I have been developing an encouragement curriculum, and I was trying to think of an example of someone who took a really long time to complete his or her work.
If you Google to find examples of late-life success, you’ll see some of the same names show up over and over. People like Col. Sanders, who became a chef in his 40s and franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken in his 60s. If you Google to find people who overcame failure, you’ll see that Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first TV job or that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
But I was wondering if I could find a different type of example. Maybe someone sort of like Mr. Holland of Mr. Holland’s Opus, who had this thing he always wanted to do – this creation he was always working on – but life got in the way, and his life became the creation he was working on. Because that would be a good list too.
Then I thought of John Harrison. Some years ago, I read Dava Sobel’s book Longitude, which recounts the experiences of an Englishman who in the 1700s was a carpenter and clockmaker of no particular renown. One of the greatest problems of his time was the inability for sailors to accurately determine their longitude while at sea, and Harrison took it upon himself to solve this mystery.
Latitude was easier to figure out with the zero line being fixed at the equator. Observe what the heavenly bodies are doing, and you can discover latitude. To Harrison’s way of thinking, however, if you want to know your longitude, you’ve got to know what time it is aboard the ship and what time it is back home. Then you can compare the two times to know where you are. But this was the issue: long voyages produced variations in temperature, humidity and pressure that affected timekeeping at sea. And sailors got lost.
Don’t ask me to explain any more than that. It’s not something I understand very well. I’m just telling you about something I read a long time ago.
In any case, in 1714, the British Parliament enacted the Longitude Act offering a prize to whoever could figure out the longitude puzzle. So a clockmaker with no formal education or esteemed credentials began his life’s quest to design a clock that could accurately keep time at sea.
It took Harrison five years to build his first clock; the second took three years to build, plus two for testing, but he abandoned that version when he discovered a flaw. He spent 19 years working on clock number 3, but it did not perform as he wished. Then he began to work on the concept of a sea watch for his fourth maritime clock – the first of which took six years to complete.
All the while, he also faced resistance from the scientific community, and there were competing ideas, broken promises, falling outs and all sorts of thing that got in the way of his pursuit. His life’s work was a battle through these external forces as much as it was a scientific puzzle, and he didn’t get his prize until he was 80 years old.
Yet what Harrison did counted for something. He didn’t know that it would, he only knew that it could. And he kept going.
In 2002 he came in 39th in a BBC poll of the 100th greatest Britons. If you’d told him somewhere along, say, 1750 or 1760 that future recognition was ahead, I can imagine he would have said, “Are you kidding me?” Especially in light of those who opposed him and his inability to get his timepiece to work as he wished.
So, yes, John Harrison is an example of someone who took a long time to complete his work. And that’s a helpful example for me to remember as I continue with some of the things I am trying to do.
You could say that this curriculum I’ve been working on took about 30 years to develop because I had to live it first and learn from my mistakes. Plus I had to work out the delivery method.
When I first started thinking about an encouragement platform, I had this idea that I wanted to start my own publishing company. At the time social media had not yet been invented, and only the technical people knew about the Internet. I pictured inspirational gift books, and I thought they belonged in gift shops. The format and media have since evolved into something that looks quite different – a series of online courses.
So Story Shaping has its roots in that long ago dream, that once-upon-a-time notion. Yet just like the sailors of old, the long voyage of my life produced variations in temperature, humidity and pressure that often left me feeling adrift. And I got lost a time or two.
Still, it’s getting closer.
In the meantime, I’m going to give you a three-week break from this newsletter as I complete my work and you enjoy the summer heat. See you on July 19. Until then…
Enjoy your magnificent journey.
– Minnie Lamberth
The Magnificent Journey
Vol. 2, Issue 24