My grandparents owned a small hardscrabble farm outside of Pocahontas, Arkansas, where I used to visit as a small child. Half of the 20 acres was scraggly black maples and juniper trees on a hill leading down to a small creek. There was a small pasture on the north quarter for Myrtle the milk cow and Fred, the old draught horse that my grandpa had raised from a colt. Behind the small, two-bedroom house with the metal roof sat a small barn, a pig sty, an outhouse, and a chicken coop with 20 of the meanest chickens on earth. On the south frontage of the property lay my grandpa’s claim to fame; five acres of garden that had been cleared of rocks and stumps, enriched with horse and pig manure, and produced some of the best vegetables in the area.
What made it a local attraction was the fact that my grandpa had plowed the rows using a 1929 Minneapolis-Moline steel beam walking plow drawn by Fred and the rows were perfectly straight!
Nobody could figure out how he did it. Some said that great grandma, being the daughter of a Sioux medicine man, had passed on shamanic gifts to her son. Others said that Fred was a retired circus horse who had been trained to walk a tight rope as a colt. My grandpa would always smile when someone asked him about the field, shake his head, and walk away. One day when I was visiting, he was hooking up Fred to till the field for the spring planting. I asked him if it was true? Was Fred a retired circus pony?
“Now look here, Boy,” he said. “If you’re gonna get anywhere in life, you gotta learn to believe about half of what you see and none of what you hear. There ain’t no magic in how I plow my rows and the closest Fred has ever been to the circus was when I left a bag of peanuts in the back of my pickup and he ate the whole thing, bag and all.”
He then swung me up onto Fred’s back and we walked over to the edge of the field. Fred seemed to know exactly where he has going and stopped at edge of the garden in the middle of the north side of the plot. My grandpa continued talking to me as he hooked the plow behind Fred.
“I’m gonna share a secret with you, Boy,” he smiled. He always called me Boy. Nobody knew why. “This here’s a secret that applies to more than just farming. If you can grasp the concept, it’ll help you line up your life for success.”
“What’s the secret, Grandpa?” I asked in solemn amazement.
“I’m gonna share with you the secret to how I plow straight rows in my garden,” he said, easing Fred out into the freshly harrowed dirt. “As you can see, we are starting at the middle of the north edge of the field. We’re gonna plow our first row north to south. You with me, so far?”
I shook my head affirmatively.
“Good,” he continued. “You see that fence post on the other side of the field that has the top half painted white? That is our target. Now we could just aim for that target and we would get there, but there would be no guarantee that the row would be straight. In fact, I’ll show you.”
He clicked his tongue and gave Fred the command of “Straight ahead, Fred.” The huge beast began dutifully walking toward the painted fence post on the other side of the field with me swaying back and forth on his back. We seemed to be going straight for the post and when we got there, Fred stopped. I was exhilarated and turned around to celebrate our initial success, only to stop and look back across the field dumbfounded. The row was from one side of the field to the white post on the other side of the field, but it wasn’t straight. It weaved from side to side at least three times; sometimes by as much as two or three feet! I asked Grandpa how that was possible?
“When you have a single goal that you are trying to get to,” he said. “It don’t matter from what angle you approach it, it is always going to seem like you are approaching it straight on.”
We walked back across the field. He turned Fred around and lined him up again. This time he put me on his own shoulders so I could see what he was seeing.
“To try and control our approach to the fence post so that we get there in a straightforward manner,” Grandpa pointed. “We have to have a second reference point. So look beyond the fence post. Do you see that pine tree standing in front of the woods over yonder? We’re gonna aim Fred toward the post again; but to make sure, we’re gonna keep the point of that pine tree lined up directly over the fence post and right between Fred’s ears. That will give us a straight line. But is that going to give us a near perfect straight line?”
“I think so,” I answered hesitantly.
“Well, it might and it might not,” he said. “I ain’t got no truck with luck, Boy. I like to do whatever I can to make sure that I am in control of the variables. Look out yonder beyond the point of that pine tree. What do you see?”
“I see a white point sticking up behind the trees!”
“That’s right. That white point is the top of the steeple at the Baptist church up on the highway. If I keep that steeple lined up with the pine tree and both of them lined up between Fred’s ears, what do you suppose is gonna happen?”
“We have to have a straight line!” I exclaimed. I got it. Adding the third reference point forced the traversing line to be absolutely straight.
“Straight ahead, Fred!” clicked Grandpa.
When we got to the other side, Grandpa turned around and there it was. A perfectly straight furrow! I threw my hands up, gave a loud whoop and startled Fred. He jerked forward and I fell off backwards. Grandpa caught me in midair and placed me back onto Fred’s back. Then my enthusiasm waned as I pointed out that we didn’t have three ready reference points on the other side of the field upon which to navigate back across.
“That’s very observant of you,” he said, turning Fred and the plow around and lining them up next to the new furrow. “This is where we use the secret of self-control. Remember this, Boy, self-control is the key which unlocks success in anything you do. We have a good reference baseline. Now all I have to do is keep the edge of the plow over the edge of that baseline and we will have two straight furrows. I concentrate, take my time, and repeat the same process back and forth across the field. In a couple of hours, we’ll have a field of straight furrows and all of these yokels will think it’s either magic or a retired circus horse. Truth is, it ain’t nothin’ but basic geometry, self-control, and persistent concentration.”
I never forgot that lesson. I learned to work it backwards; setting my long-term goal, figuring out the intermediate benchmarks, and then establishing my short-term objectives to chart the straightest course to take. Whenever I have fallen short, it’s always been because I failed to apply patience and self-control. When these elements are taken together, success becomes simply a matter of process, not luck.
It also helps if you have an old circus horse.