimes we'll make mistakes. But as the Japanese proverb says, the secret of success is "Fall seven times, stand up eight." That's what Jimmy Yen did. He isn't Japanese, he's Chinese, and you've probably never heard of him. Most Westerners haven't. But a jury of distinguished scholars and scientists, including Albert Einstein and Orville Wright, thought enough of him to vote him one of the top ten modern revolutionaries of the twentieth century.
What did Jimmy Yen do that was so astounding? He taught Chinese peasants to read. Big deal, huh? But for four thousand years, right up until this century, reading and writing in China was only done by the Scholars, and was considered beyond the ability of the peasants. Everybody knew, including the peasants themselves, that peasants were incapable of learning.
That belief, that thoroughly ingrained, four thousand year-old belief, was Jimmy Yen's first so-called "impossible" barrier. The second barrier was the Chinese language itself, consisting of 40,000 characters, each character signifying a different word. The third barrier was the lack of technology — even the lack of good roads. How could Jimmy Yen even reach the 350 million peasants in China?
Impossible odds. An impossibly huge goal. And yet he had almost attained it when he was forced, by Communism, to leave his country. Did he give up? No. He decided to teach the rest of the Third World to read! Practical reading programs, like the ones he'd developed in China started pumping out literate people like a gushing oil well in the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Kenya, Columbia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Ghana, India — people became literate. For the first time in their entire genetic history, they had access to accumulated knowledge of the human race.
For those of us who take literacy for granted, I'd like you to consider for a moment how narrow your world would be if you'd never learned how to read, and there was no access to radios or TVs.
Chinese peasants were hired by the Allied Forces in World War One, as laborers in the war effort, 180,000 of them. Most of them had no idea — not a clue — where England, Germany or France was. They didn't know what they were being hired to do. And they didn't even know what a war was! Try to grasp, if you can, the vacancy, the darkness, the lack that existed in those people because they couldn't read. Jimmy Yen was a Savior to them.
At one point he published a little newspaper for the Chinese peasants working there in Europe, where he started his literacy program, when he received a letter from one of his former students. The student wrote,
"Ever since the publishing of your paper, I began to know everything under the heavens. But your paper is so cheap, and costs only one centime a copy, you may have to close your paper down soon. So here please find enclosed 365 Franks which I have saved during my three years labor in France."
Now get this: The Chinese peasants in France were being paid one Frank a day — the equivalent of 20 cents. And this poor laborer sent his entire savings, more than a year's pay, to Jimmy Yen! How much would something have to mean to you for you to voluntarily, happily, give away more than a year's worth of your income out of sheer gratitude?
What was the secret of Jimmy Yens success? He found a real need and he found in himself a strong desire to answer that need. And he took some action. He tried to do something about it, even though it seemed impossible. He worked long hours. And he started with what he had in front of him, gradually taking on more and more.
Thomas Carlyle said, "Our main business is not to see what lies dimly in the distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand."
And that's what Jimmy Yen did. He started out teaching a few peasants to read. He had no desks, no pens, no money, no overhead projectors. He started from where he found himself and did what was clearly at hand.
Each time a new class started, there were more people in it, and he got better and better at teaching them. And as time went on, he received more and more help.
What's clearly at hand for you? Do you have a tendency to dream big, to try to figure out in advance what lies dimly in the distance, ignoring the opportunities for a small beginning right here right now?
"Nobody has made a greater mistake," wrote Edmund Burke, "than he who did nothing because he could only do a little."
Everyone has heard of Mother Teresa. But do you know how she began her great mission? She started by simply doing the little task that lay clearly at hand. She was a 21 year-old teacher at a convent high school in Calcutta, India, looking out her window one day at the slum on the other side of the concrete wall. This wasn't the kind of slum you and I normally think of, though. This was a slum that would make the poorest of poor Americans shudder. Open sewers, rampant disease, widespread famine — it was horrible.
After school, Sister Teresa went into the slum and brought those people medicine and bandages. She did what she could, from where she was, with what she had. She discovered her mission: to help the poor while living among them. She left the area to get a little more education, then came back to the slum and went to work.
The kids needed to learn to read and write, because without those essentials, they could never rise above their condition. But she had no resources. So she wrote letters in the dirt with a stick, with at first only five or six children. That was her school. The dirt on the ground. A stick. And a few children.
But of course the parents of the children saw what was happening, so pretty soon some tables appeared. Then eventually benches and a blackboard. And the word got around, so more and more children were showing up for class.
She saw a need, and she tried to fill that need directly, doing what she could with what she had, a little on a little, no matter how small it seemed, and by following that simple strategy, she became a world leader of sorts, an inspiration to millions of people, and in 1979, received the Nobel Peace Prize.
What's your mission? You can dream as big as you want to dream. Just realize that you can only do something about it today. Yesterday is already gone, and tomorrow isn't here yet. So everything you'll ever accomplish, no matter how big, will be accomplished one day at a time. So go ahead and get in your mind whatever it is you want. But then bring it down to a focus by asking yourself, "What can I do this day to advance toward my dream?" Now do that. Today. No matter how hopelessly impossible the big goal seems to be, no matter who thinks it's a silly idea, no matter how many times your idea has been rejected, take one step forward on it today.
This is the Path of Progress, and the Way to Happiness. It's the way to the achievement of your mightiest aspirations. It's the way Sylvester Stallone and Mother Teresa and Jack LaLanne and every achiever accomplishes their goals. And it's also the way Paul Rokich achieved his goal.
When Paul was a boy, growing up in Utah, he happened to live near an old copper smelter, and the sulfur dioxide that poured out of that refinery had made a desolate wasteland out of what used to be a beautiful forest. When a young visitor one day looked at this wasteland and saw that there was nothing living there — no animals, no trees, no bushes, no birds, no anything but fourteen thousand acres of black and barren land that even smelled bad — this kid looked at the land and said, "This place is crummy."
Paul knocked him down. He felt insulted. But he looked around, and something happened. Paul Rokich, in that moment, made a vow that someday he would bring back the life to this land.
Many years later, Paul was in the area, and he went to the smelter office. He asked if they had any plans to bring the trees back. NO was the answer. He asked if they would let him try to bring the trees back. NO. They didn't want him on their land.
He realized he needed to be a lot more knowledgeable before anyone would listen to him, so he went to college to study botany. At the college, he met a very inspiring professor who was an expert in Utah's ecology. Unfortunately, this expert told Paul that the wasteland he wanted to bring back was beyond hope. He was told that his goal was foolish because even if he planted trees there, and even if they grew, the wind would only blow the seeds forty feet per year, and that's all you'd get because there weren't any birds or squirrels to spread the seeds, and the seeds from those trees would need another thirty years before they started producing seeds of their own. Therefore, it would take approximately 20,000 years to re-vegetate that six-square-mile piece of earth. His teachers told him it would be a waste of his life to try to do it. It just plain could not be done.
So he tried to go on with his life. He got a job operating heavy equipment, got married, had some kids...but his dream would not die. He kept reading up on it, and he kept thinking about it. And then one night he took some action. He did what he could with what he had.
This was an important turning point. As Samuel Johnson said, "It is common to overlook what is near by keeping the eye fixed on something remote. In the same manner," he said, "present opportunities are neglected, and attainable good is slighted, by minds busied in extensive ranges."
Paul stopped "busying his mind in extensive ranges" and looked at what opportunities for attainable good were right in front of him. Under the cover of darkness, he sneaked out into the wasteland with a backpack full of seedlings, and started planting. For seven hours, he planted seedlings.
He did it again a week later. And every week, he made his secret journey into the wasteland and planted trees and shrubs and grass. But most of it died.
For fifteen years he did this.
Freezing winds and blistering heat, floods and landslides and fires destroyed his work time and time again. But he kept planting.
One night he found a highway crew had come and taken tons of dirt for a road grade, and all the plants he had painstakingly planted in that area were gone. But he just kept planting.
Week after week, year after year, he kept at it, against the opinion of the authorities, against the trespassing laws, against the devastation of road crews, against the wind and rain and heat, even against plain common sense, he just kept planting.
Slowly, very slowly, things began to take root. Then gophers appeared. Then rabbits. Then porcupines. The old copper smelter at first gave him permission, and then later, as times were changing and there was political pressure to clean up the environment, the company eventually hired Paul to do what he was already doing, and they provided him with machinery and crews to work with. Progress accelerated.
Now the place is fourteen thousand acres of trees and grass and bushes, rich with elk and eagles. And Paul Rokich has received almost every environmental award Utah has.
He says, "I thought if I got this started, when I was dead and gone people could come and see it. I never thought I'd live to see it myself."
It took him until his hair turned white, but he managed to keep that "impossible" vow he made to himself as a child.
What was it you wanted to do you thought was impossible? Sure gives a perspective on things, doesn't it?
The way you get something accomplished in this world is to just keep planting. Just keep working. Just keep plugging away at it, one day at a time, for a long time. No matter who criticizes you, no matter how long it takes, no matter how many times you fall. Get back up again and just keep planting.
- Excerpted from the book, Slotralogy, by Adam Khan.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.