Chapter 11 - Don't Try To Saw Sawdust

23 April 2022

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As I write this sentence, I can look out of my window and see some dinosaur tracks in
my garden-dinosaur tracks embedded in shale and stone. I purchased those dinosaur
tracks from the Peabody Museum of Yale University; and I have a letter from the curator
of the Peabody Museum, saying that those tracks were made 180 million years ago. Even
a Mongolian idiot wouldn't dream of trying to go back 180 million years to change those
tracks. Yet that would not be any more foolish than worrying because we can't go back
and change what happened 180 seconds ago-and a lot of us are doing just that To be
sure, we may do something to modify the effects of what happened 180 seconds ago;
but we can't possibly change the event that occurred then.
There is only one way on God's green footstool that the past can be constructive; and
that is by calmly analysing our past mistakes and profiting by them-and forgetting them.
I know that is true; but have I always had the courage and sense to do it? To answer that
question, let me tell you about a fantastic experience I had years ago. I let more than
three hundred thousand dollars slip through my fingers without making a penny's profit.
It happened like this: I launched a large-scale enterprise in adult education, opened
branches in various cities, and spent money lavishly in overhead and advertising. I was
so busy with teaching that I had neither the time nor the desire to look after finances. I
was too naive to realise that I needed an astute business manager to watch expenses.
Finally, after about a year, I discovered a sobering and shocking truth. I discovered that
in spite of our enormous intake, we had not netted any profit whatever. After
discovering that, I should have done two things. First, I should have had the sense to do
what George Washington Carver, the Negro scientist, did when he lost forty thousand
dollars in a bank crash-the savings of a lifetime. When someone asked him if he knew he
was bankrupt, he replied: "Yes, I heard"-and went on with his teaching. He wiped the
loss out of his mind so completely that he never mentioned it again.
Here is the second thing I should have done: I should have analysed my mistakes and
learned a lasting lesson.
But frankly, I didn't do either one of these things. Instead, I went into a tailspin of
worry. For months I was in a daze. I lost sleep and I lost weight. Instead of learning a
lesson from this enormous mistake, I went right ahead and did the same thing again on a
smaller scale!
It is embarrassing for me to admit all this stupidity; but I discovered long ago that "it is
easier to teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of twenty to follow
mine own teaching."
How I wish that I had had the privilege of attending the George Washington High School
here in New York and studying under Mr. Brandwine-the same teacher who taught Allen
Saunders, of 939 Woodycrest Avenue, Bronx, New York!
Mr. Saunders told me that the teacher of his hygiene class, Mr. Brandwine, taught him
one of the most valuable lessons he had ever learned. "I was only in my teens," said
Allen Saunders as he told me the story, "but I was a worrier even then. I used to stew
and fret about the mistakes I had made. If I turned in an examination paper, I used to
lie awake and chew my fingernails for fear I hadn't passed. I was always living over the
things I had done, and wishing I'd done them differently; thinking over the things I had
said, and wishing I'd said them better.
"Then one morning, our class filed into the science laboratory, and there was the
teacher, Mr. Brandwine, with a bottle of milk prominently displayed on the edge of the
desk. We all sat down, staring at the milk, and wondering what it had to do with the
hygiene course he was teaching. Then, all of a sudden, Mr. Brandwine stood up, swept
the bottle of milk with a crash into the sink-and shouted: 'Don't cry over spilt milk!'
"He then made us all come to the sink and look at the wreckage. 'Take a good look,' he
told us, 'because I want you to remember this lesson the rest of your lives. That milk is
gone you can see it's down the drain; and all the fussing and hair-pulling in the world
won't bring back a drop of it. With a little thought and prevention, that milk might have
been saved. But it's too late now-all we can do is write it off, forget it, and go on to the
next thing.'
"That one little demonstration," Allen Saunders told me, "stuck with me long after I'd
forgotten my solid geometry and Latin. In fact, it taught me more about practical living
than anything else in my four years of high school. It taught me to keep from spilling
milk if I could; but to forget it completely, once it was spilled and had gone down the
Some readers are going to snort at the idea of making so much over a hackneyed
proverb like "Don't cry over spilt milk." I know it is trite, commonplace, and a platitude.
I know you have heard it a thousand times. But I also know that these hackneyed
proverbs contain the very essence of the distilled wisdom of all ages. They have come
out of the fiery experience of the human race and have been handed down through
countless generations. If you were to read everything that has ever been written about
worry by the great scholars of all time, you would never read anything more basic or
more profound than such hackneyed proverbs as "Don't cross your bridges until you come
to them" and "Don't cry over spilt milk." If we only applied those two proverbs-instead of
snorting at them-we wouldn't need this book at all. In fact, if we applied most of the old
proverbs, we would lead almost perfect lives. However, knowledge isn't power until it is
applied; and the purpose of this book is not to tell you something new. The purpose of
this book is to remind you of what you already know and to kick you in the shins and
inspire you to do something about applying it.
I have always admired a man like the late Fred Fuller Shedd, who had a gift for stating
an old truth in a new and picturesque way. He was editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin;
and, while addressing a college graduating class, he asked: "How many of you have ever
sawed wood? Let's see your hands." Most of them had. Then he inquired: "How many of
you have ever sawed sawdust?" No hands went up.
"Of course, you can't saw sawdust!" Mr. Shedd exclaimed. "It's already sawed! And it's
the same with the past. When you start worrying about things that are over and done
with, you're merely trying to saw sawdust."
When Connie Mack, the grand old man of baseball, was eighty-one years old, I asked him
if he had ever worried over games that were lost.
"Oh, yes, I used to," Connie Mack told me. "But I got over that foolishness long years
ago. I found out it didn't get me anywhere at all. You can't grind any grain," he said,
"with water that has already gone down the creek."
No, you can't grind any grain-and you can't saw any logs with water that has already
gone down the creek. But you can saw wrinkles in your face and ulcers in your stomach.
I had dinner with Jack Dempsey last Thanksgiving; and he told me over the turkey and
cranberry sauce about the fight in which he lost the heavyweight championship to
Tunney Naturally, it was a blow to his ego. "In the midst of that fight," he told me, "I
suddenly realised I had become an old man. ... At the end of the tenth round, I was still
on my feet, but that was about all. My face was puffed and cut, and my eyes were
nearly closed. ... I saw the referee raise Gene Tunney's hand in token of victory. ... I
was no longer champion of the world. I started back in the rain-back through the crowd
to my dressing-room. As I passed, some people tried to grab my hand. Others had tears
in their eyes.
"A year later, I fought Tunney again. But it was no use. I was through for ever. It was
hard to keep from worrying about it all, but I said to myself: 'I'm not going to live in the
past or cry over spilt milk. I am going to take this blow on the chin and not let it floor
me.' "
And that is precisely what Jack Dempsey did. How? By saying to himself over and over: "I
won't worry about the past"? No, that would merely have forced him to think of his past
worries. He did it by accepting and writing off his defeat and then concentrating on
plans for the future. He did it by running the Jack Dempsey Restaurant on Broadway and
the Great Northern Hotel on 57th Street. He did it by promoting prize fights and giving
boxing exhibitions. He did it by getting so busy on something constructive that he had
neither the time nor the temptation to worry about the past. "I have had a better time
during the last ten years," Jack Dempsey said, "than I had when I was champion."
As I read history and biography and observe people under trying circumstances, I am
constantly astonished and inspired by some people's ability to write off their worries and
tragedies and go on living fairly happy lives.
I once paid a visit to Sing Sing, and the thing that astonished me most was that the
prisoners there appeared to be about as happy as the average person on the outside. I
commented on it to Lewis E. Lawes-then warden of Sing Sing-and he told me that when
criminals first arrive at Sing Sing, they are likely to be resentful and bitter. But after a
few months, the majority of the more intelligent ones write off their misfortunes and
settle down and accept prison life calmly and make the best of it. Warden Lawes told
me about one Sing Sing prisoner- a gardener-who sang as he cultivated the vegetables
and flowers inside the prison walls.
That Sing Sing prisoner who sang as he cultivated the flowers showed a lot more sense
than most of us do. He knew that
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
So why waste the tears? Of course, we have been guilty of blunders and absurdities! And
so what? Who hasn't? Even Napoleon lost one-third of all the important battles he
fought. Perhaps our batting average is no worse than Napoleon's. Who knows?
And, anyhow, all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put the past together
again. So let's remember Rule 7:
Don't try to saw sawdust.
Part Three In A Nutshell - How To Break The Worry Habit Before It Breaks You
RULE 1: Crowd worry out of your mind by keeping busy. Plenty of action is one of the
best therapies ever devised for curing "wibber gibbers".
RULE 2: Don't fuss about trifles. Don't permit little things-the mere termites of life-to
ruin your happiness.
RULE 3: Use the law of averages to outlaw your worries. Ask yourself: "What are the
odds against this thing's happening at all?"
RULE 4: Co-operate with the inevitable. If you know a circumstance is beyond your
power to change or revise, say to yourself "It is so; it cannot be otherwise."
RULE 5: Put a "stop-loss" order on your worries. Decide just how much anxiety a thing
may be worth-and refuse to give it any more.
RULE 6: Let the past bury its dead. Don't saw sawdust.

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