When you think of the Gettysburg Address, I bet you think of that famous speech by Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago. Right? Wrong. The Gettysburg Address was actually a two-hour oration by Edward Everett, a highly educated, well-respected politician of the time. He’d been a strong voice in support of the Lincoln administration and the cause of liberty for slaves. At Gettysburg, he gave a stirring speech, perhaps the most important address of his life and career.
When the applause subsided, a tired old gentleman approached the podium as the second speaker. He spoke for only two minutes, including five interruptions for applause. Abraham Lincoln’s remarks were officially only the presidential remarks that followed the Gettysburg Address, but his 272 words that day were so profound that the speech has endured as the greatest American address ever given. Today we all ascribe the title of the Gettysburg Address to Mr. Lincoln.
Even Edward Everett himself acknowledged that Lincoln’s brief words had eclipsed his own. The day following the Gettysburg event, he wrote a note to the president that read, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Abraham Lincoln, through hard study and practice, became a master of profound brevity. He could not only develop and make a point in one or two sentences, he could carry his message on the wings of authority or humor directly to the heart of understanding.
Last weekend my wife Jackie scored us tickets to the James Taylor/Mormon Tabernacle Choir/Utah Symphony concert. It was a magical evening.
James Taylor is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and a five-time Grammy winner. He’s been performing for more than four decades, he’s sold close to 100 million albums. No wonder Time magazine heralded him as the harbinger of the singer-songwriter era. Bottom line: the man has skills.
It was amazing to hear him perform with the choir and symphony. After his final song, I got on my feet with the other 20,000 plus people in attendance and gave him an ovation as he exited the theater. We couldn’t sit down. The air was electric. We just kept cheering and applauding.
Then, all of a sudden, James Taylor returned to the stage. He picked up his guitar, leaned into the microphone, and modestly said, “I hope that looked spontaneous.” Everyone laughed. His performance was flawless. He knew he’d nailed it like so many other nights.
It was a priceless lesson to witness how years and years of practice can truly pay off. And then he began singing one of my all-time favorites, Shower the People. I wanted to lean over to Jackie and ask, “Is this heaven?” and then she would say, “No; it’s just Salt Lake.”
What was a remarkable evening for me and thousands of others was a result of one man doing a little each day for most of his life. I once heard someone say, “To do the impossible, you must do the possible in incremental steps over a sustained period of time.”
That’s you. That’s me. We can do that. Doing the possible, one day at time. If you do, you will one day witness yourself doing what once seemed impossible. And like James Taylor, when you’re finished showering those around you with the gifts you’ve developed, you can also be humble and make it seem like no big deal.
Last week I flew to Nebraska for a speaking engagement. I had a stopover in Denver on my way back to Salt Lake City that required me to take a small aircraft—a Beach 1900 D model. Four other passengers and I climbed the stairs and took our seats on the twin-prop plane. I noticed the pilots, both probably in their twenties, both wearing very cool sunglasses, and both completely engaged for the entire hour and fifteen-minute flight.
Before now, getting from point A to point B in a plane seemed simple to me. I usually do it on a larger aircraft where the cockpit is closed. I sit down, fasten my seatbelt, have a snack, read something, maybe chat with someone, and soon I’m landing at my destination. But peeking into the cockpit this time opened my eyes to what it really takes for the people who are actually doing the getting there.
The pilots worked in tandem, constantly pushing levers, punching buttons, and adjusting dials. Like concert pianists playing an intricate duet, each would often cross over the other man’s arm. They would occasionally take out a chart or a map, some of them hand-drawn, to check their course.
Fascinated, I watched them the entire flight. I counted 263 touches (not counting all the times the captain reached for his Tupperware container of cherries). Each change was so small that I could not feel a difference in the plane’s performance. But each change was necessary to keep us safely on course.
How similar this is to life! Every day is dynamic and can be a little unpredictable, so we need our maps. We need to check where we are in relation to where we want to go and make minor yet frequent adjustments all along the way. If we have someone to help us watch for needed course corrections, even better.
After we landed, I was curious to know how many miles it is between the airport in McCook, Nebraska, and the mile high airport in Denver, Colorado, so I looked it up. And guess what. It’s 263 miles! I’m not even kidding.
How many times should each of us check our course? How many adjustments do we need?
For these pilots, those 263 tweaks happened at a rate of one every 15 to 20 seconds. But since life for most people doesn’t move quite as fast as an airliner, every mile or so should keep us on track just fine.
I once heard someone teach, “the moment you start giving excuses, is the moment you turn over your power and ability to actually turn things around in your life.” Here’s a wonderful story that teaches this important life lesson.
Two cousins grew up together in a small village in Southeast Asia. Both boys were the same age and came from similar backgrounds. But as they matured, small differences in their attitude toward work became more and more evident. One cousin eventually became an advisor to the king, while the other found employment as an oarsman for the royal canoe service. One evening, as the king and his court were making their annual tour of the kingdom, the canoe was landed for the night and the oarsmen were gathered around their cooking fire. Tired, sore, and sunburned, the oarsmen grumbled as oarsmen sometimes do, with the one cousin doing most of the talking.
“What an easy life those advisors have,” complained the cousin. “We strain our bare backs in the hot sun all day long, while they sit under the canopy and talk. We can talk as easily as they! Do not we have intelligence, and wisdom and experience? We would make fine advisors to the king! And yet it is we that toil to the point of exhaustion, and they who relax in the shade!”
The cousin went on like this for several minutes, not knowing that the king, who had paused during his walk in the trees, and could hear everything the oarsman was saying. Later that night, when the whole camp was asleep, the king awakened the oarsman.
“A mysterious sound interrupted my sleep,” said the king. “Go up the hill and find out what is was.”
The oarsman obediently set off up the hill, then came back a few minutes later to report. “It is nothing of concern,” he said, “just a mother cat who gave birth to a litter of kittens.”
“What kind of cat?” asked the king. The oarsman hadn’t taken notice, so he went back up the hill, and returned a short time later.
“Siamese,” he reported.
“How many kittens?” asked the king. Once again, the cousin trekked up the hill, for he hadn’t bothered to note the size of the litter. Soon he came back to the king.
“Six,” he replied.
“How many male, and how many female?” was the king’s next question.
Another hike up the hill, and the obedient oarsman returned with the answer: “Three male, three female.”
“Very good,” said the king. “Now come with me.” The oarsman followed the king over to the sleeping advisors, where the other cousin was shaken awake. “A mysterious sound interrupted my sleep,” said the king for the second time that night. “Go up the hill and find out what it was.”
Quickly the advisor went up the hill to investigate. After several minutes, he returned and addressed the king. “It is of no concern,” he began. “There is an overturned barrel at the top of the hill. Inside a Siamese cat has given birth to a litter of six kittens: three male and three female. The cat belongs to the mayor of the local village, who apologizes for the interruption of your sleep. He would be honored if you took the pick of the litter as a royal pet.”
Based on human nature, it probably took several of these incidents before the oarsman got the picture. But did you get it? The attitude you take toward any venture directly affects your approach to it. How you approach any endeavor greatly determines your likelihood of success. And your success – or lack of it- has an equally direct effect on your attitude. It’s all tied together, and it can be a spiral staircase up, or a spiral funnel down.
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