Many people think success is like a utopia. That you arrive at an endless beach paradise for the beautiful people, with golden sand and foamy shores.
This is a fantasy.
The beach is private and pretty, but it’s also a minefield. Navigate it skillfully and you get to stay and enjoy its luxuries; make too many missteps and it’ll blow you to pieces.
The corpses are buried, but they’re there, just below the surface. The bodies of the people that committed the cardinal sin…
They came to the beach to play in the sand and waves but they forgot their broom. And just like that, they doomed themselves to certain death.
Yes, the broom is the key to it all. Lose your broom, or your respect for it, and you’re done for. You can sit very still and forestall the inevitable, but eventually you’ll move. And boom. There goes half your leg. Boom. There goes the other. Boom. Your arm flies into the water. Boom. It all goes black, and you return to the “real” world.
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I know people that learned this the hard way.
One guy lost $70 million in 5 years, one bad investment at a time. All the while, his broom was collecting dust in the closet.
Another guy burned through $13 million in legal fees in a misguided, and unsuccessful, mission of corporate revenge. He had traded his broom for a club.
Yet another went from a humble business owner and millionaire to a delusional megalomaniac with nothing but burned bridges and millions in debt. He now despises the broom and everything it stands for.
What is the broom, exactly, and what is its vital lesson?
You might be thinking this lesson has to do with work ethic or persistence, but it’s much more than that. Sir Henry Royce, the man that co-founded the Rolls-Royce company knew at least one part of this lesson well. Here’s how he put it:
“Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble.”
The broom symbolizes the willingness to do any and all work with dignity and pride.
If you think your current station in life is below you, chances are you’re a deluded, self-absorbed asshole. And if you do somehow find your way to the minefield of success, you’re not going to last long.
Andrew Carnegie, one of the greatest “rags to riches” stories of all time, revered the broom:
“But if by chance the professional sweeper is absent any morning the boy who has the genius of the future partner in him will not hesitate to try his hand at the broom.
“I was one of those sweepers myself, and who do you suppose were my fellow sweepers? David McCargo, now superintendent of the Alleghany Valley Railroad; Robert Pitcairn, Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Mr. Moreland, City Attorney.”
The only degrading type of work you can do is work you know is sub-par. You know, rushed, sloppy sweeping. Leaving dirt and dust bunnies for someone else more “befitting” of such a job.
When you can sweep a room with the same verve and care as you would negotiate a million dollar deal, you’ve learned this lesson. No amount of money or recognition satisfies the soul like a job well done.
The broom has more to teach us, though.
I like my broom because it doesn’t care what I’ve achieved or what I’ve got planned for the future. It doesn’t want or offer compliments or favors. It has no agenda other than its simple request: grab me and get sweeping. There’s work to do and someone has to do it, it says.
When I pick up my broom and sweep, it reminds me that I’m only as valuable as I can carry out the job at hand. It keeps me grounded and focused on what really matters: what I’m doing here and now, and how well I’m doing it.
Just because I could once sweep doesn’t mean I still can. Just because a general won all his previous battles doesn’t mean he’ll win the next. In fact, the assumption that past success guarantees future results is dangerous. Landmines litter that path in the sand.
The broom symbolizes humble appreciation and respect of the challenges of the work at hand.
Frank Gehry, one of most celebrated architects of all time, still embraces this second lesson of the broom, even after decades of acclaimed work:
“For me, every day is a new thing. I approach each project with a new insecurity, almost like the first project I ever did, and I get the sweats, I go in and start working, I’m not sure where I’m going — if I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t do it.”
Stop for a second and consider the fact that the man that said that has received over a dozen honorary degrees from various universities including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. He has designed some of the most famous buildings in the world. Vanity Fair called him the “most important architect of our age.”
And every day, what does such an accomplished man do? He picks up his broom and starts sweeping as best he can.
There’s one last lesson of the broom. And it has to do with the very nature of the tool.
It’s crude and inefficient. There’s no technology involved. Without your effort, it’s useless. But if you’re willing to put it to work, it’s reliable. It never breaks or malfunctions. With your trusty broom, you can get the job done every time.
The broom symbolizes the reality that there’s no substitute for doing the work.
The influential writer Henry Miller articulated this lesson perfectly:
“In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest.”