How do you get to the top of a mountain? The answer is simple; climb as high as possible. For those who want more than just physical achievement, there’s another path: mental and emotional strength through tough challenges.
The following excerpt on “The Vital Three Feet to Achievement” is from Donald A. Laird’s The Technique of Building Personal Leadership (1944). It’s a shortened version of the original chapter.
I’ve had a magic rule on my desk for a long time.
To me, it’s been worth much more than its weight in gold. This guideline keeps me at work when I’m tempted to quit. It speaks encouragement to me when I’m feeling down. The rule summons me back when I linger too long watching the water.
It all began with the gold rush in Colorado. The gold bug bit a small-town Marylander. This young guy traveled to Colorado and began digging for his money.
And he did find gold—a very rich vein. His discovery was so huge that excavating with a pick-and-shovel was insufficient. He was in desperate need of equipment.
He rushed back to Maryland, telling people about his gold discovery, the incredible potential, and the urgent need for funds to build equipment. He returned to Colorado with their money, and the machines were soon freeing the finest ore ever found.
The ore then stopped working one day. The new machines were producing nothing but dirt. As a result, the mine was sold to a used-machinery dealer, and the disgruntled prospectors returned to Maryland and their creditors.
The secondhand-machinery dealer left the equipment in working order and brought in some specialists who were familiar with the mountain’s quirks. They investigated the property and found that the earth’s crust had slid at the same area where the disgruntled easterners had stopped excavating decades earlier. The experts predicted that if you dig a little further, you’ll find the ore vein again.
The new owner began digging with the machines, one foot, two feet, three feet, and voila, there was the rich ore once again. If only the original owners had stayed with it for another three feet!
In 1920, I acquired a three-foot folding rule to remind me of the importance of the three feet. Since then, it has worked wonders for me. Here’s how it used to operate.
I produced a paper for one of my classes that I believed was significant enough to publish. But I lacked the courage to send it to a reputable publication. I sent it to the most depressing-looking publication I could find and waited. I didn’t have to wait long; it arrived by return mail, along with an unflattering comment.
Perhaps the article wasn’t all that wonderful after all. What would a good editor think if a bad editor believed that? I was ready to stop writing and go back to dealing with mad people. Apparently, I got along with them better than I did with the editors.
Then there was the three-foot folding rule, staring at me. “Dig some more!” it said.
I retyped the essay and forwarded it to a different publication that appeared to accept everything. I nearly gave up the idea again when it came back with two strikes on it. But I hadn’t factored in the three-foot restriction, which forced me to send it out many times.
After a time, one magazine maintained it, and I started purchasing copies of the magazine every week to read the piece when it was printed. Then I received a letter stating that the manuscript had been lost and that it had been returned to me.
On my list, there was just one magazine remaining. It was the one I was most apprehensive about. And if the three-foot rule hadn’t urged, “Go on, you’ve only dug two feet and ten inches so far,” I would never have delivered the manuscript.
It was not returned in a timely manner. I realized I’d been misplaced once again. And I was certain the work had been lost till I spotted a little envelope from the Yale Review one morning. I can tell you it took a lot of effort to open that blue package.
Dean Wilbur Cross himself had sent it. He like the post and asked whether $35 would enough as payment.
I was about to kiss that folding rule goodbye until I calculated how much I had spent on postage and retyping during the two years the piece had been in mail vehicles. I still think I lost money on it, but I learned a valuable lesson about the three crucial feet.
Thousands of people have heard the legend of the magical king who keeps people striving for more. Many people have become more determined as a result of it.
People often fall short of their potential because they stop just a foot or two shy of victory.
The three-foot guideline aids them in descending the last few difficult inches that pay off. It serves as a reminder to them to keep digging.
Before you resign, be sure you’re incorrect.
People get a touch of brilliance by persevering. Stanford University’s famed studies of geniuses demonstrate that perseverance, not stubbornness, is their defining trait—doggedly working at something despite setbacks or poor luck.
[Thomas] It was in Edison’s possession. He experimented with 6,000 different chemicals before settling on the perfect filament for his early electric light. He experimented with 28,000 different materials in order to discover a replacement for lead in storage batteries. “Nearly every guy who develops an idea works it up to the point where it seems impossible, and then gets discouraged,” Edison said. Now is the moment to take an interest!”
Robert E. Peary attempted to reach the North Pole seven times and failed each time, but each time he learnt something. On his eighth attempt, he planted the Stars and Stripes on the Pole after twenty-three years of trying. “I will find a way, or build one,” he wrote as he lay helpless in the Arctic wastes, both feet terribly ulcerated from frostbite. Stick-to-itiveness!
Charles Darwin labored on his evolution research for twenty years, while being in constant discomfort. He said, “It’s doggedness that accomplishes it.”
The first four shops opened by Frank Woolworth were total disasters. But he stuck with the plan, tweaking it slightly as he learnt from his mistakes. When you go into one of his businesses to purchase a folding rule, keep that in mind.
Charles Goodyear worked on a means to cure or vulcanize rubber for more than five years, half-starving, unwell, avoiding debtors’ jail, and being mocked.
Thousands of little car companies have collapsed and been forgotten. Two times, Henry Ford was on the verge of bankruptcy. He came close to quitting once, when he was sick and despondent. However, he was unable to locate a financier who believed his company was worth purchasing. That was his fortunate fortune, since he stayed with the ship and brought it into port with a load that exceeded the bankers’ wildest aspirations.
Listen to John Wanamaker, a self-made man: “As I get older, it becomes evident that the difference between those who succeed and those who fail is in accurate thinking, energy, and unwavering drive.” A single objective and a strong attitude, undistracted and relentless, seldom fail to achieve the desired result. The individual who never gives up until the job is finished will always find his name on the winner’s list.”
When the going gets tough, many people search for a reason to give up. That is precisely when the smart person dives even deeper.
When diamonds were found in the rich Kimberley fields, Dutch, English, and local Kaffirs began mining with zeal and ease. The diamonds were discovered in a hitherto unimagined quantity in a softish golden ground. It was simple to dig, and the benefits were plentiful. Men were earning hundreds of dollars every day in their thirty-one-foot-square claims.
However, the soft yellow dirt was eventually removed. A layer of blue earth was discovered by the diamond diggers. The blue dirt was so hard that their shovels hardly scraped it.
“Well, the diamonds must have all been in the golden earth that was so simple to shovel,” they agreed. “The gold must have vanished.”
So a young Englishman, who had traveled to South Africa to treat his TB, marched through their little claims and bought out the miners who didn’t want to work in the harsh blue strata. He bought their claims for modest prices, and in exchange for these small money, he obtained the world’s richest diamond reserves, since the genuine diamond deposits were in that blue soil that was so difficult to work.
That Englishman left a tremendous wealth of more than thirty million dollars when he died at the age of forty-eight, still a youthful guy. When the digging became too difficult for others, Cecil Rhodes dug in.
When you’re about to give up, give yourself a three-foot rule to bang on the knuckles and knuckle down to complete the task!
Sustained activity is required to achieve leadership.