When I first sat down this afternoon to think about what to talk about tonight, I supposed I could
extol the virtues about Toastmasters and the benefits that flow to you by being around supportive success-minded
people. I thought about how it’s helped so many people, myself included, and continues to do so. I thought about how I called the former U.S. Attorney for Hawaii today, Daniel Bent, and called him Dan. And how he was delighted to take my call and speak for half an hour with me, and say he was looking forward to meeting me. (A benefit of having gone to the District Conference networking bonanza I promoted to you.) I still want to share my ideas with you that can help you in whatever you undertake. But I’ll put away my Toastmasters promotional pitch today.
Instead, let me begin by telling you a story.
This story is about a lad born in the Midwest to a dysfunctional family. He was raised not by his parents. His parents had little to do with him. Instead, he was taken care by an impoverished aunt on whom he was offloaded like worn-out furniture. An aunt who, as a responsible adult and family member, did what she could with the few resources she had to give him. Material possessions were few and far between. But that resource most precious to any person – most likely to make the difference in their lives – love and support – flowed abundantly. So, our lad learned at a tender age that things are second to people. That it is what is inside rather than what is outside that makes a person. And that anyone, regardless of their economic circumstances, regardless of where they started, regardless of the seemingly impossible odds against them, that anyone can make a significant difference in the world by making a difference in the lives of others.
With that philosophy beginning to distill from the mist of youthful understanding, he was put on a train by himself at the age of 3 and sent to Florida. To live with his father and stepmother in backwaters redneck country.
Nervous and scared about the experience and about being alone, he wet his pants. Fortunately, he had a jacket to wrap around his waist to cover his embarrassment and sympathetic travelers to offer him comfort. Hours, hours, and hours later, he arrived. But there wasn’t much there to arrive to. Economic depression. Lack of education. A cold family home. And a mentality that pounded down success like journeymen carpenters at a construction site. It was a bit challenging for him to raise his head and his hopes to the greater potential of the future and to desire to realize his dreams. Or even to have the courage to dream.
Ambition had fled this area like war-torn refugees running from enemy bombing.
His father’s ambition for him was that when he grew up, he could work at Sears as a stock clerk. With time, he might even be able to move up. The enemy was all around him. It’s been said that opportunity shows up at the back door unannounced and knocks only once. So, when opportunity tapped, he kicked open the door and fled. Away from that war-torn redneck backwater pounded by anti-success bombs. And to a war. A real war. World War II. He was 13 years old. They took him. They took everyone. They took him overseas on ammunition ships while he watched V-1 rockets overhead in the black of night trying to find him and his ammunition. They took him into European harbors so choked with bloated black corpses that you could walk across them to get to shore.
And they took 5 years of his life. But they gave back much more. They gave him opportunities to see and smell a world he had never heard about before. From his backwaters they sailed him onto the high seas of the world. And after it was all done, his side had won. The Americans had won the War.
And in keeping with their promise, they gave him a medal for participating in the War. And a piece of paper. A piece of paper more valuable than a check for a million dollars. It was a ticket. To freedom.
He took that ticket, filled out the application blanks, and sent it in. Two weeks later, he was put back on a train by himself. Again, he was nervous and scared about the experience. But this time, he didn’t wet his pants. He was headed for Monterey, California to undergo intensive foreign language training for the U.S. Air Force. The GI Bill was that ticket.
He did his time and leveraged that opportunity, studying at Yale and Harvard. By correspondence course, he got his 4-year undergraduate degree summa cum laude at UC Berkeley, spending only 1 year physically there.
And once again, opportunity tapped at the back door.He got up, opened the door and ran again.He got back on a ship headed back to Europe. Not to a war this time. But to peace. He was admitted to one of Europe’s top universities for Asian language studies and set a record that still stands today for getting undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees in 2 years while graduating summa cum laude. From there, he taught at Princeton, consulted for Pentagon generals on foreign intelligence, and became the leading expert in his narrow field of study.
When he died, his family received calls of condolences from leaders around the world. Business leaders, political leaders. Educational leaders.
His words of years past continue to echo forth. They were his philosophy, poured forth by a loving aunt, distilled from the mist of youthful understanding, challenged by backwaters thinking, severe economic droughts, the global tide changes of a world war…among a sea of other things. It’s a philosophy I want you to breathe in so it nourishes your soul. It’s a philosophy which will work for each of you if you will flee from the war-torn backwaters of mental failure pounding out of existence today your dreams for tomorrow. It’s a philosophy that will help you hear opportunity softly tapping at the back door. And as he was a simple man, so were his words of philosophy.
That philosophy? Simple: You already a got a No. See if you can get a Yes.