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Choose Greatness Blog

Little House of Practice

Profile picture of Laura Ingalls Wilder around 1885.

Laura Ingalls Wilder sat at her kitchen table, in January 1930. She was scratching out on paper a record of her life in a collection of notebooks. This was a project she had wanted to do for some years, but with all the work to be done on the farm, she hadn’t found the time for it. Winter was the best time for projects like this on the farm, so Laura dutifully wrote each day for more than a month. She had seen her own daughter write stories for the public and Laura had written for the Missouri Ruralist over the years. She hoped that her personal experiences with moving, struggling and surviving would help others that were currently struggling with the economic problems later known as the Great Depression.

When she was finished she took it up the path to her only living child, Rose Wilder Lane.  Rose lived in the old, two-story house that Laura and Almanzo had once lived in. After Rose came back from Europe and stayed with them for a time, she built her parents a stone house. It had plumbing, electricity and a few other modern conveniences – something Laura wasn’t sure they needed and was a little uncomfortable with at first.

Rose helped pay her parent’s bills, and her own, through writing short stories and working for newspapers. She worked hard on writing. She would write every day to improve and create new stories. Her first real success came when she wrote a biography of Herbert Hoover in 1919. Rose would continue to write serial stories for Harper’s Weekly and other magazines to help pay the bills. She maintained a daily habit of writing and kept a journal.

The farm they lived on was more than Laura and her husband could take care of – at least well enough to make money. In 1888, after a scary battle with diphtheria, Almanzo had become nearly crippled and would need a cane for most of his life after that. Like many other mid-western farmers in the 1930s, the depression and droughts would leave their crops and finances severely depleted. Rather than sell their land and move to the city, the Wilders loved and held onto the land.

When Laura brought a draft of her history to Rose, it was not what we know today. It was actually rejected in its first draft as a memoir. It wasn’t until Rose took parts of it and revised a section for young readers, that a publisher was interested. They sent a letter back to Laura and said she should describe more of what life was like as a child. Her gift for description brought the frontier to life for young readers.

Her gift may be due more to practice than a talent she was born with. Her older sister had become blind when they were growing up and Laura would describe things to her sister – acting as her sister’s eyes at times. When the publisher asked for more descriptions, Laura set out adding more to her story and detailing memories from her past.

Rose meanwhile was worried about money. She wasn’t having a lot of luck with her latest set of short stories and couldn’t get any new ideas. When Laura brought her revised draft to Rose, she threw herself into the work, like she had many times before. They submitted Little House in the Big Woods and it was purchased by Harper and Brothers in December 1931. Harper would release the book for 8-to-12-year-old readers the following April.

Rose never stopped writing though. She didn’t wait for the final results of her last book before she started her next project. Not only did this improve her cash flow, she was also constantly working on her craft. The best performers continue to improve rather than revel in the past.

The work ethic of both women would turn out a series of eight books in 11 years that were almost instantly successful. At a time when the United States was reeling from the depression, it fell in love with the pioneer story of the Ingalls family. The Little House on the Prairie series is viewed by some experts to have helped improve literacy among children across America.

For you:

Laura and Rose didn’t always have a great relationship and not every book was met with immediate success. The second book, “Farmer Boy” was originally rejected and the publisher asked Laura to rewrite it. Rose helped to craft it so the theme was stronger and more impactful. She wouldn’t have known how to improve it without years of practice behind her.

Practice is the mundane, behind-the-scenes part of success that can’t be overlooked. Because practice doesn’t usually get a lot of attention from the outside, we may forget its importance.  Laura was probably more upset by the rejection than Rose because she hadn’t experienced it as much as Rose. Practice gives us confidence, even when we miss our mark, to achieve greater goals.

Reflect on the goals you set. Have you practiced on them this week? When, and for how long, will you practice the necessary skills so you can accomplish her dream?

Turning Point for Union

Major General George G. Meade standing in his Union Officer uniform.

The midnight silence was broken by the sound of a horse and rider approaching. It was early in the morning of June 28, 1863, Major General George Gordon Meade had been asleep in his tent when the messenger arrived. His aide tried to stop the messenger and asked him to come back after sunrise, but he said he was here from Washington DC and needed to speak to Meade at once.

“Come in,” Meade said as he sat up in bed.

“Sir, you have a messenger from Washington,” his aide said sheepishly.

Meade thought at first that the messenger was coming to let him know he was in trouble and would be going to prison over some political disagreement. He hated the politics of the army. It seemed to be particularly chaotic because of the Civil War they were fighting. President Lincoln had already appointed three commanding generals over the Army of the Potomac in the 12 months. They had just suffered two major defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Whenever there are defeats there are always lots of pointing fingers. Maybe this messenger was here to notify him of some congressional action or military court hearing.

It didn’t take long for the messenger to explain his business. But once he was finished, Meade and the messenger were silent for a long time.

“President Lincoln wants to appoint me to be commanding general of the Army of the Potomac?” Meade asked in disbelief. He was still reeling from the shock. “There are at least four other generals that out rank me and a few of them would do a respectable job.”

“The President is aware of those men and while appreciative of their service, he is asking you to take the lead,” the messenger said. “Some of them have refused to take the commission. And he thinks that because you are from Pennsylvania, you will fight hard to save it from the enemy.”

“We’ve been conveniently distanced from Lee’s army for three weeks now, as they have marched north,” Meade huffed. “Major General Joseph Hooker has feigned protecting Washington, but he was afraid of fighting Lee again. He was humiliated at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.”

“That’s true,” the messenger agreed. “We need to take action, and General Hooker was not interested in taking action. What should I tell the President?”

Meade took a few more minutes to consider. Then said, “Well, I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to the execution. I accept.”

Later that day, Meade wrote his first official order. In part, he wrote, “… Whatever fatigues and sacrifices we may be called upon to undergo, let us have in view constantly the magnitude of the interests involved, and let each man determine to do his duty, leaving to an all-controlling Providence the decision of the contest.”

Meade immediately put his army into action and began to pursue the Confederate Army which was already invading Pennsylvania. He immediately cracked down on poor discipline and didn’t allow bad weather to stop his plans either as they had to march through rain storms to try to intercept Lee’s advance. Meade thought the Rebels were going to attack Harrisburg, the state’s capital, or other pivotal army supply stations. Lee’s army had already destroyed various public properties to hinder the Union war machine. Meade sent his Calvary ahead to keep an eye on their movements.

Just two days later, the Calvary would spot a detachment of Lee’s army near Gettysburg, PA. On July 1, the Battle of Gettysburg began with a small skirmish between 3,000 Union cavalry and a battalion of Confederate soldiers. By the end of that day, the bulk of the Union and Confederate army had joined the battle. By the end of July 3, more than 28,000 Confederate soldiers were dead or wounded and the Union army suffered 22,000 casualties. It was the biggest and deadliest conflict that had ever been fought during the war. Lee was forced to retreat back down to Virginia, and the Southern states never again invaded the North. Gettysburg was a pivotal battle on the eve of our nation’s Independence Day.

For you

Could you imagine being woke up from your sleep and given command of nearly 100,000 men? He was already a commander, but this was a big change for Meade – though not a dream job. He could have refused like other generals had. He could have decided to accept the position, and wait until he felt comfortable with his role. But he didn’t. He seized the day and moved without delay.

We don’t always get to decide when the opportunities come, but we can decide to take advantage of them when they arrive. Meade wasn’t the most outstanding choice, or the most obvious. You may not feel like the best person for the job or the most capable of achieving your goal, but action is a major part of success.

Choose to take advantage of the opportunities you are given to achieve your goal. Consider your options now, and consider whether or not you are missing an opportunity now. It could be your Gettysburg and the turning point in your journey.

Measuring Success in Teamwork

UCLA Men’s Basketball Head Coach John Wooden in 1972

UCLA took the floor in Kansas City, as the only undefeated team in the country on March 21, 1964. Despite their 29-0 record, many coaches and experts didn’t expect the Bruins to beat the Duke team in the National Championship game. John Wooden had been the head coach at UCLA for 16 seasons. He had turned UCLA into a good team, but they hadn’t won a collegiate championship in all those years.

From the beginning of that season, UCLA wasn’t expected to be a good team. Their tallest player was center Fred Slaughter, who was only 6’5″ – an undersized center on most teams. Duke had two 6’10” players on their team. Wooden knew they would have a hard time winning the traditional way, so what could they do to overcome their size deficiency?

Assistant Coach, Jerry Norman came up with the idea to change their defense. They would play full court defense, putting a lot of pressure on the other teams’ players and creating dozens of turnovers. It would require a lot of effort and focus from each player to play suffocating defense throughout the entire game. Wooden always made sure his teams were well conditioned, and their stamina would be tested this season.

The effectiveness of this defense was on display early in the Championship game. With less than 8 minutes to go in the first half, UCLA was behind by three points. Then over the next 2.5 minutes, UCLA stole passes, hurried opposing players, and scored 16 points, while Duke couldn’t score any points. They led comfortably the rest of the game and won Wooden’s first national title as a coach, as well as finishing the season undefeated. He would later lead his teams to 10 national championships in 12 years.

Wooden would coach some big names at UCLA, but he didn’t always have the most talented players. He was able to get teams to play together. He did it by building character first and athletes second. He forbade his teams from criticizing each other, swearing, and lying. He also required that they be on time, clean and do their best. He didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the score.

” I never mentioned winning,” Wooden said in a Ted talk in 2001. “My idea is you can lose when you outscore somebody in a game. And you can win, when you are outscored. I wanted them to be able to hold their head up after a game [no matter the score].”

Interestingly, one of the most winningest coaches of all time was  not obsessed with wins and losses. He measured success by the effort and dedication they put in during the week and in the game. Wooden was most concerned about the athletes and how they would develop into men.

Wooden had made this crystal clear at the end of the 1947 season while coaching Indiana State. After his team won their conference, Wooden received an invitation to participate in the national tournament. Wooden declined to take his team because the tournament wouldn’t allow black athletes to participate. Rather than just leave one player home, his whole team forfeited their place in the tournament.

The following year, after a few other teams complained, the ban on African-American players was rescinded. Wooden’s team finished second in the 1948 tournament with Clarence Walker becoming the first black basketball player to play in a postseason intercollegiate basketball tourney.

For you:

Countless coaches in all levels of sports have stressed, obsessed and chased after wins. For Wooden, his team was more important than the wins and losses they accumulated. He wanted them to be successful long after they hung up their jerseys, so he wanted to give them tools that transcended the hardwood. Wooden would eventually develop a pyramid of success. Foundations in that pyramid were hard work, friendship, loyalty, cooperation and enthusiasm. (Here is a link to his pyramid.)

Wooden advocated that by building good character and working hard, you will eventually get the success you deserve. As a coach, who can’t play in the actual game, he had to instill these virtues in his teams.

As you look at those you teach, coach or associate with, are you inspiring them to greater character? Are you quick to criticize or do your encourage them to give their best? Are you loyal to your teammates and the goal you are all working towards?

“Most people, the overwhelming majority of us, wish to be in an organization or part of a team whose leadership cares about them, provides fairness and respect, dignity and consideration.” Wooden said in his book, Wooden on Leadership.

Make your team more than winning and losing. Make your team stronger through high character and eventually your will see the success you are supposed to have.

Wizard of Menlo Park

Sign found in the Deschutes Historical Museum, Bend, Oregon

Fifteen-year-old Thomas Edison sat in the composing room at the Detroit Free Press, reading the day’s news before buying his papers to sell on the train back to his hometown of Port Huron. It was a little after 10 am, and the crisp April morning started like many others since he started selling candy and newspapers on the train between Detroit and Port Huron three years before. He had made it a custom to read the news before he bought his papers because slow news days left him with extra papers and no profit.

Edison’s eyes widened as he read about the account of the Union Victory at Shiloh Tennessee. He knew the Civil War was important news, and a battle with 24,000 casualties would be great for paper sales. He ran to the Detroit Telegrapher and paid for a telegraph to be sent to all the railways along the way to post an announcement about the battle on the station blackboards. Then he rushed to the Detroit Free Press and wanted to buy 1,000 papers. He didn’t have enough money to buy all the papers outright, and the newspaper wouldn’t give it to him on credit. Edison asked Wilbur Storey, the paper’s managing editor, to help him get the papers. Storey admired the boldness and pluck of this boy and gave him the 1,000 papers he wanted.

Edison’s plan worked. He easily sold all of his papers. In fact, he was able to increase his prices as he went. The first copies sold for pennies. The last few copies sold for 25 cents each. The money he earned through this job allowed him to buy the chemicals and supplies he needed to conduct experiments. He was naturally curious and always tried to figure out how things worked. His mother encouraged his zeal to learn, though he didn’t go to much formal schooling. He used this gift of observing the situation around him and thinking of the next step throughout his life to invent.

For example, at the ripe old age of 31, after creating a variety of inventions for the telegraph, the first sound recording, and a version of the typewriter, he was invited to observe a factory where they made arc lamps. Until then, he didn’t get too excited about electric light. But once he walked around the factory, he saw possibilities and said, “I believe I can beat you making the electric light. I do not think you are working in the right direction.”

We have all heard about all the different ways he discovered not to make the light, but he wasn’t just thinking of the light. He saw a need to bring electricity to everyone’s homes. He saw an electric company, and out of it eventually came General Electric in New York City to produce the electricity to power these lights Edison would soon make.

For you:

Edison had more than 1,000 patents to his name before he died. He invented to help solve problems. He didn’t want to redo the work, he wanted to improve upon it. By doing that, he created and produced many machines and systems that we use frequently today. His early years of working with telegraphs and newspapers helped him use publicity to gain public interest and financial support for his inventions.

As you look at your goals and dreams, are you looking ahead at what could be or are you looking to do what has already been done? No one can tell you what is best for your situation. Consider what you want to achieve and challenge yourself to look at it from a new perspective. Give yourself the freedom to be different and address the problem rather than the status quo.

Tides of Courage

This is a painting of a Panokseon. This is the kind of boat Admiral Yi was on in this battle.

September 16, 1597

As the morning sun rose in the east, fully illuminating the Myeongnyang straight, Admiral Yi Sun-Shin stands on the uppermost deck of his command ship. In front of him is the invading Japanese fleet with 133 warships and 200 more supply and troop ships – carrying 120,000 soldiers. Admiral Yi doesn’t bother turning around to look at his force. He is well acquainted with the 12 ships and 1,500 soldiers that remain of the once powerful Joseon Navy. A navy he had personally trained and built over five years of service.

Currently, though, it would appear he is going to fight them all on his own. These ships only survived because they retreated from the last battle – where 153 warships were destroyed. Once again, they are scared they will be destroyed and wait behind Admiral Yi’s boat. Only Admiral Yi is courageous enough to stand against the feared Japanese invasion.

He had stood in their way before, he would do it again for his country and for his honor.

As he watched the enemy fleet enter the straight, Admiral Yi saw his plan unfolding just as he had expected. In more than 12 naval battles under his command, he had destroyed more than 356 Japanese ships, while losing less than 10 of his own ships. He was undefeated against the Japanese. Admiral Yi let out a slow groan as he once again relived the reason he wasn’t in command less than a month before – why he only had this meager force instead of his full fleet.

A Japanese spy had given a Korean commander what seemed like a sure victory and an opportunity to completely destroy the Japanese fleet. This commander sent the information – and a request for the navy to attack – to King Seonjo. The king quickly sent the command to Admiral Yi, but he refused knowing the waters were not favorable for engaging the enemy and didn’t trust the source. This upset the king and his court, so they sent Admiral Yi to prison and had him tortured. Only the intervention of a few friends saved him from being killed by the king. Admiral Yi was demoted to a common soldier to injure his honor, but he bore this with humility.

The first major battle by his replacement resulted in the complete loss of 153 ships and tens of thousands of men. They quickly reinstated Admiral Yi, and to their relief, he took back his post. The land invasion by the Japanese worried the King, and he asked Admiral Yi to bring his men and help on land. To this Admiral Yi respectfully said, ” …your servant still doth have twelve warships under his command and he is still alive, that the enemy shall never be safe in the West Sea (or Yellow Sea).”

So here he stood, virtually alone, in front of 166 warships that were anxious to finish off the Joseon navy. Admiral Yi knew that every three hours the tide in the narrow passageway changed direction. For three hours it would bring the opposing fleet towards him and into rocks and submerged dangers. Then it would push them away, and allow him to pursue his enemy if he wished.

Due to the narrow straight, the Japanese fleet had to send out small groups of ships. This allowed Admiral Yi to use one of his main advantages – cannon. For decades the Japanese had built lightweight boats and used boarding techniques to overpower enemy vessels. The Koreans had heavier boats with dozens of cannons on board, allowing them to sink enemy ships from a distance. With his boat anchored in place, Admiral Yi destroyed the first wave of ships that came at him.

His bold success encouraged the other captains behind him, and they joined the fight. Soon, the tide shifted and the enemy began to retreat. Admiral Yi led the charge as he commanded his ships to pursue their foe and further inflict damage. At evening, 31 Japanese ships were destroyed, numerous others damaged, and not one of his own ships was lost. The supplies and troops that were bound for the western coast to support the invasion of the Korean capital, were repulsed and the victory gave his soldiers, their people and even their allies confidence that they could stand against their enemy and win again.

For you:

Surprisingly Admiral Yi was not trained in naval tactics. He wasn’t even a sailor most of his life. Before he was appointed to be captain of a ship in his home province, he was stationed as a soldier on their northern border. He used the best knowledge he had, consulted with other commanders and made solid decisions. He was never defeated in battle, though they were at war for seven years. He would die in battle December 1598 at the end of the war. He is a national hero in Korea and regarded as one of the greatest naval commanders in history.

It would be daunting to face a foe of such great strength and sheer numbers, knowing your men are afraid and ready to run rather than fight. What keeps a man (or woman) going in such a situation? Belief in the cause, belief in your abilities, and belief in your purpose and vision.

Starting a new endeavor is daunting. Learning a new skill is intimidating. But if you believe in yourself and make decisions based on facts rather than glory, you will find the strength to do hard things. You might also see that you are inspiring others to believe as well.

Hamburger University

By Timrock

Mr. Smith shook hands with Ray Kroc at the end of the first hamburger University course in 1961. The two men smiled as Kroc gave Mr. Smith a certificate. He looked down and read, “Certificate in hamburgerology with a minor in french fries.”

“You know Mr. Kroc, when you told me that I needed to attend this Hamburger University to start a McDonald’s franchise, I thought you were crazy,” Mr. Smith said. “But I can see now that you want consistency. It’s been an interesting course.”

“If I had a brick for every time I’ve repeated the phrase Quality, Service, Cleanliness, and Value, I think I’d probably be able to bridge the Atlantic Ocean with them,” said Kroc. “This course is the best way I could think of to make sure the McDonald’s in Alaska was the same as the one in Alabama.”

Kroc came to know the McDonald brothers as a traveling salesman. He sold milkshake machines that could make five shakes at once. There weren’t a lot of dinners that were too worried about speed, and eventually, the business dried up. However, one customer that bought five machines was the McDonald brothers. Kroc started working with them as an agent to promote franchising. His vision for the future was bigger than the McDonald brothers, who had nearly perfected the assembly line concept for making hamburgers quickly.

One thing he did differently than most other food chains at the time, was to sell one franchise at a time. Most other businesses sold store rights to an area. Giving the new owner little incentive to keep up the relationship. Kroc worked with franchisees on a per diner basis. If you maintained a good, clean diner with quality food, you would be eligible to start another restaurant. This model is more common today. This franchise set up also gave rise to the Hamburger University. To establish the standards from the beginning, he would train new franchise owners on how to run the store and even set up the suppliers for all their stores. He maintained that they needed to be partners, not just a one-off relationship. Eventually (and each side tells the story differently) Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers for a million dollars each and grew the business quickly.

Kroc had a vision of creating a consistent product so that people would know what to expect. His vision created an iconic brand that is globally recognized.

For you:

Let me be clear up front, this post is not an endorsement of McDonald’s nor am I getting any kickback from McDonald’s for this post. This is not to say I think he is an upstanding role model either. I simply read about his transformation from salesman to CEO and it was interesting how his vision impacted how he ran his business.
p.s. Mr. Smith is a fictional character.

Kroc had a vision for consistent food so that the customer knew they would get the same food everywhere they saw the golden arches. But how do you pass on a vision? Make it fun, memorable and consistent. Their cheesy Hamburger University concept (pun intended) gave new partners an opportunity to learn the system and see how their franchise should be run. By changing the relationship that new franchisees would experience because Kroc and the corporate office were helping them, he furthered his vision because he could help mold the consistency he sought.

Is your vision different from industry standard? How is it different and why is that important? What can you do to not only share your vision but help make it a reality by changing the way you pursue your dream?