Keep on Learning

Monday, September 27, 2010

"The self taught man seldom knows anything accurately, and he does not know a tenth as much as he could have known if he had worked under teachers; and, besides, he brags, and is the means of fooling other thoughtless people into going and doing as he himself has done." Mark Twain (from "Taming the Bicycle")
I believe in education. I must, since I have THREE post-graduate degrees. But although I mostly agree with the Mark Twain quote, I also respect the self-taught person. (I bet Samuel Clemens did, too.)

Recently, I purchased Mark Twain's entire collection for my Kindle, and last week I started reading his compiled letters. The compilation includes a biography and running commentary written by his friend Albert Bigelow Paine. While reading the biography, I learned that Samuel Clemens was forced to leave school at age 13, when his father died, to become a printer's apprentice. This icon of wit and wisdom had little formal education. And as noted in last week's post, the same is true of Abraham Lincoln.

I come from a well-educated family, and by the time I met my husband through a dating service I already had a Master of Science in psychology and was working on my law degree. (My third post-graduate degree, an LLM in Financial Services Law, came later on.) When I found out that I had been matched with a man who had dropped out of college, I was skeptical.

We've been married for 31 years. If Roland had been satisfied with what he knew, our relationship would have ended after a few dates. But he was well-read and eager to keep learning, and I discovered that is more important than a formal education.

Still, I'm glad Roland went back to school several years into our marriage and got his college degree. Followed by a Master of Arts in history. Followed by 31 hours beyond that. The college degree enabled him to become a high school teacher, and the MA and Plus 30 increase his paycheck, but I'd like to think he enjoyed the learning, too.

The point is that a formal education is a good thing, but if something deflects you from that path, don't stop learning. Because even the self-taught individual can do great things.

By the way, when Albert Bigelow Paine wrote about his friend in 1917, he predicted that Mark Twain's greatest success--the book that would survive the longest--would be Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc. So much for predictions.

But Paine was right about one thing--Mark Twain lives. If Samuel Clemens had been content with his printer's training, "mark twain" would be no more than a nautical term for marking depth.

So keep on learning.

A Failure's Tale

Monday, September 20, 2010

Abraham Lincoln was a failure.

Actually, that statement is misleading. As we all know, Abraham Lincoln was a true success story. Furthermore, his failures have been greatly exaggerated, as I discovered after visiting the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois at the end of our vacation. (That's where President Lincoln and his family obligingly posed for the picture at the beginning of this post.)

Still, Honest Abe did have his share of setbacks.

He failed in business when the general store he bought with a partner couldn't compete with another store in town. (Legend says he failed twice, but he was only an employee of the first failed store.)

Instead of giving up, he changed careers and became a successful and well-respected lawyer.

He lost his first election for a seat in the Illinois legislature. (And won the next four.)

He won the race for the U.S. House of Representatives the only time he ran.

He lost his two bids to the U.S. Senate. Being a Senator must have been one of his ambitions, because he gave up a fifth term in the Illinois legislature (right after he was elected) to run for the Senate his first time.

Instead of giving up, he moved up, winning the election for U.S. President--twice.

Abraham Lincoln used his "failures" to achieve greater successes. Yes, his store failed, but he kept plugging along until he got the career he really wanted--law.

Yes, he never became a U.S. Senator, but his debates with Stephen A. Douglas brought him into the national spotlight and netted him an even greater prize.

So what was the secret to his success? A number of sources say it was his perseverance.

But I'm not convinced. I credit his thirst for knowledge instead. Lincoln had few opportunities to attend school, but he went when he could. He borrowed as many books as he could get his hands on and devoured them whenever he could find a spare minute. Like most lawyers of his day, he read law books on his own time and earned his license without a formal legal education.

And it wasn't his silver tongue that won people over. It was his understanding and logic and wit. Those are by-products of a good education (formal or informal), and he gained his through persistence.

So maybe it was his perseverance after all.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Most of us know where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001. At least most Americans do.

I was at work in Chicago. More specifically, I was in a managers' meeting with a video-conference hook-up to our New York office, located two blocks from the World Trade Center. As we were getting ready to start the meeting, the manager of the New York office asked if we heard the news reports that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Then a few minutes later he told us that his building was being evacuated, and he left abruptly.

All of our New York employees escaped physical injury, although it was months before the space was usable again. One of our board members was among the casualties, as was Windows on the World--at the top of one of the towers--where we held our New York board meetings. (I got stuck in an elevator on the way up there once.) But in spite of all the human casualties, it could have been a lot worse. It is truly amazing how many people got out safely.

Why was 9/11 such an emotional event? Yes, we lost approximately 3,000 lives (including the deaths at the Pentagon and on the four airplanes), and that is indeed a tragedy.* But everyone dies, and many deaths are unexpected. According to the Department of Transportation, 37,261 people died in traffic accidents in 2008. That's over 100 deaths EVERY DAY. And be grateful you don't live in Iraq or Afghanistan, where death is a way of life.

So why was 9/11 such an emotional event? Because we lost our sense of security. We thought we were invincible within our own borders. We hadn't seen such aggression on U.S. land since Pearl Harbor, which had the same emotional impact because we had been sitting in our own territory and minding our own business.

It wasn't always that way.

On our vacation, Roland and I visited three forts on the Mississippi River. We started at Fort D, located in downtown Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Fort D is one of four Union forts built to protect the city during the Civil War. The biggest enemy its opponents fought was boredom because the only battle in the area occurred west of the city. But the country knew that it was vulnerable within its borders, and it was prepared.

Fort Kaskaskia is one of two forts near Chester, Illinois on the other side of the river. The fort was made of earthworks and wood, so all that is left are mounds where earthen walls used to be. Fort Kaskaskia was occupied from 1703-1763 by the French, then by the British until the Revolutionaries captured it in 1778, and it was last used in the War of 1812 (by the Americans).

Our final stop was Fort de Chartres, pictured above. This fort had a long history of French occupation during the days when France claimed the territory, but the French surrendered the fort (and the Illinois territory) to Great Britain in the mid 1760s. Great Britain abandoned the fort in 1771, and the Americans never used it.

As the very existence of these forts shows, Americans (and their predecessors in this land) have not always felt invincible. Once upon a time, we realized that we were in danger from all sides, and we learned to prepare for it and deal with it when it came. Yes, there were surprises, but they did not affect us as Pearl Harbor or 9/11 did.

My point?

America's greatest vulnerability is its conviction that it is not vulnerable.

* According to the 9/11 Commission Report, more than 2,600 people died at the World Trade Center, 125 died at the Pentagon, and 256 died on the four airplanes.

Just a Bit Player?

Monday, September 6, 2010

My daughter and son-in-law recently moved to Chester, Illinois, so of course we spent some of our vacation time there. And what do you do in Chester? Visit Popeye. That's because Chester bills itself as the home of Popeye.

Actually, Chester was the home of Popeye's creator, Elzie Segar. Segar was born and grew up there and got his start as a projectionist in the local movie theater. As he rewound the tape reels, he would draw pictures of locals and project them onto the screen. Then he would go home and work on his mail-order cartooning lessons.

Popeye is a big deal in Chester. It even has a Popeye festival (called the Popeye Picnic) every September. The weekend includes a parade and the unveiling of a statue with one or more of Elzie Segar's characters. (And yes, we did stop and take a picture of each of the existing statues during our visit.) This year's festival is September 10-12.

I first knew Popeye as a Saturday morning cartoon character who downed a can of spinach every time he needed strength to save Olive Oyl or perform some other heroic act. By that time, he was definitely the star of the show.

But it wasn't always that way. Popeye started as a bit player in the Thimble Theatre comic strip, which starred Olive Oyl and her brother, Castor Oyl. (Both Olive and Castor already have statues in Chester.) When Castor needed a ship for a trip to Dice Island, he hired Popeye as one of the crew. The trip lasted a number of weeks, but when it was over, so was Popeye's role in the strip.

That was Segar's intention, anyway. His readers had a different idea.

In the end, Popeye took over the strip. And many years later, it was renamed for him.

Although Popeye was a fictional character, his rise from supporting player to star is not unusual in real life. And even if Popeye had stayed in the background, he would still have played an important role in getting Castor Oyl where he wanted to go.

In the real world, we all have something important to do, even if it is "just" swabbing down the decks so those around us can live in a clean and healthy environment. If it weren't for the farmer and the grocery clerk, I would probably starve. (Well, I'd figure something else out before it got that bad, but I'm grateful I don't have to.) And where would I be without the people who plow the streets in winter and collect the trash all year round? Stuck in my house surrounded by garbage.

Don't ever think that what you do isn't important.

Because there are no bit parts in life.