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Choose Greatness Blog

William the Silent

Philip II of Spain berating William the Silent. Prince of Orange by Cornelis Kruseman, painting from 19th century.

Marching at the head of 20,000 soldiers, William of Orange – also known as William the Silent – kept his mind fixed on the Netherlands. As the army marched toward the Rhine and then into Spanish-held lands, William reflected on the strange circumstances that brought him to fight against the very country that had trained him in the Spanish court.

At 11 years old, William had inherited land and a position in the Netherlands when his uncle died; making him the Prince of Orange and possessor of all Nassau goods in the Netherlands. Up to that point, he had been raised as a Protestant in Germany. This new position and power came on one condition – he was to be taught in the Spanish Courts in preparation for this role. His parents saw the advantage of this position and sent him to Charles V., where William became a Catholic and learned about the double dealings in the Spanish court. William was an astute observer and silently watched many meetings under King Charles V., which may be why he is known as William the Silent.

At the age of 22, he was given his estate in the Netherlands and made a head of state. It was shortly after this time, that King Charles V. died and his son Philip II. took over the Spanish throne. Philip was more extreme than his father in carrying out the purging his lands of Protestants, Lutherans and anyone else that wasn’t Catholic. He increased the number of Bishops in the Netherlands and encouraged their swift execution of heretics. William did not like to see people killed for believing in any church. He saw the civil unrest it caused and hoped there would be a peaceful resolution.

The harder William tried, the more persistent King Philip became about his edicts and reprimands of William. Eventually, Philip tried to arrange for William and other nobles that opposed his Spanish Inquisition, to be caught and killed. William was aware of this plan and tried to warn others to stand or flee with him. In the end, he left with only two other nobles, back to Germany.

William had a choice to make. He could live in peace and prosperity in his homeland, or he could face a dangerous and ruthless foe in the Netherlands. The young statesman left to save his life, but after finding a conviction of his own in Christ, he decided to return to help the people in the Netherlands.

William was rich, but much of his wealth was seized by Spain when he fled to Germany. He sold all he had to procure an army, with the promise they would be paid more when they got to the Netherlands. Here he was marching at the head of 20,000 soldiers, and a mission to save the people from Spanish oppression.

He was met with open arms by the Dutch people. Their nobles offered him sovereign control. He deferred complete control to the nobles, but accepted control of the affairs of the war and acted without delay. Unfortunately, there would be many delays and lots of bloodshed before the end of the war. William the Silent and the patriotic citizens that followed him were often beaten back by the well-trained, effective Spanish army. William never gave up on the hope of securing religious freedom for the people. When he did have control of certain provinces, he constantly encouraged them to respect each other and live peacefully.

Eventually, William was assassinated by a zealous Spanish Catholic, who sought the prize money offered by King Philip II. Williams final words were “O my God, have mercy upon my soul! My God, have mercy upon this poor people!”

Williams personal sacrifice for his adopted country and for religious freedom inspired the people at a time of widespread bigotry and hatred. He did unite seven provinces in his lifetime, which became the basis of the Dutch Republic. They adopted his coat of arms in their nation’s symbols, and their national color is orange in his honor.  They consider him to be the father of their country.

For you:

The difference between William and thousands of other nobles of his day was his desire to serve the people and God above himself. He was always fair and charismatic, but once he turned his whole focus on serving the people, he gained a deep respect from all the classes of society. His service inspired hundreds of farmers to stand firm against thousands of trained soldiers.

His service to the people also gave him the fortitude to keep going. His service kept him from walking into traps set by ambassadors from Spain. His service stopped rumors and lies before they caused any real harm. He gave his all, and the people loved him for it.

Who are you serving? Are you inspiring them to greater things? Are you giving them your best effort? Commit to helping those you serve to find greater joy through helping them before you help yourself. Do it for them, not for your recognition. In the end, it will be repaid to you in love and respect.

Laziest Boy

Heber J. Grant, seventh president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

(Thud)

It was the sound of a baseball being thrown at the side of a barn. The nearby cows ignoring the noise they had grown accustomed to hearing. Heber Grant walked over to the ball and picked it up, went back to his place 30 feet from the barn and threw the ball again.

(Thud)

This would continue for a long time each day. Neighbors in the Utah settlement started to talk about young Heber being “the laziest boy” in the neighborhood. He had a goal to play on a championship baseball team. The other boys made fun of his awkwardness in baseball, so it was highly unlikely that he would make any baseball team.

(Thud)

This ball showed a little about the young boy that disproved the lazy moniker. His father died only nine days after he was born, and his mom refused to live off of other people or her church. She took on borders and sewed, though, they rarely had two pennies to rub together. So when Heber wanted to get better at baseball, he had to figure out a way to get a baseball to practice with. So he would shine the shoes of the borders until he saved a dollar and could buy a baseball.

(Thud)

Heber would eventually get really good at throwing and catching. He played on the team that won the Utah Territory Championship.

The early 1860’s wasn’t the only time he set his mind to achieving a goal. He was often told he had terrible handwriting. His friends’ remarks spurred him to make a diligent effort to improve his handwriting. He set a goal to become the best writer in the territory. So he practiced in his spare time for years. He taught penmanship and bookkeeping at the University of Deseret – later named the University of Utah. He also won a penmanship contest at the territory fair.

Heber also couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. He just wasn’t gifted musically, at least that’s what he was told. When he was 10 years old, his music teacher told him he would never be able to sing. For years, he practiced two songs he loved. For a long time, it didn’t seem to make any difference. Even close associates made jokes about how bad his singing was.

When he was 43, he met his music teacher from when he was 10 at a social gathering. When Heber told him he had learned to sing, the teacher replied that he didn’t believe it. So Heber pulled him to a corner and sang one of the songs he had practiced more than 5,000 times over the 33 years since he had last sung for him. The teacher was amazed and asked Heber to sing with the choir he was conducting. Heber said that learning to sing was one of his personal greatest accomplishments.

Heber Grant was a leader and a loving father. He encouraged people all over the world to do their best in all they tried to accomplish. He served in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for many years, holding leadership positions during World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II. He personally helped hundreds of individuals – many widows and orphans – in need, encouraging them to keep going and keep trying. It worked for him.

For you:

Singing and playing sports may not be talents you want to develop, but is there a skill that you need to achieve your goal? Maybe you aren’t particularly organized but you want to start a business. You will need to keep good records and be organized. Does that mean you need to give up on your goal? No!

You need to identify the skills you need and then work on them. There are a bunch of resources, free and paid, that will help you learn new skills. Set aside the time to work on the skill.

I struggled with reading when I was younger. My parents set aside time each day to read the scriptures. It took time – and patience on their part – but eventually, I was able to read above my grade level. I’m still not the fastest reader, but I can read complex sentences and understand them.

Identify one skill you need to obtain in order to reach your goal. Now figure out one way you can learn that skill. Then, set aside time and practice.

Outnumbered in the Dark

The 369th Infantry division (a.k.a. Harlem Hellfighters) in action. This particular image displays the action at Séchault, France on 29 September 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

On May 13, 1918, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, both soldiers in the 369th Infantry division were on guard duty at a forward post in northeastern France. The enemy had a strong defensive position that the Allied forces hadn’t been able to penetrate.

It was a precarious position for Johnson and Roberts. They were 60 yards in front of the main guard post, which was a few hundred yards ahead of the rest of the battalion. To the other side of the two soldiers was no-man’s-land. And an enemy with machine guns that can shoot over a mile away. In a forward post, their nerves are raw and all attention paid to the sounds around them. The casual conversation had to wait for safer circumstances.

Left to think in silence for hours, they considered the life that had led them to France in the first place. Johnson had worked odd jobs, usually labor or service oriented jobs, in New York. He thought of his wife he had left behind to fight for a country that didn’t even recognize him as a citizen. He fought for democracy so that eventually he and his family might someday enjoy equal rights in his own country. Roberts was a store clerk in New Jersey. He yearned for adventure and the chance to prove himself along with his fellow African-Americans. They weren’t even allowed to fight along white American soldier. Socially, they were seen as inferior and couldn’t be trusted as disciplined soldiers.

Adventure would find them in that isolated position early in the morning. Small pieces of tin were attached to the barbed wire to provide an early warning in case someone was coming across the lines. Johnson and Roberts heard something, but what was it. They strained to hear anything else. They moved away from each other to make sure one burst of gunfire didn’t kill both of them. They heard voices now and they were definitely German. Both men prepared and waited for the clash that was certain to come. Rifles loaded, grenades carefully placed within reach and Johnson loosened his heavy bolo knife for easy access.

When both men heard a clicking noise, they realized what it was, wire cutters. They were coming through. Rather than waiting or even running, they grabbed grenades and started throwing them at the advancing enemy. They came running at them as they unloaded as many shots as they could in the darkness of early morning.

When Johnson’s gun jammed, he started using it as a club on his assailants. Overpowered by numbers, the enemy took his gun and started to drag him back to their trenches. Johnson was able to get his knife out and stab the man’s leg who was holding his throat. Then slashed as a couple of the other soldiers who tried to restrain him.

That’s when Johnson saw that Roberts was also being dragged back by the enemy. Without thinking of his own opportunity to run and get away, Johnson attacked Robert’s assailants and freed his friend. The Germans didn’t know how many enemies they were dealing with and about this time, more members of the 369th were rushing to the fight. The Germans retreated past the barbed wire and into the woods.

Johnson and Roberts were badly wounded and lost a lot of blood, but from the footprints and carnage they found the next day, it appeared that more than a dozen men had been wounded, some fatally, with more men possibly in the group. They had held off an enemy patrol and hadn’t given up on each other.

Johnson and Roberts were awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French for valor and heroism in the battle. They were not recognized back home for their bravery though. Their success was not overlooked, however when the second World War began and another generation of brave soldiers was called on to bear the torch of freedom.

For you:

There are times when we can’t see the good through the bad. Clearly being outnumbered six-to-one is not a good situation. They were sure to be interrogated and that wasn’t going to be a good experience. Both men could have complained or ran to save themselves. The outcome would have been similar either way. They probably would have died. But by turning and fighting and doing all they could, they turned the tables and escaped with their lives.

When you are faced with difficulties, you may have to just survive the day and forget beauty points. Get through the hard times and then evaluate what needs to happen. It’s important you look at what can be done rather than stewing about how crummy the situation is. It just might be the perfect situation you need to achieve your goal. Both men represented a race that was downtrodden and abused. Their society saw them as incapable of being good soldiers, and therefore unequal with the rest of society. They showed in that dark hour that they are capable of just as much bravery as any other person (as have many others before and after). Their difficult situation couldn’t have been more perfect at showing the truth.

What difficulty are you facing now? Compare it to your vision. Is it a blessing in disguise? Face your fears and challenges. You will grow if you keep trying.

Ghost Tales for Christmas

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. Original publisher’s cinnamon vertically-ribbed cloth.

On October 5, 1843, a damp, dark night in Manchester, England, 31-year-old Charles Dickens walked alone. Dickens was the most well-known author in England at this time, with nearly a fourth of the population of England reading at least one of his magazine installments or novels. Solitude was something Dickens didn’t usually have in public places, as he was usually pressed by admirers in the thousands when he made public appearances.

But lately, Dickens was losing favor. He had sold more than 100,000 copies of The Old Curiosity Shop. And English people subscribed by the thousands to read stories he produced in weekly magazines. Oliver Twist was a great success, but then he had a few books that only sold 40,000 copies and then 20,000 copies. The publishers were threatening to cut his pay because people didn’t want to buy his new books. Dickens told his agent he would like to go to continental Europe and live a quiet life in a cottage writing travel pieces. He had some large debts and an artist’s confidence starts to flounder when his craft isn’t well received by the public.

Earlier that evening, Dickens was speaking to a large gathering at the request of his sister. He delivered a short, yet effective speech on the values of education and the perils of ignorance in support of a community center that was struggling financially. He did his duty and then took a walk to consider his own situation and what needed to be done. As he walked, a new idea came into his mind. As details of the story developed in his mind a strong desire to see it through grew in his heart.

Dickens returned home to London and worked on his new project as well as finishing his other demands. He would continue to take walks at night in London as he worked through the story. When at last he had the story outlined, he took it to his publisher Chapman and Hall. Though Dickens was excited and enthusiastic about this new book, the publishers were not. They rejected this Christmas story with ghosts before it was ever written. Christmas was only two months away and they would prefer that he develop a new magazine they could sell subscriptions to.

Dickens wrote to a friend, who had helped him get his start with the publishers. He said, “Don’t be startled by the novelty and extent of my project. Both startled me at first; but I am well assured of its wisdom and necessity.”

Dickens had resolved to make this happen and was determined to see it through. He was tempted to leave Chapman and Hall, but instead, asked them to simply print the book. He would handle all the details – editing, illustrator, cover, etc. He would do it alone if he had to but the book would be created.

The publishers agreed and Dickens worked tirelessly for six weeks. He finished “A Christmas Carol,” in mid-November and edited it mercilessly. On December 17 it was finally finished. He had 6,000 copies two days later. All 6,000 copies were sold in the first week. He sold 15,000 copies of the book in its first year. It would go on to be so well read that decades later, Dickens would travel through the United States doing readings from A Christmas Carol to more than 100,000 listeners. It’s one of the most re-made stories in movie and theatrical plays in history.

For you:

It is hard to look at struggles as an opportunity, especially since they don’t seem to come one at a time. Dickens needed to support a wife and four young kids with one on the way, heavy debts because of a large house he purchased a few years earlier and lackluster sales on his last two books. To hear your publisher say, “No thanks,” to your exciting idea, could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. But Dickens believed in himself and what he was working on. He was proactive. He decided to move forward because he needed to see it through.

What struggle are you facing in obtaining your goal/vision? Are you waiting for someone to tell you they believe in you? Believe in yourself and take action. Identify the next step and take it.

Breaking Gender and Air Barriers

Ruth Law in 1915: Her aircraft is a Curtiss Pusher, but has Wright Brothers’ control levers.

On November 19, 1916, Ruth Law sat clinging to her hand controls as she flew exposed to the frigid November air at more than 100 miles-per-hour. She looked out at the land, easily identifying landmarks that corresponded with her maps. Actually, it was the map that was most difficult to see as it was rolled up on scrolls in her lap, attached to her seat belt. Law was flying an old, small Curtiss pusher biplane. It had a V-8 engine that sat right behind the pilot. Law controlled the direction of her plane with two hand-held levers. While she could never let go with her left hand, which directed her up and down movement, she was able to briefly let go of the right lever – holding it in place with her right leg – while she turned the scroll in her lap.

Law wished Glen Curtiss had sold her a larger plan, as she had requested. He said he couldn’t, as they were required for the war effort, but then he added that larger planes were “too much for a girl to handle.” She wasn’t deterred. In fact, his comments and those of other male aviators helped push her to make this flight. She would show that women could fly as well as men. The easiest way to prove this is by breaking a record.

The previous record for the longest flight by an American was set by Victor Carlstrom earlier that year in a Modified Model J airplane. It had a 200-hp engine that sat in the front of the plane. His plane also had a 200-gallon tank. He flew 452 miles.

Law thought about her gas tank now. The plane’s original gas tank only held 16 gallons. She added a second tank that increased her capacity to 53 gallons. She thought that would be enough to take her from Chicago to Hornell, New York.  However, she assumed she would encounter favorable winds along the way. She didn’t. Two miles from her destination, her engine stopped because her fuel tank was empty. Cool under pressure, she guided her plan silently onto the landing strip at 2:10 pm.

Even though Law flew with two layers of wool and two layers of leather clothing, the cold, damp air penetrated the layers. She had slept at the top of a Chicago hotel for a few weeks to try to get used to being in the cold. Even still, she needed to be helped off her airplane and into a car that took her to a hotel where she had a bite to eat while her plane was refueled and replenished with oil. She had been flying since 8:25 am and with only an hour and fourteen minutes of rest, she was back in the air making her way to New York City.

She only flew for about an hour before the lack of light necessitated a stop in Binghamton, New York. She tied her plane to a tree, asked a police officer to watch it and got some rest. At 7:35 the next morning, she was back in the air. When she took off, she flew over heavy fog, which made it almost impossible to see the necessary landmarks. Eventually, she found and followed the Delaware river toward New York City.

When she finally reached Manhattan, her engine again started to cut out. In a moment of calm decision-making, Law rocked her plane, sloshing the gas onto the carburetor, and the engine came back to full strength. Her engine stopped before she made the runway. She had to glide the final three miles onto Governor’s Island at 9:37 am, where nearly 50 newspaper reporters were waiting to ask her questions. One reporter asked, “You have made the longest flight a woman ever made, haven’t you?”

Law knew she had done something no other woman had even attempted. She was constantly reminded that women and men were not treated the same. She believed in her abilities. She hadn’t achieved her goal in spite of her gender, but because of who she was. She was a pioneer, an aviator, and a champion. She answered saying, “I have made the longest flight an American ever made.”

Law went on to show she was capable of much more. With a better plane, she would hold aerial shows with two other male pilots, flying through fireworks, doing tricks, and defying those that doubted women weren’t capable of flying a complex flying machine. She believed and set out to do what she wanted, regardless of the limits others put on her.

For you:

Law wasn’t the only woman to fly airplanes in the early days, but she grounded any arguments about women not being capable of flying as well as a man. She offered her services in World War I, but President Wilson refused her as a fighter pilot. She still helped out with the war effort in America. She believed she could make a difference and set about doing just that. Little girls saw her and said in letters to Law, “Now, I am glad I am a girl, because girls can do just as wonderful things as men.”

That’s what champions do. They see that more is possible. So they break the imagined barrier and that allows others to believe they can do more.

What barrier do you see between you and your goal? Don’t wait for someone else to be the champion. You can be that champion. Then you will lead others to believe in themselves just like Law did.

To Give Up Power

General George Washington at Trenton on the night of January 2, 1777, after the Battle of the Assunpink Creek, also known as the Second Battle of Trenton, and before the Battle of Princeton.

Astride his gray horse, George Washington rode south with a thousand men into New York City. It was November 25, 1783. As of April 19, 1783, fighting had stopped between the British and the Continental Army. Word had reached Washington that the Peace Treaty of Paris had been signed on September 3 of that year. Washington would wait to officially release his army until the last of the British Army had set sail for home. The British army wasn’t leaving until they received written orders to leave, which resulted in a nervous cease-fire until November.

As Washington moved forward, crowds of people cheered and shouted praises for Washington. His tall, dignified personage was easily recognized as the leader of this triumphant force at the head of the army.  Beloved by most of the citizens of the newly recognized independent country, Washington’s triumphant entry into the largest city in the union was a noteworthy day for the new republic – for what didn’t happen as well as what did.

The Continental Army wasn’t as well dressed as the red coats that were leaving the country, but they were the real power in the United States. Washington received his commission from the Continental Congress, which at many times during the Revolutionary war seemed inept and petty as they argued over details. Washington had suffered many harsh winters because of the lack of funding and provisions provided by the congress that appointed him. He wasn’t alone either. Many times during the war, the soldiers and officers petitioned, requested and even threatened aggression against Congress if they didn’t provide promised funding for their service.

Washington sat tall in the saddle, looking very much like a king, as they were joined by the Governor of New York. The plan was for Washington and the governor to ride into town together, signifying an equal position of power and then Washington would leave, turning the full power to govern back to the people.

King George III had predicted it wouldn’t happen. He said that if George Washington could give up power, he would indeed be the greatest man of the eighteenth century. History had shown countless other military leaders that had come in bravely “fighting for the people,” only to turn around and establish themselves as the king or dictator.

Washington could have declared the country insufficiently strong to move on without a true government in place. So he would protect the country until a suitable institution could be in place. After the mess the Continental Congress had made of many of the affairs of the new country over the last eight years, he would be justified. At the least, he could occupy New York for a short time until his soldiers got paid.

Washington did leave. It wasn’t really a question in his mind. He had fought a long eight and a half years for a free republic and he was committed to that vision. For all the folly of the Continental Congress, Washington had fought for the opportunity for a republic to form, not another monarch.

Earlier that year in March 1783, a letter was circulating for officers to meet and discuss actions that they could take to make sure they got paid. Washington learned of the letter and understood the implications of a possible coup. He acted swiftly. He interrupted the meeting by showing up unannounced and stood in front of all present. He passionately asked them to reconsider their actions, believe in the government they were trying to set up, and remember the legacy they were leaving for their posterity. Then he left and nothing came from the coup.

As you know Washington gave up his control of the Continental Army only to be called back as president of the United States. He has been the only president who was unanimously selected twice by the electoral college. Then Washington again voluntarily retired, setting a precedent of two terms until it was made law with the 22nd Amendment in 1951.

For you:

George Washington is often called the father of our country. However, he was far from the originator or master craftsman of the new republic. He gave it the opportunity to exist. At the peril of his life, and fortune for a time, he served without pay because he saw the vision. He passed the vision along to others and inspired them to serve valiantly – sometimes in horrible conditions with no provisions. He was proclaimed a hero, and yet he still never lost sight of the true goal.

What is your goal? What is your guiding star that you can use to orient your path?

Now tell someone. Let someone else know what your goal is and let them remind you so you won’t lose sight of what you want to accomplish. You may help inspire him/her to set their own vision.