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The Little Red Book of Wisdom
By Mark DeMoss
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Mark DeMoss
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA MATTER OF DEATH AND LIFE
No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow. Euripides
During the summer before my senior year in high school, I spent only a few days at home because my father had encouraged me to take a job with the Southwestern Company selling books door-to-door. My dad was my hero, and I agreed to the work unaware that it would mean thirteen-hour days for eight straight weeks with no breaks to see my family.
I hated being away from home. I hated that the time with Southwestern didn't allow me to join my parents and six brothers and sisters on vacation in the Caribbean. My father and I spoke each weekend by phone-he took great interest in my progress-but nothing could substitute for being with him.
I was back home that Friday in late August, just before classes started for my senior year, when he and I met for lunch at the headquarters of National Liberty Corporation, the life insurance company he had founded and led to considerable success. I was always so proud to be his son when I walked through the beautiful corporate headquarters by his side. That day we talked about my plans for college and possibly for business later on.
The next day, Saturday, September 1, 1979, an ambulance sped to our homewhere my father had been playing tennis with three other men. One of them had rushed up to the house to make the emergency call. I didn't think to worry. Lots of men fall out of breath during exercise. Dad was fifty-three and in the prime of life. He'd be back home in a few hours with a heart prescription and doctors' orders to take it easy.
Instead my mother and brothers and sisters and I gathered in the emergency room of the Bryn Mawr Hospital and listened to a doctor softly say, "I'm sorry. We did all we could." My father was dead. My hero was gone. At age forty, his wife was a widow with seven children between ages eight and twenty-one. Certainly I had known people who had died during my still-young life; but death was supposed to happen to older people, in other families.
Shortly after we returned home from the hospital that day, my mother found a piece of paper on my father's nightstand. He was a prolific note-taker, never without pad and pen. In my mind, I can still see in his handwriting the words from the Ninetieth Psalm: "So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom."
Arthur S. DeMoss was the wisest man I knew. Now he was in heaven, less surprised by his departure, I suspect, than we were. I still miss him. He never saw me play college football. His place was vacant when I married the most wonderful girl in the world. He missed greeting his first grandchildren. When I started a business, he wasn't there to advise me-though I had more counsel from him than I realized at the time, which is a large reason for my writing this book.
* * *
Seven years after my father's death, in the spring of 1986, I was working for Rev. Jerry Falwell and attending a conference at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. We had just settled into our rooms when a call came from home telling me that my twenty-two-year-old brother, David, had been in a car accident and was in serious condition. Jerry and I checked out, flew to Philadelphia, and drove straight to the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania.
My kid brother, a wiry go-getter with a remarkable knack for making friends, just home for the summer before his final year at Liberty University, lay comatose next to a row of blinking and beeping machines. His doctors talked with us, and our friend Rev. Falwell prayed with us. Eventually we walked out of the hospital and across the street to the hotel where we would stay for the next several days. On June 6, 1986, David Arthur DeMoss joined our father in heaven.
After my father died, I somehow believed that early death would pass over the rest of my family. Why I thought that, I don't know: actuarial tables, common odds, maybe-certainly not the Bible because, if anything, it underscores life's brevity.
As I write this, I am a handful of years from the age my father was at his death and twice my brother's age when he died. The math in my head is unavoidable. I have a wife and children. I've had the thrill and challenges of building a career. I've had adult years and all that comes with new eras in life-all things David never grew up to experience.
In the early years of the church, the apostle James wrote to Christians in a distant city, "Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away."
What is it about human nature that we so blithely presume we will have seventy or eighty years of health and life? The Creator guarantees not another breath. In the last few years, in too short a span of months, I joined the families at our children's school in mourning the loss of Carter Martin, a second grader who died following a protracted fight with cancer. I helped lift and carry the coffin of Jeanine Allen, the young mother of my daughter's best friend since kindergarten, after a seven-year battle with cancer. Through another "premature" death, I got to know Evelyn Husband, the widow of space shuttle Discovery Commander Rick Husband, whose shuttle blew apart as his wife and kids waited to welcome him back to earth.
"Man's days are determined," the Old Testament figure Job says as he labors to grasp his own devastating loss and grief. "You have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed."
When my father died, I thought I could never ever hurt that way again. Then we lost my brother David. Since then, I have been privileged to share the sorrow of other families during loss, and I know from my marrow and tissue what is important. People are. God is. Time is-important, fleeting, priceless.
* * *
Winston Churchill's father died at age thirty-nine, and England's future prime minister grew up expecting also to die young. In his first autobiography, the young Churchill credited his military exploits in India, including a dramatic escape atop a moving train, and in general his fearless first decades, to his awareness of the ticking clock.
My own father's death at age fifty-three circled that age in my mind, a red mark made darker and more certain by David's sudden death only a few years later. I'm never so lost in living that I don't hear the clock tick or have an eye on the calendar-not in a paranoid sense, but with a sense of purpose. As surely as a father's life imprints on a son, a father's early death frames how his son takes on the future ... how he looks at the past, and why he might write a book on wisdom.
I cannot remember that my father ever wasted a minute. Not that all he did was work; he frequently played tennis or Monopoly with us, went swimming or took us to professional sporting events. He was also a great conversationalist. It's just that he didn't waste time. He didn't watch TV, and he went to bed at a reasonable hour-even with guests still in the living room. ("Turn out the lights when you leave," he would say on his way upstairs.) He rose early each day. His strong sense of purpose and life fully included time to think, plan, dream, and pray.
We all are wise to invest life's most precious commodity for the greatest return. When I die, whenever that moment comes, I hope my passing will echo the psalmist's saying "Teach me to number my days, that I may present to You a heart of wisdom"-not least because my father's life and death have shown me that it is possible.
Chapter TwoSTAY UNDER THE UMBRELLA
The secret of success is constancy to purpose. Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield
Years ago in Hong Kong there lived a missionary named John who had a knack for getting things done. In a densely crowded and difficult city, that brand of talent attracts attention, particularly among American businesses salivating over the lucrative Eastern market. One day the ranking executive of a squirt gun manufacturer invited John to lunch at a well-known Hong Kong restaurant. In the posh but crowded dining room, the exec slipped $600 to the owner and was escorted with John to a prime corner table.
Napkins had barely hit laps when the executive leaned in. "John," he said "we'll pay you a salary of $200,000, provide you with a nice office, and a car and driver if you'll come work for us." Perhaps too casually for the executive's pride, John said, "I'm not interested" (thinking to himself, he said later, that he could have saved the guy $600-plus on lunch). When the businessman pressed with "How much are you making now?" John didn't hesitate. "Eight thousand dollars," he said. "But that's not the point. I'm here serving God, doing what I'm supposed to do, and I've never been happier."
At 11:00 p.m. John's phone rang. "It's all over Hong Kong that you rejected that big offer at lunch today," an agitated voice with a German accent said. "I would like to know why." The caller wouldn't take tomorrow morning for an answer, and forty minutes later, still in his pajamas, John sat across a coffee table from him. His visitor said, "Everyone at the American Chamber knows what you did. I had to hear for myself."
Telling me about this incident years later, John tried to explain why the squirt gun bid and offers like it through the years failed to entice him. "I call it 'staying under the umbrella,'" he said. "Get out from under the umbrella and you get wet. I knew my calling and purpose. I wasn't going to let money or anything else sidetrack me." John is past seventy and at the panoramic end of a lifetime of serving people in Hong Kong, Asia, Africa, and dozens of places the names of which most Americans would mispronounce on the first try. Behind him lies a trail of new children's camps, orphanages, churches, and lives forever changed.
To this day, though technically retired, John has never lost his focus. He recently spent eight weeks in China doing what he has always done-serving others. In an age of business globalization, John has had abundant opportunity to act as a point man for businesses seeking to expand into markets he knows well. He could have been rich, but he would have been unhappy.
John calls it an umbrella; I call it focus-that internal compass that keeps a person on track with his gifts, his purpose, and his goals. How rare is that compass? Consider a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey that began in 1979 and tracked baby boomers' careers over the following eighteen years. The report published in 2002 revealed how many jobs people born between 1957 and 1964 held from age eighteen to age thirty-six.
Here's what they found: in an eighteen-year span, each person had held an average of ten jobs. Seventeen percent had held fifteen or more jobs-practically a different job every year. Only 18 percent had changed employment fewer than five times.
Walt Disney used to advise people to "find a job that you like so much that you'd do it without compensation; then do it so well that people will pay you to continue." To almost anyone fifty or younger, that counsel probably seems antique.
But not to me. I feel that way about my work. When I review résumés (the majority of applicants appear to want a job, not a career), before anything else, I scan down their work history. Common wisdom says that multiple jobs bespeak versatility or ambition; but for my money, that brand of résumé sprouts red flags. Don't give me changeability, give me focus. Give me loyalty. Give me longevity. Of course bad employers exist, companies downsize, families relocate, and sometimes we learn what we like by experiencing what we don't like. In the career advice category, however, I submit that the earlier a person finds his focus and the longer he has to mature it, the more likely his success.
* * *
Switching now from individuals to organizations, how many of us have walked into offices ostensibly there to make money or serve-only to scratch the surface and find that the place has no direction, no clarity of purpose?
Mackay Envelope Company is not one of those. Harvey Mackay was twenty-five when he founded the company that lives up to its name. Now the Minneapolis-based manufacturer is worth $85 million. His five hundred employees produce twenty-three million envelopes a day. Mackay preaches his practices in five books, including the best-selling Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.
Several years ago, I heard Harvey Mackay address a group of public relations executives in Phoenix. Something he said that day continues to ring in my head. "Our stated mission at Mackay Envelope Company," he said, "is to be in business forever," obviously proud of its profound simplicity of it. And, I thought, That's it! This company's compass points to true north: stick to what you know and do it better than anyone else. No tangential products or diversification for Mackay Envelope-just better envelopes, and more of them.
* * *
Now look at a global organization that the late Peter Drucker, world-renowned management expert, has called "by far the most effective organization in the U.S." Annually, its $2 billion budget operates with a global workforce of nearly 3.5 million staff and volunteers. More than 30 million clients a year benefit from its mission to "preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and meet human needs in His name without discrimination." The Salvation Army was founded in 1865, in England, and exported 15 years later to the United States.
Robert A. Watson, a 44 year Salvation Army veteran-for four years its highest-ranking U.S. officer-willingly reveals his employer's success method. He says, "We still operate under the same name and offer our 'customers' the same dual 'product' of salvation and service as we did more than a century ago." (Note that of all the firms on the original Dow Jones Industrials list in 1896, only one, General Electric, is still in business.)
Watson's book about his Salvation Army years, The Most Effective Organization in the U.S., makes clear that even the world's best ideas land on the Army's cutting-room floor, if they skew off-mission. "We plan strategies, launch and refine programs, recruit people, and evaluate everything we do according to how it relates to preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and meeting human needs in His name without discrimination. It's really that simple," he writes. "If a proposal doesn't advance our twofold mission, we're not interested."
The American mentality, of course, is to glance straight to the double-underlined bottom number, and Watson has more good news. "Such a laser-like focus on mission has benefits on both the revenue and the cost sides of our operations. People trust us to do what we say we're going to do, so they contribute generously." For money raised, the Salvation Army routinely sits atop the Chronicle of Philanthropy's annual ranking of nonprofit organizations. In fact, the Army typically raises twice as many dollars as runner-up organizations like the Red Cross and the YMCA.
Excerpted from The Little Red Book of Wisdom by Mark DeMoss Copyright © 2007 by Mark DeMoss. Excerpted by permission.
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