All Cavemen Must Carry a Big Stick

Booker T. Washington is credited with the statement, “Success is measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he had to overcome while trying to succeed.” Once, I was a guest on a talk radio show along with Michael McDonald, one of my students who had pulled himself out of the ghetto to become an attorney and a respected politician. Michael had done this despite seemingly overwhelming odds that were stacked against him. Mike was asked by the host why others also do not likewise pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. He replied that it was really tough to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you had no boots. What a great answer. No matter what the Preamble to our Constitution states, all men (and women) are not created equal. We each are born into different environments, with different talents, financial means, intelligence levels and other distinct advantages… or disadvantages. Why do some, like Mike, despite the odds, manage to succeed? Why do some have different drives, ambition, attitudes and determination? When is all this determined? Is it in the womb or the first few years of life? The great speaker, Zig Ziglar says, “Great people are just ordinary people with extraordinary determination.” Over the years, I have found this to be true.

I taught high school for sixteen and one-half years. As I reflect back on the kids that I taught, the ones that accomplished the most in life were the ones that I would never have selected to do so. They were the ones that were average kids with little opportunity and lots of drive, grit and determination. When our caveman friend went out to go hunting, he soon learned that to bring the game home, he had to carry a big stick and learn how to use it. They too had to learn to carry a big stick and lots of arrows in their quiver. Here are their stories.

Story One: Bob graduated from high school with less than average grades. Never did he, or anyone else, expect him to go to college. He met their expectations by starting to work immediately after high school. Although he did not like school, he was really good working with his hands. He liked the immediate gratification of seeing his projects come to fruition. He enjoyed construction work and began his first job as a carpenter’s helper. In a few years, he borrowed money from a local bank and built his first house. Then, he built another…then another. Fifteen years after graduation, he built his first condominium and found that he could quadruple his return by building and reselling multiple units. Bob is now a millionaire but continues to build condominiums and commercial properties.

Story Two: Eric, like Bob in the first story, barely graduated from high school. If a vote was taken, he would have been selected as the most likely not to succeed. Also, like Bob, he enjoyed working with his hands. His first few jobs were working as a helper for an auto mechanic. He started working part time in construction and learned fast. He enjoyed the challenge and satisfaction of seeing a project completed. Before long, Eric quit his job as a mechanic’s helper and built his first house. Eric moved into the house an immediately began his second house. … then a third. … then a fourth. Before long, he was developing subdivisions in his hometown. He negotiated and signed a contract to build grocery stores all across the country for a regional food store chain. The rest is history. Eric is now a multi-millionaire and travels the world expanding his investments and counting his money.

Story Three: Tom graduated from high school in the middle of his class. He was average at best and never attempted to go to college. Instead, he started to work selling televisions at a retail store in a strip mall not far from home. Tom enjoyed sales and got very good at it. While others were in college classes, Tom was learning from the school of hard knocks. He eventually left his job selling televisions and started to work as a salesman for an electronic company that supplied components to the company that manufactured the television sets. By the time that Tom’s classmates graduated from college and began to join the workforce, Tom had managed to buy the troubled electronics company. Before long, through Tom’s diligence, determination and perseverance, the company had recovered, and Tom sold it to his biggest competitor. He immediately reinvested his profits into other ventures, which included several radio stations, a restaurant chain and a regional health club chain. Tom now lives in one of the biggest houses in town and spends most of his time playing with his diversified portfolio.

Story Four: John graduated from high school as the class favorite. He was always well-liked and popular. Most were surprised when John did not go to college. He, instead, started to work with his brother-in-law building commercial properties. They soon discovered that they could build high-rise apartments for government housing at hefty profits. One thing followed another and soon their company had grabbed the attention of others who wanted to purchase the company. Not long after, John and his brother-in-law sold the business and both retired. Since he was forty-years-old, John has done exactly what he wants to do each day. He has not worked in many years.

Story Five: Our fifth story is the story of Mike McDonald, the young man mentioned earlier in this chapter. I take special pride in Mike’s story since I did play a small part in opening a door to get Mike started. Mike was a great kid in high school. Mike lived in the government housing projects and had witnessed many of the personal tragedies of others growing up there. He was exposed at an early age to gangs, drugs, violence and crime. Mike was smart enough to remove himself from those who were bad influences on him. Mike was active in his church, played on the high school football team and made good grades. Upon graduation, he knew that the likelihood of a college education was not good. This is where I enter the picture.

Mike had a job working at one of the Taco Bells in Huntsville. As fate would have it, one day I got a craving for a spicy bean burrito. When I entered the Taco Bell I saw Mike sweeping the floors. I asked him why he was not in college. After a short conversation and three burritos, I promised Mike that I would see if I could help him get into college. A few phone calls to Middle Tennessee State University and to State Farm Insurance in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, things were beginning to fall into place. I had worked my way through school at MTSU by working in the mail room at State Farm Insurance’s South Central Office. It was mere luck (Remember what I said about luck.) that the personnel manager remembered me (Although it had been nearly ten years.) and agreed to give Mike a job. A few weeks later, Mike was enrolled in MTSU and had a steady job at State Farm Insurance. He caught a greyhound bus to Murfreesboro with only ten dollars in his pocket. Four years later, he graduated with honors from MTSU and entered law school. While at MTSU, Mike earned a position as a split receiver on the football team and was the first black President of the student body. Since graduating, Mike has been named the Most Outstanding Alumni and earned many post-graduate honors. One of his first jobs was as the legal counsel to the Governor of the state of Tennessee. He was later Registrar of Davidson County (Nashville), Tennessee where he served for many years. At this writing, Mike is an attorney in Nashville and a law professor at two universities, MTSU and Tennessee State University. Mike’s success truly touches my heart since he had the least opportunity of any student that I encountered yet, he accomplished the most.

All of the above stories are true. Of those mentioned, only Mike McDonald had a college education. What did all the people in the stories above have in common? They all had determination, an overwhelming desire to achieve and great work ethic. They each overcame the odds to attain the things that each accomplished. As stated earlier in this book, work ethic is more important than a stack of college degrees. In the stories above, each learned to carry a big stick, to fill their quiver, and they each had a passion for what they did.

Here is a short story about determination:

A young guard was placed on guard duty for the first time. He was instructed that no vehicle was allowed to enter the compound unless it had a certain identification number on it. As luck would have it, the first unmarked vehicle to approach the gate was that of a general. The General had total disregard for the young guard and instructed his driver to drive on through the gate. The young guard leaned inside the vehicle and politely stated, “I’m new at this, sir, and I really don’t know what to do. Who do I shoot first, you or the driver?”


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