I am not a pack rat. In fact, at home, I have a six-month rule — if we haven’t looked at or used something for over six months, out it goes. (To be truthful, my wife has a separate rule which requires us to fill the basement to overflowing before we consider throwing anything out, so of course we follow hers.)
Despite this, it was eye-opening when I moved my office recently and reviewed the files I had compiled over the years; 90% of what I had kept was no longer needed. To be honest, it was both uplifting and discouraging. It was uplifting, because I was able to “lighten my load” and maintain only those files that now had a relevant purpose. But it was discouraging because a lot of the files that went out were signs of deadends, bright ideas which had lost their luster, forms and numbers that were no longer meaningful or useful, “urgent” items that seem trite with time. (For full disclosure, I have not thrown out the 90% I no longer need because my assistant has a separate rule which is to box everything up and send it to storage, so of course we follow hers.)
On a related note, a couple of years ago our family cabin in Montana was literally hours away from being burned to the ground by a forest fire. My mother had only a few minutes to evacuate and the only thing she took was her dog and pictures of our family.
Finally, I was in Browning, Montana recently on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and bought some paintings by a Native American artist who drew sketches on old ledger paper from the late 1800’s taken from general stores, real estate offices and assayers; from the dry script of Mrs. Anderson’s can of peas or sack of flour emerged the colorful and enduring spirit of a proud people.
These three incidents have made me think of what really is important. What is enduring? And, how do you know at any given time that what we’re doing is, after all is said and done, worthwhile?
We have to accept the fact, that not everything we do will be enduring, that there will be deadends and ideas that will flame out with time. The important thing, for me at least, is to treat each action as if it will have enduring consequences, to put the time and energy in to those ideas and, when they don’t pan out, spend a brief moment to learn and consider what was done and why it didn’t work, then move on to the next one. Nothing great is ever achieved without failure and we aren’t always prescient enough to know what will work until we start working at it.
Ultimately, if we let it, time does grace even the smallest note with an enduring spirit of struggle, redemption and (occasionally) success. The files in my boxes aren’t just static pieces of paper; they’re representative of ideas and actions done by people for people and — laid out end to end — tell a story that might be as vibrant as the Blackfeet. And, while I have no use for them now, they are a part of what I am and what I’ve done and I respect that.
My mother’s actions, however, speak the loudest; perhaps the only thing that is enduring are the relationships we have, certainly with our family and loved ones, but also with our friends, those who work with us, our clients, our customers our business partners. Our success as individuals or as organizations is ultimately tied to the strength of these relationships and the attention we pay to them.
The author, Ray Bradbury, wrote a book called Fahrenheit 451 which is required reading for most high school students. It talks of a society that burned books (the title refers to the temperature at which paper burns) and how individuals internalized those books to keep them alive. In the end, each word that we write, each action and interaction we have endures (positively or negatively) to some degree within ourselves or within each other. Perhaps success lies only in recognizing this.