While driving on a country road, I passed the parked truck of a tree trimming service. High above the vehicle a workman stood in a cherry picker, sawing overhanging branches. Beside the truck, facing the road, stood a large sign, bold black letters against a bright orange background: Safety is our goal.
Something about the message bugged me. While I recognize the importance of safety on the job, there is much more to that job — and to life — than staying safe. If safety is your main goal, you won’t get much done and you won’t have any fun. In a way, the sign was a lie. If safety was the real goal, the workers could come back to their supervisor at the end of the work day, and he would ask them, “How’d you make out today?” They would answer, “We didn’t get any trees trimmed, but we stayed safe.” If that conversation truly took place, the company would soon be out of business.
I played in my mind with various scenarios of how the world would be different if safety were more important than progress:
Exploration: Columbus to Queen Isabella: “Are you crazy? I’m not going out on that ocean to look for a new world. If the earth is really flat, my ships will fall off the edge of the world.”
Politics: Barack to Michelle Obama: “We’ve never had an African-American president. Do you realize how much money we could lose and how embarrassed I would be if I ran and lost?”
Sex: “I could get a disease, or have an unwanted baby, or God might punish me for having so much pleasure. Even worse, I could get intimate, involved, and committed.”
Air flight: Captain to passengers: “Studies show that the chances of crashing are greater if we get into the air, so we are going to just sit on the runway.”
Business: Steve Jobs’ parents to Steve: “Why risk your career on the fantasy of a personal computer? Stick with a safe career in calligraphy.”
Business, thirty years later, parents to child: “Why risk a career in calligraphy? Stick with a safe career in computers.”
There are two basic attitudes to life: Reparative and Creative. The reparative path is based on survival, self-protection, and fixing what is broken. Life is a problem and our role is to make the best of a bad situation. The creative path is founded on exploration, expansion, and celebration. Life is an adventure to enjoy. The sign on the reparative path reads, “Safety is Our Goal.” The sign on the creative path reads, “Plucking the Fruit of Life is Our Goal.”
Certainly there are moments when we need to fix stuff and deal with what is broken. But that is the lesser part of the game, just as safety is the secondary goal of tree-trimming. Fix what you need to fix when you need to fix it, but get back to creation as soon as possible. Even if you have to fix something, an attitudinal shift can make the process fun.
A lovely essay was going around the Internet, musing about how much fun we had as kids without needing all the protection prescribed today. We pedaled bikes without helmets, rode in cars without seat belts, and went trick-or-treating without parents shadowing us to keep us from getting molested. Somehow we survived childhood without elaborate defenses, and had fun in the process. I am not saying kids should abandon helmets, seatbelts or parental supervision on Halloween. I am just suggesting that there is more to life than protection.
For a penetrating lesson in the contrast between trust and protection, watch a delightful documentary called Babies. The film follows the social training of babies in four different cultures: African, American, Japanese and Mongolian. An opening scene shows the African baby, sitting naked on a dusty plain, playing with some bugs, having a grand time. Next we see an upwardly mobile San Francisco family bundling their child in Oshkosh designer wear, strapping him onto a complicated bike seat, protected to the hilt with all manner of safety devices. The African kid looked happier, and so did his parents. One has to wonder just how much protection our children need to be safe and happy? And us?
In 85-year-old Nadine Stair’s famous essay, “If I Had my Life to Live Over,” the author confesses, “I’ve been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.”
It’s never too late to travel light or to have a happy childhood. Perhaps it’s time to post a new sign by the truck: Success is Our Goal, and We’re having a Good Time Getting There. Trim the trees where you must, but enjoy them where you can.