I went to college in 1970. By 1974 I had a degree in mathematics and experience hitchhiking to every state of the union except for Alaska and Hawaii; perhaps 30,000 miles in all.
I learned more about how to live from those experiences than anything I learned in a school. Here is the story of what I learned from a man in the pick-up truck who took my girlfriend and me from central Minnesota to just west of Fargo, North Dakota.
Had I not learned this lesson my life would have been very different; not only would I have been much less inventive I would not have had the courage to stand up to some of the shenanigans I saw during the 30 years I was on Wall Street.
I’ll call him Jeb. I don’t remember his name, but during Prohibition he used to bootleg whisky, so Jeb sounds like a good bootlegger’s name, don’t you think?
He said the pay was good and it was exciting work because the cops were always chasing you, but it wasn’t very intellectual. The only creative thing he learned was the Bootlegger’s K-Turn. He left the Interstate for a side road to show us how it is done. I’ll draw it for you:
One of the best ways to put distance between you and the police is to reverse directions after a curve on a narrow road where the cops miss a turn-around and have to back up or go a long way to another one. In the normal K-Turn you pull into a driveway on the opposite side of the street (A), back up (B), and then hopefully wave at the cops as you wiz past while they are still trying to cock their guns.
But the problem with the normal K-Turn is that the cop cars have a habit of crashing into you at point B. But with the Bootlegger’s K-Turn at point (B) you’re in the opposite lane from the cops so you have less of a chance of a crack-up.
For Jeb, the good times ended when Roosevelt took office; damn him! His first act was to legalize alcohol, and there went a well-compensatin’ career.
The only work Jeb could find was as a drill-press operator in a factory and for years he drilled holes in stuff over and over and over. To entertain himself he would think of ways the machine could be improved.
After a few years he screwed up the courage to ask the owner, “May I ask a question?”
The owner laughed, “You don’t need permission to ask a question?”
“Is it OK if I suggest an improvement,” Jeb asked meekly.
“You don’t need permission to ask a question.”
“May I show you what I had in mind?”
The owner was beginning to get irritated, “Get on with it; show me already.”
It turned out Jeb’s idea made the drill-press much more efficient. Jeb was about to go back to work when the owner said, “Why don’t I put you on another machine and let’s see what you come up with.”
In short order he’d invented all kinds of better ways of making things and soon he was even inventing whole new things to make. The owner gave him piles of money and Jeb was very happy.
His pickup truck was littered with samples of his inventions. A new way of manufacturing razor blades; a way of silk-screening watercolors on paper; an attachment for a combine to convert it from harvesting corn to sunflowers.
My girlfriend asked him, “Exactly when did you know you were an inventor?”
“I never asked for permission to be a bootlegger because I knew it was the wrong thing to do.” Jeb laughed.
“But,” he continued, “I didn’t become inventive until I leaned that I don’t need permission to do the right thing.”
You do not need permission to do the right thing.
No one can give you permission to do the wrong thing.
It is never a matter yes or no but of right or wrong.