Lessons Worth Learning

I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”

– Booker T. Washington

Occasionally, I will read a biography worth passing along to my kids. And, knowing how hesitant they are to read an assignment not given to them by their teacher, I often summarize the book to make sure they internalize at least the main concepts. I recently did just that for a spectacular biography of Booker T. Washington, “Then Darkness Fled” by Stephen Mansfield.

Before I began Mansfield’s book, I knew little about Washington’s life. So I was quickly struck by the hardships he faced as a young boy and a slave (Washington was just 8 years old when the Civil War started). Yet, the quality of his upbringing and his strength of character are equally remarkable. What can we learn from his life worthy of passing along to our kids and grandkids? Here are three lessons:

1. It Takes Hard Work and Planning to Succeed

Washington’s family could not survive, materially, unless he worked. As a young boy, this meant laboring at a salt furnace. Mansfield writes:

“Salt was drawn from wells drilled deep in the earth to tap pools of salt water. This water was then pumped to the surface, boiled, dried, and packed in barrels. It was to this agonizing work that Booker, his stepfather, and his brother John were forced to devote nearly every waking hour. Arriving at work as early as four in the morning, the team of three shoveled salt into barrels and packed them tight until they reached the prescribed weight. It was gritty, stinging work and it scarcely provided enough for the family to live.”

Yet Washington longed for something more, and he pestered his mother to obtain just one book for him. When, against every obstacle, she handed him a Webster “blue-backed” speller, he was beside himself. His quest for learning had begun. Washington eventually was given a chance to attend school at 9:00 each morning – provided he still worked in the salt furnace from 4:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. This extraordinary discipline led eventually to a notable event on July 4, 1881.

At the age of 25, Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute. He launched his dream with no money, no faculty, no campus, no land and no student body. But he was determined to raise up a new generation of leaders from the rubble of the South.

Washington was “a master at devising a plan and harnessing people and resources to accomplish it,” according to Mansfield. And by his death in 1915, Tuskegee had grown to a 2,000-acre campus with 107 buildings, more than 1,500 students and nearly 200 faculty members.

2. Wisdom + Mentors = Success

Washington found that students at many universities mastered Hebrew and Greek but were unprepared for “life and its conditions as they would meet it at their homes.” Other students were “better dressed, wore the latest style of all manner of clothing, and in some cases were more brilliant mentally.” But to him they seemed “less self-dependent,” giving “more attention to mere outward appearances.”

What they needed, Washington knew, was wisdom. They required a practical skill for living, which must be passed from generation to generation. And he knew that demanded mentors to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and its practice. He said, “The older I grow, the more I am convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women.”

He concluded that it is not enough to teach the masses. They must have heroes, specifically men and women placed before them who model the qualities that mean liberation. Tuskegee, then, had to be more than an industrial school. For Washington, it needed to become “a training ground for heroes, a factory for champions.”

3. A Cause Bigger Than Ourselves

Finally, Washington challenged his students to invest in causes bigger than themselves. He said, “In order to be successful in any kind of undertaking, I think the main thing is for one to grow to the point where he completely forgets himself; that is, to lose himself in a great cause.”

There is perhaps no better example of Washington’s dedication to this principle than in the humility he showed daily, as demonstrated by the following encounter. Mansfield writes:

“Once when Booker was staying in a Des Moines hotel, a woman guest mistook him for a porter and asked him to fetch her drink of water. Washington was at that moment a leading educator, an internationally renowned author, an adviser to governments, and arguably the most famous black man in the world having been the first to dine in the White House and have tea with the Queen of England. But he didn’t hesitate. He immediately went to the hotel’s front desk to ask for the water. He felt no offense because true humility removes the sting of the common.”

I suspect the woman in this story never knew of this act of humility.

Perhaps you, like me, are facing a season of milestones this spring. I have two high school seniors and one college senior all graduating within 36 hours of each other. As I ponder what lessons I might like to accompany them to the next stage of their lives, perhaps these would offer much instruction and encouragement:

Work hard and have a plan.

Seek wisdom and wise counselors.

It’s better to be a small part of a big cause than a big part of a small one.

Be humble by serving others.

This seems like a pretty good short list. However, I’ll add one last nugget of wisdom that Washington often shared: “Dreams transform reality.”

May it always be so for our children and their children as well.

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