Green Eggs and Ham: The Wages of Simplicity

Why are the simplest things frequently the most influential? I was reading Dr. Seuss to my sons the other day and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the simplicity of his bestselling book, Green Eggs and Ham, a simple book that is, incidentally, one of the best-selling children’s books of all time!

Seuss wrote the book after his publisher, Bennett Cerf, bet him $50 that he could not write a book using only fifty different words. Seuss won the bet, using only the following words:

a
am
and
anywhere
are
be
boat
box
car
could
dark
do
eat
eggs
fox
goat
good
green
ham
here
house
I
if
in
let
like
may
me
mouse
not
on
or
rain
Sam
say
see
so
thank
that
the
them
there
they
train
tree
try
will
with
would
you

Not only did he write the story using fifty words, all but one of the fifty words are monosyllabic. Isn’t that wonderful?

I find that much of my job as CEO of several small business involves helping others to find ways to get the job done, the point across, the product to market, and so on, more simply. When asked why I advocate keeping things simple, I am quick to reply that complicated is expensive, overly-complex is confusing and confusion stops everything.

Every one of us is involved in bringing order out of chaos. Whether you work in marketing, sales, accounting or human resources, your effectiveness depends upon your ability to turn something messy into something presentable. Those who lack that ability are wise to find ways to develop it. So doing can increase your value to your employer, to your family and to the world, exponentially.

I am generally suspicious of people who use big words to dazzle others. They are more often than not trying to hide the fact that they don’t actually know what they’re talking about. Likewise, I am slower to warm up to those who have not taken the time to distill their thoughts and ideas than I am to someone who has obviously thought the matter through to the best of their ability.

That said, you must take care not to over-simplify. Rarely are things black-and-white; the key is to make things as simple as they are, not simpler. There is a sweet spot in every situation. Get to know it and you will lead an influential life.

Longfellow once said: “In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” I am inclined to agree!

The Seer with Vision Clear

Eastman's portrait of Longfellow in 1846

The heat wave we’ve been simmering under finally gave way yesterday and I couldn’t help but notice a sensation of the pressure being off in a more general sense. The shift was either precipitated by or perhaps just accompanied by summer rains and a soft overcast that stayed most of the day.

There is nothing like a good summer rain. As a nod to the lovely weather we’re experiencing I’d like to share another poem about summer with you, this time from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Rain in Summer

How beautiful is the rain!
After the dust and heat,
In the broad and fiery street,
In the narrow lane,
How beautiful is the rain!

How it clatters along the roofs,
Like the tramp of hoofs
How it gushes and struggles out
From the throat of the overflowing spout!

Across the window-pane
It pours and pours;
And swift and wide,
With a muddy tide,
Like a river down the gutter roars
The rain, the welcome rain!

The sick man from his chamber looks
At the twisted brooks;
He can feel the cool
Breath of each little pool;
His fevered brain
Grows calm again,
And he breathes a blessing on the rain.

From the neighboring school
Come the boys,
With more than their wonted noise
And commotion;
And down the wet streets
Sail their mimic fleets,
Till the treacherous pool
Ingulfs them in its whirling
And turbulent ocean.

In the country, on every side,
Where far and wide,
Like a leopard’s tawny and spotted hide,
Stretches the plain,
To the dry grass and the drier grain
How welcome is the rain!

In the furrowed land
The toilsome and patient oxen stand;
Lifting the yoke encumbered head,
With their dilated nostrils spread,
They silently inhale
The clover-scented gale,
And the vapors that arise
From the well-watered and smoking soil.
For this rest in the furrow after toil
Their large and lustrous eyes
Seem to thank the Lord,
More than man’s spoken word.

Near at hand,
From under the sheltering trees,
The farmer sees
His pastures, and his fields of grain,
As they bend their tops
To the numberless beating drops
Of the incessant rain.
He counts it as no sin
That he sees therein
Only his own thrift and gain.

These, and far more than these,
The Poet sees!
He can behold
Aquarius old
Walking the fenceless fields of air;
And from each ample fold
Of the clouds about him rolled
Scattering everywhere
The showery rain,
As the farmer scatters his grain.

He can behold
Things manifold
That have not yet been wholly told,–
Have not been wholly sung nor said.
For his thought, that never stops,
Follows the water-drops
Down to the graves of the dead,
Down through chasms and gulfs profound,
To the dreary fountain-head
Of lakes and rivers under ground;
And sees them, when the rain is done,
On the bridge of colors seven
Climbing up once more to heaven,
Opposite the setting sun.

Thus the Seer,
With vision clear,
Sees forms appear and disappear,
In the perpetual round of strange,
Mysterious change
From birth to death, from death to birth,
From earth to heaven, from heaven to earth;
Till glimpses more sublime
Of things, unseen before,
Unto his wondering eyes reveal
The Universe, as an immeasurable wheel
Turning forevermore
In the rapid and rushing river of Time.

Life is real! Life is earnest! (Be not like dumb, driven cattle.)

A Psalm of Life

Tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, – act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sand of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solenm main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Longfellow’s beautiful words filled me this morning with  renewed sense of commitment to the full and generous living of life.  How easy it is to fall into the well-worn rut of living “like dumb, driven cattle.”  All it takes is a steady resistance to the idea that you could be a “hero in the strife.”

“That’s not for me.”  “Somebody else will take care of that part of life.”  Excuses abound for not revealing heroism, genius and brilliance, don’t they?  “I’m not ready.”  “I’m shy.”  “I’m afraid of what people might think.”  “There’s nothing special about me.”  “I’m just an average Joe/Jane.”

Not true!  I firmly believe that each and every one of the billions of human beings born on this great planet over the ages had and those living have the potential for greatness.  Greatness is revealed as there is victory in the “world’s broad field of battle,” yet how few can say with any degree of honesty, “I have overcome the world.”

In what ways do you feel victimized by your world, your circumstances, the choices you’ve made in life?  While this is perhaps not the prettiest or most pleasant thing to look at, it does offer plenty of starting points for taking a new tack.  You, as a human being endowed with the capacity of free will, in an era of unprecedented freedom of choice, can overcome if you so choose.

How do you overcome?  By ceasing to struggle.  The presence of a struggle in your heart or your mind indicates subjection to that with which you are entangled.  Giving up struggle does not mean not caring.  Rather, releasing struggle involves opening yourself to the perfect answer, the right action, the best choice, given the circumstances at hand.  Remember the Chinese finger puzzle?  The more you struggle the tighter the grip of the puzzle.  This principle is well-known in hunting, as the preparation of traps typically involves its reliable operation.

You cannot achieve greatness if you are bound by self-imposed shackles of subjection.  Subjection is only a state of mind, yet it can imprison even the most potentially brilliant of men and women.  Take care not to relinquish your free will, lest you become “like dumb, driven cattle.”

Share

A visit to the “still wood”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Longfellow in 1868 by Julia Margaret Cameron
“An April Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow  

When the warm sun, that brings
Seed-time and harvest, has returned again,
‘T is sweet to visit the still wood, where springs
The first flower of the plain.
   

I love the season well,
When forest glades are teeming with bright forms,
Nor dark and many-folded clouds foretell
The coming-on of storms.
   

From the earth’s loosened mould
The sapling draws its sustenance, and thrives;
Though stricken to the heart with winter’s cold,
The drooping tree revives.
   

The softly-warbled song
Comes from the pleasant woods, and colored wings
Glance quick in the bright sun, that moves along
The forest openings.
   

When the bright sunset fills
The silver woods with light, the green slope throws
Its shadows in the hollows of the hills,
And wide the upland glows.
   

And when the eve is born,
In the blue lake the sky, o’er-reaching far,
Is hollowed out and the moon dips her horn,
And twinkles many a star.
   

Inverted in the tide
Stand the gray rocks, and trembling shadows throw,
And the fair trees look over, side by side,
And see themselves below.
   

Sweet April! many a thought
Is wedded unto thee, as hearts are wed;
Nor shall they fail, till, to its autumn brought,
Life’s golden fruit is shed.
   

My attention was drawn to this beautiful verse this morning:   

‘T is sweet to visit the still wood, where springs
The first flower of the plain.
   

The “still wood,” Longfellow writes, “where springs the first flower of the plain.”  How well do you know the still wood, metaphorically speaking, in your heart and mind?  “Where springs the first flower” – the birth of a new idea, a fresh thought, a spark of genius – “of the plain,” that is, into the unformed future before you.   

The future is shaped by the choices we make, the words we speak and the actions we perform.  Far too often the future is born of the ramblings of the madding crowd and not of stillness.  Stillness is reserved in the minds of many to some afterlife.  “Rest in peace,” the saying goes, but how little is penned about living in peace.   

Milton’s verse in Paradise Lost: “the madding wheels/Of brazen chariots raged” describes the experience of life of many in our modern era.  Raging chariots – no rest for the weary – unrelenting pressure to achieve eventually wear on even the strongest of men and women.  Why is stillness so out of vogue?   

It can be a challenge to find stillness yet it is always available.  It can be restored through breath, through prayer, through complete surrender or total concentration in an activity you love.  Stillness is a sacred place from which newness is born through you.    

Have a wonderful weekend!

Hymn to the Night

Thank you for your comments and attention over the last week.  It has been a remarkable one on many fronts, and I appreciate your willingness to take steps to improve your ability to interact with the world around you. 

I leave you tonight with a few words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Hymn to the Night

I heard the trailing garments of the Night
Sweep through her marble halls!
I saw her sable skirts all fringed with light
From the celestial walls!
I felt her presence, by its spell of might,
Stoop o’er me from above;
The calm, majestic presence of the Night,
As of the one I love.
I heard the sounds of sorrow and delight,
The manifold, soft chimes,
That fill the haunted chambers of the Night
Like some old poet’s rhymes.
From the cool cisterns of the midnight air
My spirit drank repose;
The fountain of perpetual peace flows there,–
From those deep cisterns flows.
O holy Night! from thee I learn to bear
What man has borne before!
Thou layest thy finger on the lips of Care,
And they complain no more.
Peace! Peace! Orestes-like I breathe this prayer!
Descend with broad-winged flight,
The welcome, the thrice-prayed for, the most fair,
The best-beloved Night!