I read a lot, but I don’t retain much. That’s an embarrassing admission, but it’s true. My mind seems to be very selective in grabbing something here, another thing there, and letting the rest flow by like a rushing river.
I’ve probably watched every NY Giants game for the last 10 years, but can’t tell you a thing about most of them (even recent ones). However, I’m friends with guys who – savant-like – can recall the score of a mid-season game six years ago. We have different brains. Sure, theirs may be better, but I’ve got to make the best of what I have.
I like my mind though, because at least it does pluck something from the rushing waters once in a while, and I think the stuff it decides to grab is pretty valuable. Even more interesting is how my mind is able (thankfully) to associate something I grabbed over here to something I grabbed over there and make a pattern, and these patterns are what I use to establish lessons, or rules of the road, for life.
Many years ago, I read, “Andrew Carnegie,” an autobiography of the steel tycoon by David Nasaw. Carnegie, as most of us know, became phenomenally wealthy. Then, as was the spirit of his age, he spent the rest of his life giving chunks of it away. The book was hundreds of pages long, but only one story stuck in that sieve-like brain of mine. And that was the decision which began the transition of the young Scottish immigrant from a pauper to a financial king.
The gist of the story is this: at some point in his early years, Carnegie was working as a telegraph operator for the railroad when he came into the good graces of some executives. Wanting to include the promising young man on an upcoming investment opportunity, they offered to bring him in on a deal that held little risk (this is before insider trading was a crime). Carnegie didn’t have the required cash, but knew he couldn’t let this chance to get a leg up in life pass him by, and so he convinced his mother to mortgage their extremely modest house to get the money. The investment worked out and, like a snowball, his financial well-being grew from there.
What if he’d decided that the cost of the investment was too high, or that the risk too great? What if his mother had refused to risk their home, knowing she’d be on the street if the investment went south? People who have become great, I said to myself, often have a moment in their lives when they take a big risk which more timid souls decline. I put this in my mental bag and let it sit there, waiting for corroboration from other sources.
A few weeks ago, I started reading “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.” Interestingly, the two men had some things in common. First off, they both experienced childhoods that stood in extreme contrast to the wealth they would later amass. At one point after both had become multimillionaires, they actually corresponded about philanthropy. But the event my brain picked up and matched with the Carnegie anecdote was this: Rockefeller began his transformation from a run-of-the-mill working man to someone with extreme wealth when he took advantage of an opportunity despite the risk involved. In this case, it was the chance to go into business with some colleagues. They, of course, required each partner to come in with a certain amount of cash. Rockefeller didn’t have it, and so had to go to his itinerant, wayward father begging for a loan. Never one to miss an opportunity to needle his son or make a buck, his father gave the loan, with interest; then would often torture his son by capriciously calling in this and other loans just for fun.
But the lesson is there again. A regular life is presented with an opportunity. At what might be substantial risk, the opportunity is grabbed by whatever means necessary. For those who make it, this risk turns out well. For those who don’t, it doesn’t. But the thing to remember is that if you don’t take the chance, you have zero chance of getting from where you are to where you want to be.
This learning has been supported in many other places, and so has become, for me, a rule of life. I think the key, once one appreciates the rule, is to be on the lookout for these rare opportunities. When they come, it’s time to push all your chips in and take a shot. The biggest regrets in life, I believe, come not from chances taken, but opportunities declined.