As a trainer teaching and then overseeing a contract that delivered career transition workshops to military members leaving or retiring from the service and moving to the civilian workforce, I often told the following story to illustrate the importance of identifying what is important in life. So often, we pursue jobs or careers that OTHERS pushed us toward while not listening to our own heart or following our very real interests, developing our raw talents, and just doing what will make us happy. You may see yourself in this story. If so, I hope you find your way toward the life you really want and the happiness you deserve.
I was still on Active Duty with the Army and working in the Pentagon, serving on the Joint Staff. The days were long and hard, but (in hindsight) enjoyable and exhilarating. Did I mention they were long??
My wife, who I saw rather infrequently during this assignment, is a Master Gardener. I am not. I’m the one who picks up the load of dirt, mulch, sand, assorted bushes, trees, stone, and whatever is required by the Master Gardener. I then get to unload the truck, shovel the dirt, and plant the bushes. To be honest, I love this part of my “job.” She tells me what to cut and I cut it. She tells me how far to dig, and I dig it – simple. This is what weekends were all about at my home. But, my favorite pastime on a Sunday in the summer is kicking back and watching a baseball game in the afternoon. I do this as often as I can, unless my truck, my shovel, and my back are required.
So, while shopping at a Northern Virginia Home Depot one Sunday afternoon in July, I found myself in the outside area of the store – you know the section – the area where they store and sell mulch, stone, and plants. Frankly, on this particular day, I didn’t want to be there. My mind was on getting what I needed and getting home – there was a game on TV waiting for me. But, there I was with my iron cart with only 3 good wheels, and it was loaded with whatever was on my list that day. As I roamed the area in search of just the right sized flower pot, I noticed a Home Depot forklift about 3 rows over from me. As a man, I was obligated to approach and investigate further. In case you were not aware, most men are inextricably drawn toward forklifts. I think it’s something in our genes.
As I mindlessly meandered my way toward the forklift, I became more and more aware of the driver. He was a few years older than I was and had about a week’s worth of beard underway. But more significantly, I noticed he was smiling and laughing. A lot! The driver was tooling around the area, steering that forklift here and there and moving his pallets up and down and grinning ear to ear throughout. He was surrounded by that yellow “crime scene” tape to keep idiots like me from getting crushed by the pallet full of bricks or run over as he backs up. The other thing that struck me about this man was that he was very familiar to me. I was sure I knew him. The problem was, I couldn’t remember why he was so familiar.
As I got closer, I caught his eye, and he caught mine. We both smiled at one another, seemingly acknowledging that we knew one another. Once he was about 5 feet away, he turned off the ignition and threw his arm over the steering column and looked at me harder – through squinting eyes. Like two puppies watching TV, our heads tilted side-to-side as we both tried to remember who the other guy was.
Then he spoke and said, “We served together, didn’t we?” I said, “yes, I think we did.” He laughed and said: “you’re Dave, right…Dave Maurer?” “Yes,” I said. He then went on to tell me about a unit I once commanded some years past. Wow – this guy was good. He knew my full name and even one of my assignments. I still didn’t know who HE was!
Then it hit me.
It was the reference to that job he mentioned. He had been my boss’ boss when I commanded that unit as a young officer. He was a full colonel in the Marines. He was the Chief of Staff at the higher headquarters and my boss’s supervisor. He was now driving a forklift at the Home Depot. I was at first surprised and then felt sad. What had he done to end up here? He was a Marine colonel, and here he was driving a forklift. Ouch!
I smiled and said, “Sir; what brings you here?” He started to tell me about his retirement from the Corps some 18 months prior and his moving to the area to be closer to his daughter and her family. I clarified that I was most curious about what brought him to be working at the Home Depot.
Then he told me something I have never, and will never forget.
He continued, saying that he wanted to be near his family, so they moved from the Midwest to Virginia and he and his wife bought a little townhouse nearby. He was enjoying his retirement, that gave him all kinds of time to do nothing at all. He said that was fine for a while, but then one Sunday afternoon, he was here at the Home Depot and saw a guy driving a forklift. He said it looked like fun, so he applied for the job, and he got it. He had been doing this now for about a year and loving it. They sent him to “plant school,” as he called it, and he learned all about horticulture. He arrives in the morning and works until quitting time at 4:30, turns the forklift off and goes home to play with his grandkids, have a beer, and watch the ball game. He said if they made him a supervisor, he’d quit and go to work at Lowes!
Then he asked, “What do you do?”
I dropped my head, hunched my shoulders, and mumbled that I was working at the Pentagon. He said, “Oh, I’m sorry” and smiled. He must have thought to himself, “Poor guy – still hasn’t figured it out.” In that moment I went from feeling sorry for HIM to feeling sorry for myself.
What had he found?
He was indeed a happy, contented man, while I was still trying to make a living and a life – unsure of what I wanted to be or do farther down the road.
The moral of the story? We are more than the sum of who or what we were – when. We can choose to take another path. Success is more than titles and money – it’s about doing what you love to do and being happy.
Draw this big “H” on your white board at the office or on a piece of paper on the fridge at home. Keep one in your car (for you road warriors) and look at it often. It stands for HAPPY. Check in and see if you’re happy. If you are – wonderful. If you’re not, and you aren’t for a prolonged time period, figure out why and what you can do about it. Maybe you just need a break. Maybe, just maybe, you need a change.
The Marine colonel had found his “happy.” It wasn’t starting his own company or being a VP, or program manager, or any number of other positions he could have successfully pursued. He wanted to be near his family, to learn a new skill, and to do something worthwhile each day. Such a lucky guy, right? Well, partially right. Luck probably played a role in his finding the right job, but so did his own honest introspection. He didn’t let his ego determine his path. He let his heart influence his life decisions. And he was rewarded with happiness – manifested by his broad and genuine smile. Without even knowing it – he passed on some wonderful advice to me that day – just by his story and his example. That was nearly 30 years ago, and I still remember and re-tell that story because it was so impactful for me. You have stories too. Tell them; share your life’s lessons and help someone else find his or her “happy.” They will still be telling THAT story in 30 years!
This post is taken from the book Watering Rocks, How to Fail and Succeed as a Leader, by David S. Maurer.