Wisdom in the Attic

Unknown-2I recently cleared out some old boxes in my attic and came across a stack of yellowed papers written some forty years ago by my father-in-law. The typewritten pages consisted of a series of observations, perhaps in preparation for a book, drawn from his life in Britain prior to World War II, his time in India and Burma during the war, and his post-war career as an advertising executive. I never met him; he passed away from cancer not long after pulling these thoughts together.

An important aspect of his life was his war experience. As a captain in Britain’s Indian forces, he was assigned to the defense of Burma against Japanese attack. The fighting in Burma was gruesome, and not just because of the tenacity and tactics of the Japanese aggressors. Poor weather, disease, and the lack of transport infrastructure were constants. These severely hampered replenishing supply lines and made any maneuvering difficult for the British troops. In their retreat they took heavy losses and many soldiers were separated from their units and forced to fend for themselves. My father-in-law was one such soldier. He survived for five months on his own, eventually found, riddled with malaria dysentery, by a Burmese family who nursed him back to health and helped him find his way to India.

Returning home after the war he embarked on a successful career, married, and raised a happy family. He rarely spoke of the war years. Doctors believed his too-early death may have been caused in some part by his exposure to the Burmese jungles during those years.

Given his rare human experience of having to survive totally on his own, no comforts, no food other than what he could find, gather or hunt, and no idea of how long he would be lost, among all of his observations I was most interested in his summary guideline to achieve success.

It was direct and simple: “Be yourself. Work on yourself. You are the best raw material you have got.”

So much career advice today urges us to change what we are, to develop a new “us”, to cure all of our weaknesses, or to be more demanding in order to receive our share of life’s rewards. In other words, to be more like what we have been taught to believe successful people are like, or more like those we are persuaded to imagine have more fulfilled lives than we do. Yet here is a man who had no option but to rely completely on himself, on his innate talents, attributes and virtues, in order to survive. He speaks to us from forty years ago. His message: identify and cultivate yourself; find your inner raw material and work it to your very best ability.