Theodore Roosevelt has been my inspiration this month. I have been frustratingly limited by new health issues since October, which has provided ample time for reading. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new biography of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft I found this gem:
“If you are cast on a desert island with only a screwdriver, a hatchet, and a chisel to make a boat with, why, go make the best one you can. It would be better if you had a saw, but you haven’t.”*
Teddy Roosevelt said this was one of the most important lessons he learned during his years serving in the New York Assembly. When first elected, he wanted to work only with men like himself and considered everyone from a lower social station boorish, illiterate, and repulsive. After a series of legislative debacles, he adapted, learning to work with people of all stripes and circumstances with whom he found common purpose. Politics is not the art of the perfect but of the possible.
So is life. We take what we have and with it make something better, needful, or beautiful. In our work and personal life, we are like Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century. If you’re a T.V. buff you might say we are like MacGyver, the good-looking guy who solves crime, saves the innocent, and escapes danger with stuff like twine, an emery board and a light bulb. In less than ideal circumstances McGuyver solves every problem in fewer than 60 minutes. http://www.tv.com/shows/macgyver/
Part of the joy of life is to look at what is and see what can be. I know it’s hard and frustrating, and sometimes downright depressing. We can wish for more money, “better” colleagues, a less frustrating boss, more time, better health, a less dysfunctional family, or the presence of loved ones who have died. It would be better if we had a saw, but we don’t. So we build the best boat we can with what we have.
That’s an outlook worth celebrating and the basis of a life worth living.
Every one of us can be a Teddy Roosevelt or MacGyver. The basic question is whether we want to stay on the desert island or not. If we want to get on the water, we set aside our frustration, negativity, paralysis, and limited thinking. We look in new ways at what we have to work with. Remember, boats don’t have to be perfect or match our original plans to be sea worthy. You may not have every tool you want, but go ahead and make the best boat you can.
*The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, 2013, p.85.
**Photo by Lori Waselchuk for the New York Times