When I was in my teens and early 20’s I really didn’t have a good idea of what I wanted to do with my life. This was a struggle for me, as I searched for what I thought should be my purpose, and where I thought I should use my gifts and abilities. I worked at a variety of jobs, went to college and graduate school, and sought counsel from others, but still felt like I wasn’t sure where I was going and what I was supposed to do. And then I had a conversation with my dad, and he shared with me a life principle that I had heard him share with others, and over the years since that time I have begun to understand the real meaning and value behind his statement. What he said to me during the time of floundering in my life was this: “Jeff, do as much as you can until you are 40, and then do one thing well the rest of your life.”
At the time, I only saw a lesson on the surface– do as many jobs as I possibly could for the next 15-20 years of my life, and then pick one of those and focus on that one – but that wasn’t the lesson he was trying to teach me. In reality, I did get to participate in a wide range of work experiences, including construction labor, mason’s tender, laying carpet, electrician’s apprentice, waiting tables, retail sails, meat butcher, teacher, family therapist, restaurant manager, newspaper delivery, door-to-door sales, and a number of others. All of those things were valuable for my development (which, it turns out, was part of the lesson), but his message to me wasn’t that I should do all those jobs, and he wasn’t trying to tell me to seek out as many different jobs as possible. His message was that I needed to be a learner first, learning from every experience that I would encounter, and then I could begin to apply what I learned into the life purpose that developed.
I think I may have first realized this true lesson in his statement when I studied Leadership Emergence Theory as part of my doctoral program. Leadership Emergence Theory, based on research conducted by J. Robert Clinton, views leadership development as emerging out of the stages of our life. He breaks our life experience down into several smaller stages, each characterized by particular principles and events, and it is through these stages that the combination of your experiences and the skills you develop eventually merge together in preparing you for impact and leadership in a particular way. Ironically, we usually are not able to see how these things all converge until after it has happened and we look back on the road that brought us there. It is then that we can often see the variety of events and experiences that played such an important role in shaping who we have become. This was the lesson that he was trying to show me, that every experience I would have, whether I realized it or not, would be part of shaping who I would become and how I would discover the best use and fulfillment of my gifts.
Jim Collins, in his book Great by Choice, describes the concept of firing bullets, and then cannonballs, to explain how successful organizations intentionally apply limited resources to a variety of ideas until they are confident of which one will work, and then apply great resources to that one. I believe we can make a parallel application to our lives. There is a lot of value in “firing bullets” with our lives, by shooting at a variety of opportunities and experiences, and then learning from those until we can hone in on the best use of our own specific skills and abilities. Then, once we have begun to focus in on our purpose, we can still pull many lessons from those other experiences that will help us where we are now.
So, when dad said to me, “Jeff, do as much as you can until you are 40, and then do one thing well the rest of your life,” I now know that what he was really trying to teach me was to be a learner, learning from every experience, and to apply what I learned, and that would eventually take me to the place in my life where I could do something well and lead others in the process. Interestingly, I realized this same truth several years ago in the Bible, in a study of the book of Ezra. One particular verse in that book (chapter 7, verse 10) caught my attention, when I read, “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” I was struck with the knowledge that Ezra, a leader of the people had first taken time to learn (“…to seek the Law of the Lord,…”) before he was ready to apply what he had learned (“…and to do it,…”), and it was only after that, that he was prepared to teach others and to lead.
I now pass the same wisdom on to you, even if I don’t say the same words that my father said: learn as much as you can, and apply what you learn, until that body of knowledge and experience shapes you into a person of purpose and influence. But if it helps you to remember, I will say it like he did – “Do as much as you can until you are 40, and then do one thing well the rest of your life.”