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“Never let the truth gets in the way of a good story,” one of my mentors, Jack Houston told me when I asked about his life. “All perceptions are real. They may not be valid, but you must deal with them,” Smiley Williams, another of my mentor shared with me. I’m sharing both as I want to talk a bit about the ‘middle’ journey and why I value these men as icons.
If you were to see them, you would never put them in the same group. Jack Houston is from the hills of east Tennessee. Smiley Williams is from the streets of Baltimore. One is white and the other is black. Big Daddy, as we call him, is 85 years old, and Smiley is 78. These are self-made men. Both served in the military; have children and grandchildren. But more importantly these men have people like me who they have encouraged and helped along the way. These men made America what it is today. These men are the icons young men today look toward to continue to keep America in the game. It’s their wisdom that resonates and their struggles which define how we got where we are today.
As I talk to young men, especially dads, the stories are similar to the ones each of us, Big Daddy, Smiley and I have had, just in different classrooms, farms, streets or alleys. The young people want to know what struggles we had to get where we are today. We are not all like Steve Jobs, who once reported in 2004 that he lost a quarter of a billion dollars in one year. That’s incredible. But note in 2007, he launched the Apple IPhone. Now that’s really incredible. Young men today want to hear about those lost dollars, the struggles of the middle journey. They want to hear how millionaires almost went broke. They want to hear how someone along the way told you to “Keep the Eye on the Prize,” as Dr. Harriett Romo told me, when I’d flunked my PhD qualifying exams. Life is not easy. We did not easily arrive at a dock called success. Some of got their way by way of a boat and some swam. The important thing is we got there.
As I talked with these two gentlemen I am in awe. I couldn’t believe they were not always successful, and then they told me their story. When I hear it, I’m imbued with knowledge and a strength that I want to give others, so they understand that each day is just that. It’s a day. You can do with it what you want, but the important thing is to not forget other people had struggles too. That’s the importance of asking the ‘how’ you got where you are today question, and then listen to the answer.
It’s hard today. There is no way I would begin to say it is not. Young people today have to be on their game, almost all the time, because as Mr. Williams alluded, perceptions are real, and you must deal with them.
So how are you going to do that? You start believing in yourself. You don’t accept failure as an option. Vince Lombardi, former coach of the Green Bay Packers once said, “Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit.” My mentors never quit. They refused to give up on people who didn’t give up on themselves. When people are on your case, keep in mind it’s because they care. Randy Pausch’s book “The Last Lecture,” is a must read. In the book he point blank says “When you’re screwing up and nobody says a thing, it’s because they’ve given up on you.” You keep yourself in the race, because “you can’t win if you don’t run.” You tell the truth. We all have doubt, and it’s in the struggle the real appreciation for the accomplishment rings through.
I tell my students the story of Floyd Patterson and his first title match with Ingmar Johansson. It was during that match that Mr. Patterson got knocked down seven times. I ask my students “why do you think he got knocked down seven times?” You might have to think about it, but the answer of course is “he kept getting up!” He lost the match, but less than a year later, Patterson won the rematch. He refused to quit.
As you think about being a man, a husband, a dad, realize your strength is founded in men like Jack Houston and Smiley Williams. Just like Floyd Patterson, you keep getting up because you’ve heard their stories and you’re a dad who cares.