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by William H. Benson

April 11, 2002

    George Washington started out as a surveyor before owning a plantation, becoming a military leader, a founder of a new country, and its first President.  Ralph Waldo Emerson began his working career as a school teacher before serving as a Presbyterian minister in Boston.  Then, abruptly he quit to begin a speaking and writing career, and in the process he became the best philosopher America has produced.

     Lincoln swung an axe, failed as a storekeeper, read enough law to set up a law practice, moved into politics, and ended up as President.  Harry Truman failed in a men’s clothing store and then farmed with his father for years before entering politics.

     I find this biography fascinating, especially the jerks and false starts of a convoluted path that winds its way to the top.  How do some people get so far ahead?  Is it energy level, intelligence, the willingness to take risks, or inner drive?  Or is it some combination of those?  Billy Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, said of Lincoln, “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.”

     James Michener wrote that two things are required for a successful career–dedication and re-education.  He wrote, “Men and women who wish to accomplish anything must apply themselves to tasks of tremendous magnitude.  The good work of the world is accomplished principally by people who dedicate themselves unstintingly to the big job at hand. . . . The average man or woman can expect to work in three radically different fields before he retires, and adults who are unwilling to re-educate themselves periodically are doomed to mediocrity.”

     Adele Scheele, who wrote Skills for Success, suggested that career transitions are often more the result of using the non-technical skills, such as positioning, self-preservation, and connecting, than the acutal job’s technical skills.  Ther is much to be said for developing appropriate relationships with people and letting them know what you want to do.

     Mike Ditka’s son complained to his dad about his first job after college.  Mike told his son to quit.  “If you cannot give 100% of yourself to that job, go find something where you can.”

     In the late 70’s Steve Martin was at the very top of his career as a standup comedian, and on occasion he was good, very funny.  But then suddenly he quit and announced that he wanted to do more, and so he pursued motion pictures.  Robin Williams did the same.

     And then there was Arnold Schwartznegger, a champion Mr. Universe, the best in a body building competition, and yet he wanted to be an actor.  Hollywood laughed at him, “With your Austrian accent and muscles and huge body, what part could you possibly play?”  He found the answer–Conan the Barbarian, and so he launched his movie career.

     Newsweek‘s lead story last week was an interview with Bill Clinton who is now in his second year of adjusting to his new position as former President.  A whirlwind of activity, he is speaking, reading, writing, traveling, and paying off his legal bills.  What he will do in the near future and how he will focus his itelligence, drive, and energy all remains wide open.  However, looking back he admitted that he like being President, “I’m very glad I did it.  I loved it.  I loved it.”

     On April 11, 1951 then President Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur from command during the Korean War.  A career U.S. military man, MacArthur was suddenly without a job, and staring him in the face was retirement.  On April 19th he addressed a joint session of Congress and recalled the song about old soldiers that never die, saying, “like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away.”


     For most people who exit the workforce, retirement does not need to be such a dreary proposition.  A comment I hear frequently is “It’s great!”  And if we do not like the thought of retirement, we can continue to work or we can go back to work or we can change jobs.  After all, in America we are free to choose our employer.