Bricks, Ants and Excuses

I remember reading a story when I was younger about a woman who insisted that she never had a chance. She said this to Dr. Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), distinguished naturalist, after one of his lectures in London. In response to her complaint, he asked her what she did. When she explained that all she did was chop potatoes and onions whilst running a boarding house with her sister, the account runs as follows:

“Madam, where do you sit during these interesting but homely duties?”

“On the bottom step of the kitchen stairs.”

“Where do your feet rest?”

“On the glazed brick.”

“What is glazed brick?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“How long have you been sitting there?”

“Fifteen years.”

“Madam, here is my personal card,” said Dr. Agassiz. “Would you kindly write me a letter concerning the nature of a glazed brick?”

The woman took him seriously. After painstaking research at libraries, museums and brickyards, she wrote thirty-six pages on the subject of glazed brick and tile.

Back came the letter from Dr. Agassiz: “Dear Madam, this is the best article I have ever seen on the subject. If you will kindly change the three words marked with asterisks, I will have it published and pay you for it.”

A short time later there came a letter that brought $250 along with a simple note: “What was under those bricks?” She had learned the value of time and answered with a single word: “Ants.” He wrote back and said, “Tell me about the ants.”

After wide reading, microscopic work and deep study, the woman wrote Dr. Agassiz 360 pages on the subject. He published the book and sent her the money, and she went to visit all the lands of her dreams on the proceeds of her work.

Whilst working in education, I’ve heard every imaginable excuse as to why a student might be ill-equipped, unprepared or unwilling to try. During my life, I’ve made my fair share of excuses. Inside, I didn’t really believe the excuses I was telling myself or others – they just meant I could stay exactly where I was: comfortable and unchallenged, but stagnant.

The woman in the story had very little, but she did have two things: she could read and she could write. These skills, coupled with the right advice and powerful motivation, opened a new world for her. Regardless of limitations or skill deficiencies, I am convinced that every single person has something of value that others need. It’s about discovering what that is and making it known. It is in this process that one finds their calling.

Trouble is, it’s far easier to sit back and make excuses than it is to put in the hard graft. I know – I’ve done it myself. However, looking back over the last decade or so of my life, I can say with conviction that the things I am most content with in my life are the things I worked the hardest for: family, education, career progress and so on.

We can either find a way or find an excuse. For a long time, I used every excuse I could think of to avoid public speaking or communicating with others. I don’t want the end of my life to be filled with excuses as to why I didn’t do things. We do not have control over what happens; what we do have control over is how we respond.

What do you want most?

What are you prepared to do to get it?

What excuses are you hiding behind?

If not now, then when?

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