Marco Polo’s Clue for Christopher Columbus


Marco Polo was born in the year 1254. As a teenager, he traveled from Europe to Asia with his father and uncle. This was no small task 750 years ago. They crossed foreign lands and mountain ranges to distant and mysterious societies. Marco Polo returned to Italy after 24 years to find Venice at war with Genoa. He served on a galleon and was captured as a prisoner of war and incarcerated for one year.

While in prison, he dictated his memoirs to another prisoner, a writer named Rustichello da Pisa. The memoirs became the book known as (loosely translated) The Travels of Ser Marco Polo.

A couple hundred years after Marco Polo wrote his book, Christopher Columbus read it. Like Polo, Columbus was a sailor and adventurer. He ardently studied maps and the work of other writers and explorers. He studied the sea, sailing, cartography, and ships. By the time he was 30, he had chosen to be an ocean explorer. Ocean discovery up to that time had been south, toward Africa. Few had dared to go west, where sea monsters and an endless waterfall awaited.

He was about 40 when he was studying in the Columbian Library in Seville, Spain, and picked up the book by Marco Polo. There he found a clue so profound that he made a handwritten note in its margin. His note highlights Marco’s observation that distant lands were washed on the East by a great sea.

Columbus may have imagined himself standing on the eastern shore of that distant land, facing Spain. He probably couldn’t have known that what would become known as the Americas lay between, but as he pondered on that comment by Marco Polo, he must have realized that if Japan had a sea to the east, and Europe had a sea on the west, there was no endless waterfall. There was land. The earth must be round.

For some 3,000 years of recorded sailing history, no one had journeyed past Portugal except for the Vikings, some 500 years earlier, who had ventured as far as what is now Nova Scotia. But this clue set Columbus’s mind to believe that he could venture west, which he did in October of 1492. That pierced the curtain, and fleets of explorers followed. The next 50 years saw more than a dozen countries launching hundreds of ventures into the new world, exploring both North and South America, where today we play Marco Polo in our pools.

Blessing the Darkness

Pilgrims with a bounteous spread. That’s what we think of and imitate at Thanksgiving when we gather people around us and feast and give thanks. It’s delightful, and gratitude comes easy on that day.

But how do we really put that into practice every day? Think about this: The pilgrims were ill and malnourished. They’d had a harsh first winter. Only about half of the Mayflower’s original passengers lived to see that first spring. But they had learned to plant corn, and after a successful harvest in 1621, they celebrated and gave thanks for what they did have.

Even when life is hard—and it often is—true happiness comes when we are grateful for the good parts.

The late Cavett Robert, a popular motivational speaker and the founder of the National Speakers Association, used to tell of a poignant experience that taught him this very thing.

He was running late after a speaking engagement in New Orleans. The meeting had run overtime, jeopardizing Cavett’s chances of catching his flight home. He completed his speech in the grand ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel, then rushed through the convention center and ran to catch the next elevator going down to the ground level.

Once on the elevator, he tapped the “G” button repeatedly, hoping it would hurry the process of closing the doors. As soon as it began its descent, he checked his watch. He could still make his flight if there were no delays with the elevator or the taxi. Just when he thought his luck was going to hold, he felt the elevator slowing for the third floor.

The doors opened, and no one was there. Hurry up! he thought to himself. Hearing someone coming, he impatiently called out, “Hurry—elevator going down!” Then he saw the red tip of a white cane tap-tap into the doorway.

“I’m sorry; I’ll be right there,” came a humble response. Cavett was crushed with humiliation. As the doors closed, not knowing how to handle the hollow silence, he asked, “Well, how are you today, sir?” His voice was now shaky and embarrassed. The reply came like a heavy blow to his soul: “Grateful, my friend. Grateful.”

Cavett Robert, the great teacher and motivator, was humbled to the dust. Suddenly missing an elevator, a taxi, or even a flight seemed trivial. He would later state, “While in my rude haste I was so caught up in my self-gratification and not an attitude of gratitude that I found myself cursing the light as this gentle man was blessing the darkness.”

He said he was never the same after that experience. In his prayers he asked for help to always realize how important a grateful attitude is in life.

Happy Thanksgiving. May this week be a time for true reflection. Count your blessings. Even if you already know what you’re grateful for, try to find just one more thing. We all have room for more happiness.



I Can Make It Better

Recently our family took a trip out to sunny California for a much-needed vacation. We visited the Magic Kingdom. It really is magical; even though I’m like forty-something, I still love those rides.

As we were getting close to the park, I heard one of my kids say, “I wonder what Dad’s gonna pull off this time. Last time he scored us some fast passes when they were all out.”

Talk about pressure. After all, what’s so bad about waiting in line for a few minutes?

After a day at Disney, we hopped over to California Adventure to check out Radiator Springs Racers.  But when we got there, the wait in line was 90 minutes long.  Are you kidding me? Holy DMV! Who waits in line for 90 minutes for a four-minute ride? Everyone, apparently.

Needless to say, we hit the road looking for shorter lines and had great success. But deep down we all wanted to ride those shiny red, blue, and yellow cars together. Only now the information desk displayed a 120-minute wait and no fast passes.

As my family walked past, I secretly walked over to the desk and said, “It would be so magical if you could find a few more fast passes for the Racers.”

The girl smiled and said, “I wish we could, but we are completely out. Your best chance for fast passes on that ride would be at the ride entrance.” So I told my family to go ahead to the next adventure and I would catch up.

I bee-lined it over to the Racers line once again with complete confidence that the gate keeper could spare a few fast passes. I walked up to the girl with the biggest smile and asked if she would spare some fast passes for my family. She kept smiling and said, “I’m sorry, we’re all out. I wish I could say yes, but no.”

Based on the crazy-long line, I believed her and started to walk away. But after a few steps I turned around and, said, “Will you tell me who could say yes?” Then that big smile came back on her face and she said, “The guest service desk near the front entrance.”

Some time had gone by since I had ditched my family, so I ran all the way back to the entrance area. When I got there, my face must have looked pretty flushed. The nice lady at the desk took one look at me and said, “Whatever it is, I can make it better.”

While catching my breath, I whispered, “Racers.”

“I’ll be right back,” she said.

Moments later she returned and handed me enough passes for the whole family.

The Racer ride really was incredible. Here’s a video of it (not mine; just one from YouTube).

Here are some clues to think about.

How many times did I go for no? Three.

Then I practiced something I learned from my friend Don Ward: Never take no from someone who doesn’t have the power to say yes.