I know this guy who always wins. Everything he does is a success, and no one has ever done it better. He has never said those exact words to me but everything he does say to me has those exact sentiments in it. What I have learned from this person is that a life of nothing but success is not only a crock, it is boring. Where there is no struggle, there is no connection.
Where there is no failure, success means nothing.
Even those born to means instinctively understand that if they do nothing to make their own mark, if they have no struggle of their own, they are not worth much more than the feather bed into which they were born. Even the silver spoon in such a person’s mouth is poisonous.
A pitiful farmer
Sir Isaac Newton is hailed as one of history’s most significant achievers. He formulated the laws of motion and gravity. He made the first theoretical calculation of the speed of sound. He developed calculus, the math most of us struggled with or avoided altogether in school. He once saved England from financial disaster.
Who would know that his mother removed him from school when he was 17 so he could learn to farm in the absence of his deceased father? He was a miserable, absent-minded, disinterested farmer. When he returned to school, he attended Trinity College and proved to be barely average as a student.
Luckily, the college closed for two years, 1665 – 1667, and Newton was left to pursue his studies in his own way. By 1669, the tutor Newton had so bitterly disappointed in school, Isaac Barrow, was describing Newton as “an unparalleled genius.”
The rest is history. (But not without the struggle.)
A captain busted to private
Among American presidents, two names stand above the rest, unequaled in their fame, and unmatched in their contributions as president. They are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln, however, was a man well acquainted with mediocrity and failure. His first political campaign was to join the Illinois General Assembly. He finished eighth out of 13 candidates. He entered the militia as a captain to serve in the Black Hawk War. He finished his duty as a private. He failed as a businessman when, despite a robust economy, he could not make a general store of which he was part owner prosper. Lincoln decided to teach himself law, passed the bar, and eventually saved the union while presiding over America’s war with herself. His Gettysburg Address is recognized as one of the greatest speeches in human history.
A dog-food-eating dreamer
He reputedly was so poor at one point in his adult life, he resorted to eating dog food. He established a studio that lasted two years and then went bankrupt. He created a cartoon character he named Oswald the Rabbit but failed to get intellectual property ownership, lost the contract to produce the character, and then lost his staff. He had to start over. The next character he named Mickey Mouse. Do I need to tell you this guy’s name?
A poor, poor single mom
She was unemployed, and a single mom. She described herself as “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.” She was clinically depressed. She wrote a book. It was rejected by a dozen publishing houses. She believed in it and kept querying.
Eventually, Bloomsbury accepted the novel but she was advised by her editor to get a day job as he predicted she would never be able to support herself by writing.
The lady is JK Rowling. The book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It became one of the top five bestselling books of all time, selling more than 100 million copies. She has been supporting herself quite well by writing ever since, thank you very much.
I propose that none of these singular success stories would have relished the bitter battles, the sore losses, the terrible defeats, the sleepless nights…the struggle. At the time, I mean. But when they reached that plateau of ultimate success, they each recognized it as part of the story, maybe the most important part.
A holiday firing
I do not claim to have achieved anything remotely on that level. I do proudly wear the title of President today. But I can tell you this: I have failed more than I have succeeded.
As it is the week of Thanksgiving 2022, and I am thinking about my journey, I remember the only time I was ever fired from a job. It was the holiday season, the Friday before Thanksgiving.
Prior to landing a sales job at the Larry Dennis Company in Fort Worth, Texas, I had sunk to the bottom. A prior sales job had failed to produce much income, so I went to the want ads and answered the Yellow Cab advertisement for cab drivers. I also got a part-time job delivering pizzas. I drove that cab into the wee hours of the night and rose early the next morning to drive it some more. In the peak evening hours, I delivered pizza for Little Caesar’s.
You can imagine my excitement when I sold myself to Larry Dennis, who owned the textile business that bore his name. Larry gave me the west Texas and DFW territories. A few months in, I thought I was enjoying good success. I had collected some old debts, resurrected dormant accounts, and established a handful of new ones. Larry did not believe in selling “price.” Anyone can sell if they sell cheap. He wanted us to sell superior service and unmatched inventory. The trouble was that most of the clients were little mom & pop shops and were disinclined to keep an inventory when Larry and other suppliers had one ready. They could mostly buy as needed unless they saw a bargain. Larry didn’t sell bargains.
This made for a hard sell.
About a year into the job, Larry called me into his office to tell me “You are no bidnessman,” and to fire me. I guess it should not have come as a surprise; he had been through three more salesmen in other territories during my short stint.
The timing was rough. Thanksgiving and Christmas were upon us. We looked for all the world like we would have another one of those Charles Dickens Kravitz family Christmases, the third such Christmas in a row. Hard to imagine where the kids’ Christmas gifts are coming from when you don’t have the money to make rent.
I filed for unemployment and the skinflint fought it. I had to produce evidence that my firing was not because of some dereliction on my part in order to even get the unemployment benefits. I fought back and won, but that was a small victory and paltry income for the head of a family of five.
How I hated the failure I had become! The stress of the struggle nearly broke me. I was never diagnosed but if clinical depression is something worse than what I experienced for about five years of my life, I do not want any part of it.
I had ridden high, and fast. I was but 23 when I ascended to the role of senior pastor in a California church. I had been president of two different regional pastoral fellowships. I had founded, along with five other pastors, a ministry called Iron Men. (It is still impacting men’s lives a quarter century later.) I had preached in universities. I had written a weekly column for a local newspaper and been published in numerous national publications. I rose fast and fell hard. And struggled.
I never appreciated the struggle at the time. I do now. None of the successes I enjoy today would mean a thing to me if I had not been where I’ve been.
A mountaintop trip
I have just come off a vacation with my wife. We visited four southeastern states: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee. We went from mountaintop to mountaintop, from Stone Mountain in Georgia to the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
Along the way, we visited Bob Jones University. I had not been there since 1977 when I was 15 and competing in Nationals for Accelerated Christian Education. I had won the Texas state competition and thus qualified for Nationals. Before it was revealed who had won, the judges selected me to preach to the general assembly, which numbered somewhere around 4,000 people – students, counselors, teachers, administrators, and guests. That is still the largest crowd I have ever addressed, which has prompted me to often joke about peaking way too early.
A lost highway
She wasn’t talking to me. Usually, she is very bossy, telling me turn here and go there. But she was silent. Consequently, I was soon lost.
We decided on our way to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to revisit Gatlinburg. It had been more than 10 years since we had been to either place. I gassed up somewhere in Tennessee and punched in Gatlinburg as my destination. Somehow, my phone had disconnected from the speaker system in the rented Jeep. I had my phone propped up so I could see it but had grown accustomed to the Google Maps girl talking me through the journey. Only she wasn’t. So, I missed a crucial turn and off we went on the crookedest road I ever traversed, and that includes some logging roads in the Redwoods out in California. Hairpin turn after hairpin turn was accented by a steep drop off to the left and immediate rise of mountain to the right. The road had the shoulders of Mr. Bean. We went about 30 minutes like this, both of us thinking it was strange that Google thought this was the best way to Gatlinburg. I would glance at the map, and it said keep going, just keep going. I did not realize it only said that because there was no safe place to turn around.
I was already pretty sure we had missed a turn somewhere when, after having been in Tennessee for a couple of hours already, the Google lady said, “Welcome to North Carolina,” and the pavement ended. Tennessee thought that road was worth asphalt. North Carolina disagreed. I had to go another mile or so before I finally found a place in the road wide enough to turn around.
For 15 miles, we marveled at the majestic mountain beauty engulfing us, and fought off car sickness from the weaving and bobbing. We were not just on the road less traveled; we were on the road that had no business being a road in the first place, or so it seemed.
That little vacation mishap will no doubt last in the memory and live in the lore of this four-state excursion long after the other experiences of that time have faded.
Donuts in the High Street parking lot
That vacation coupled with a picture of the couple we count as our dearest friends – 42 years and counting, this friendship – placed on Facebook this very morning got me thinking about the journey and Thanksgiving and how thankful I am for the road I have traveled, the mountains and the valleys, the paved and unpaved.
Keith and Debbie Day.
When we first met them, I was a 19-year-old youth pastor, working full-time on the Friendly Lane Baptist Church staff. They were not “in church,” and Keith’s mom, a beautiful, lovely woman named Nelda, sicced me on them. She thought that we might be great friends and she so wanted them in church. The story of how right she was about that potential friendship is much too long to write here. It is a book dying to be written all by itself, in fact. Suffice it to say, they “got in church,” I led Debbie to Christ, Keith rededicated his life to Jesus, and then surrendered himself to the calling on his life that previously he had no idea was there, and we became inseparable friends.
When I decided I needed to complete my education, I identified Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri as the place to do it. Keith and Debbie said they needed that education, too, so we all quit our jobs, rented a Ryder truck together, and packed all of our meager belongings into it. We had a toddling daughter and so did they. (Donya was soon to expect a second daughter, and she would be born in Springfield the next year.) We fit all of the worldly goods of two young families into one Ryder truck and had room to spare, and then migrated eight hours North and East to become bible college students.
I signed up for 18 hours of classes that first semester, then set out to secure a job. It took but one day. A new friend told me he worked at Vermillion Walnut Company, as did a handful of other BBC students and I should apply there. I did. They hired me. I was making a dime over minimum wage. This was 1982, so my hourly income was $3.60. Keith could not get on there and took a job at the busiest car wash you ever saw. This man is all muscle and, still, he could barely lift his arms at the end of a shift.
We lived in the married couples’ dorms, us on the first floor of one building and them on the third floor of the other. We were poor as church mice. We had no money to entertain ourselves, but we could afford a pack of balloons, so we played balloon volleyball over the back of the hand-me-down couch Donya and I brought with us from Texas.
We don’t get a ton of snow in the part of Texas we come from, so when it snowed a couple of feet that first holiday season, we played in it.
I had this shiny blue 1969 Plymouth Satellite. The color was called Blue Fire Metallic, and it fit. The old muscle car slung oil like a newspaper boy slings the Sunday Times. The front end was looser than a La Grange dancer. It walked all over the road like a drunken fool. The steering wheel had an inch of play in it before it affected the direction of the may-pop tires. But it was one smoking hot mamba-jamba when you punched the accelerator.
As my Dad, from whom I bought Old Blue would say, “Son, that thing’s got a bored-out 383 in her. She runs like a scalded dog.”
High Street Baptist Church, the biggest Baptist Bible Fellowship church in Springfield, Missouri, was also the biggest church of any type in Springfield, Missouri. They had a beautiful new campus and had donated their old facility to the school. The parking lot at the glorious old stone-and-brick church recently abandoned for the newer, more expansive confines, was roomy, and empty most of the time.
That Friday night after it snowed and the roads were icy slick, we couldn’t think of anything that might be more fun than to take the old Satellite for a spin in the High Street parking lot. So, Keith and I took turns goosing Old Blue, cutting donuts through the ice. The girls screamed and laughed and slid from door to door in the back seat. It was some of the best fun we ever had together. We had hardly any money in the bank and even less in our pockets. But we had a tank of gas and good friends. We were rich and free.
And that is what I am thankful for this year! Donuts in the High Street parking lot. And Larry Dennis, who is now dead but inspired me to prove that he was wrong in his assessment of my proclivities. (I am so a bidnessman.) And a taxicab. And Little Caesar’s.
I am thankful for the journey, man.
My name is Gene Strother. I am The JourneyMan, and this is Wednesday, Noon.