Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
Late President of the Bi-Lo Stores
Every Summer we are approached by the sons of neighbors, or their mothers, asking if we have work on the farm. For some it is curiosity, for others a desire to earn a few dollars doing something other than sitting around playing video games. Sometimes they work out, others times they don’t, but we almost always give them a shot if we are asked and in some cases it becomes an annual ritual that ends when they go off to college. As a practice I send them off to the chicken coop with a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow and after a brief period of instruction leave them to clean it out. If they return the next day we’ve got a keeper and we move on to other tasks, if not we save each other a lot of time and frustration. I ran into one of them recently, a young man now, who once drove hundreds of cedar fence posts with a sledge hammer for us the first year we began our life in this place and he lit up with a huge smile when he saw me and rushed over to shake my hand. He had just graduated from college and was back home to watch his younger sister graduate from high school with the same class as our son. He said that he had been meaning to stop up and visit and that he had wanted to tell us that the days he spent on our farm were some of the best days of his life, that he finally understood how important the time he had spent with us had been for him and how he would always think fondly of the hours he spent working on our farm. I don’t know if someone could have given me a better compliment and I was proud to know that whatever he did in his life he would have the memory of having done a good job for someone who appreciated his efforts.
Over the course of my lifetime several truths have revealed themselves to me not through intentional seeking, but rather by the constant and repeated proofs of their validity. Certain behaviors net specific results, again and again without fail. Some of these outcomes are negative, others clearly on the positive side and it is always the underlying purpose of the initial actions that guarantee the desired — or undesired — resolution. Living a self sufficient life — as far as that is possible in this day and age — requires the maximization of every hour spent, every calorie expended, every dollar invested. You learn to make do, repair and re-purpose, save and store up, do with what you have or do without. While there is often time to enjoy the beauty around you and to suck in all the sights and sounds and smells of life itself, it is often done with a tool in hand. The other morning I was explaining a chore done poorly by one of these teenage charges in a way I hoped he would understand, demonstrating that what he had failed to do was not the result of failing to do something expected, but rather to do it correctly. He smiled and nodded his head and I asked him to repeat what I had said and he did and the next day when I passed by I saw that he had done what I asked perfectly and has every day since. The chore will likely fade as a memory for him by the time Fall arrives, but the underlying lesson of doing something right will likely last a lifetime. As I sat in bed the other night drifting off to sleep I thought about these lessons, most of which I have learned through trial and error and decided to write them down.
These are the five keys to a self efficient life.
1) Whatever you do, do it well. All of us face tasks that we would rather not do; laundry, cleaning the toilet, making the bed. Unless you are an invalid or so fabulously wealthy that you maintain a staff to manage your household, you will inevitably be faced with doing some chore so painfully odious or repetitious that you would rather not, yet the job is yours to do. Do it as if it were of importance, whatever that job may be. The result will never disappoint, the difference between well done and mailed in will become apparent and it will humble you to a degree that builds a certain character. In our home I am known to G.I. a bathroom as well as any staff at a five star hotel, not because I dream of becoming a manservant, but because my family, my guests and myself will be the beneficiary of my efforts. A clean refrigerator or a well made bed are signs of a well run life beyond the sanitary concern. Putting in effort and paying attention to the details of whatever it is that you are doing no matter how small or insignificant leads to doing the same with the bigger plans in life. A well kept home is a reflection of the person who lives in it and it is a statement about your approach to the world.
2) Make every trip count. This is one I learned later in life but which has saved me countless hours of precious time. If I am heading out to do a specific chore, I never return empty handed. That is a wasted trip. Every movement you make should be purposeful, every mission an opportunity to do something you’d have to do later. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone comment about how they forgot to pick something up while they were out to the store, but that it was alright because they had to go back out for something else later. Why not combine the trips and do it once? The savings in time and energy are enormous when you begin to get in the habit of piggybacking responsibilities. Make lists before you go somewhere that allows you to double or triple your initial efforts and you will see a rapid growth in your efficiency. Soon it will become a second nature to notice other opportunities to complete some side task while in the midst of doing another and your hours will multiply.
3) Persistence rewards. More people give up on things than become successful at them. There are always reasons why people quit or fold or give up, but most of them reflect the failure of discipline more than ability. When we began to farm we knew virtually nothing about it beyond basic gardening skills, but we had desire and a determination to learn. We had multiple failures in every aspect of what we did, from where we located gates and fence lines, to how we cleared the forest and bred our livestock, but we paid equal attention to what went wrong as to what went right and we built on as many losses as we did on gains. Each misstep was an opportunity and as time went by we developed a sort of psychic scar tissue that allowed us to weather the failed attempts and poor results and use them as learning tools to do things the right way.
4) Quid pro quo. Do unto others because others will do unto you. I give my help freely and I have been rewarded tenfold over the years because of it. A lot of people will dodge doing something for nothing, but like the concept of the honor box sometimes the rewards are greater than the costs associated with the initial act. This is not to say that you should take advantage of others or become manipulative in your motivations, but it is an acknowledgement of the laws of physics as well as the indisputable nature of karma. No good act goes unrewarded.
5) Time is all you have, spend it wisely. Every hour of every day we make the kinds of decisions that often seem inconsequential, meaningless. In totality they all add up. The hours spent staring at a glowing screen as opposed to fixing something broken, reading a book, learning a new skill are hours that cannot be replaced. Motivating yourself to do rather than passively be adds skill sets that can be capitalized upon in life as long as you live. As the folks over at ZeroHedge so wisely counsel, “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate is zero.” I have no idea what comes after this life, but I do know that it is the only one we have and that we should treasure every moment of it for what it presents, opportunity to make our lives fuller, richer, more rewarding.
I do not have a perfect life, but I have a life that is full and satisfying even when things are difficult and trying because I have determined to make each day count and it is because I have learned to live by these basic premises. I have made my bed and I lay on it, and when I close my eyes to sleep I am satisfied by these efforts no matter how insignificant they may be seem.