Provision #836: Bottom of the Barrel

Laser Provision

Today’s Provision continues last week’s theme, What’s Your Struggle?, by bringing in the lyrics to Amos Lee’s song, Bottom of the Barrel, the link to a live performance of the song at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, as well as the commencement address of Edwin Bridges to the Stanford University School of Education in August 2012. In other words, today’s Provision includes the words of others than of me. But these words speak to the theme and to me deeply; I hope they will speak that way to you as well. Enjoy. Appreciate. Learn. Grow.

LifeTrek Provision

Last week’s Provision, What’s Your Struggle?, had a simple message: everyone has struggles on the trek of life so hang in there and learn from them, when they come, in order to become a wiser and more compassionate person in the world. The greater the struggle the harder it is to do that; but greater is the learning opportunity as well. So set your sights and stay on course to the best of your ability and with the help of your family and friends. That, simply put, was the point of the Provision.

We’re going to explore that theme a little more today with the help of Amos Lee and Edwin Bridges. Amos Lee, if you don’t know, is an American singer-songwriter whose musical styles encompasses folk, rock, and soul. One of his songs has meant a lot to me through my own recovery process. It’s called “Bottom Of The Barrel” and I encourage you to click through to watch him perform it live at the 2011 Bonnaroo Music Festival. It really is a great piece of work. Here are the lyrics:

I keep on livin’,
to keep from cryin’.
I keep on dreamin’,
to keep from dyin’.
I keep on tryin’,
I ain’t gonna stop.

Get right down to the bottom of the barrel and float back on top.

We all know someone,
who’s always hurtin’,
The sun is shinin’,
they draw the curtain.
One thing for certain,
the pain ain’t gonna stop.

You get right down to the bottom of the barrel and then you float back on top.

Cuz I know the grass,
is always greener in someone else’s yard.
And the world is so much meaner,
when your heart is hard.

I go out walkin’,
in any season.
It could be rainin’,
it could be freezin’.
I don’t need no reason,
it’s just so pleasin’.
I can’t stop.

You get right down to the bottom of the barrel and then you float back on top.
You get right down to the bottom of the barrel and then you float back on top.

Those lyrics really speak to me. You don’t get much closer to the bottom of the barrel than I got through this whole health crisis;  but I’ve kept on living, dreaming, and trying to keep from giving up and dying. I encourage you to do the same through your own struggles, and I know you have them. Everyone is  engaged in some form of adversity. That perspective gives us the determination keep on hanging on as well as the perspective to be patient and kind with those who are struggling to find that determination for themselves. It’s not automatic and it’s not easy – but it is always possible.

This perspective is illustrated by a lovely story that was included in the commencement address given to the Stanford University school of Education a little more than 2 months before I had that first, fateful seizure in August of 2012. It was delivered by Edwin M. Bridges, who joined the Stanford faculty in 1974 and retired in 1999, and he delivered the address on June 17, 2012. I encourage you to read it through to think about how it may speak to your own life direction, priorities, and work. The bottom line: don’t forget to put first things first.

It is an honor and a privilege to be your commencement speaker. After accepting the invitation from Dean Steele, I consulted my oldest and one of my dearest friends. Since he had served as the president of four Canadian universities and the Chairman of the Board for a fifth university, I knew that he had listened to many commencement speeches and delivered a few as well.

Over a Guinness one afternoon, I said, “George, what advice could you give me?” He paused, leaned over, and spoke softly and slowly. Here is what he said: “A commencement speaker is like a body at an Irish wake; the organizers need you for the party and don’t expect you to say much.” I intend to follow my friend’s advice and talk briefly about how my life was changed following a taxi cab ride I took more than 40 years ago.

Before recounting this story, however, I would like to preface my remarks with a few details that don’t appear in my bio or curriculum vitae. They provide a context for the important lesson I learned during my taxi cab ride. Elliott Eisner speaks of career planning as an oxymoron. Others refer to professional careers as a happenstance or just plain luck. They are right as far as I am concerned.

To these cogent observations, I would add the words spoken nearly four decades ago by one of my three sons, then 6. At the dinner table one evening, my son said, “Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a baseball player. What do you want to be when you grow down?” How prophetic that question was. Since retiring, my height has shrunk 2 inches, and I am still trying to figure out what I want to do next. My professional career certainly had a life of its own.

As a 16-year-old, I walked across the stage at Hannibal High School in Hannibal, Missouri, to receive my high school diploma. Having received first place in the state for a news story I had written for the school newspaper, which I edited, I planned to enter the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri and become a reporter.

To offset my expenses, I worked one summer in a shoe factory and another summer as a Gandy Dancer, an occupation immortalized in a song titled, “The Gandy Dancers Ball.” Believe me, it was no ball. During the day we laid railroad tracks in the hot Missouri sun, drove spikes, shoveled gravel, and set railroad ties. At night we slept in boxcars on a railroad siding. The closest I came to journalism school was to marry one of its graduates, Marjorie Anne Pollock, who became the reporter in the family. Next month we celebrate our 58th wedding anniversary and a wonderful life together. That was one of the best choices of my life.

Now let me turn briefly to that fateful taxi cab ride and the lesson I learned that had a profound effect on my life. The lesson I learned concerns choices. Every choice involves a sacrifice, for oneself and for others. That statement is hardly profound; however, its consequences are. Often, we are so blinded by our wants and desires that we ignore the sacrifices inherent in the choices we make. My work in the shoe factory and later as a Gandy Dancer led me to appreciate that everyone, regardless of their station in life, has wisdom to share if you bother to listen.

Many years ago I flagged a cab in Chicago and began a conversation with the cabby. Here is what he said that influenced my life: “I wanted a nice home for my family in the city, a summer home on Lake Michigan, and a car for my wife and each of my two children. To afford these, I needed to work two full-time jobs. And, indeed, we had the nice home, the summer home on Lake Michigan and cars for everyone in the family. But my wife divorced me, and my children would have nothing to do with me. By working two jobs, I got what I wanted, but I lost what I had. What I had was more important to me than what I wanted.”

This cabby, fine man that he was, was so blinded by his desires that he failed to consider the sacrifices for his family and for himself. Sadly in my experience, this is an all-too-common mistake. Equally sad: if I had been riding with the same cabby today, I probably would not have learned this valuable lesson. Instead of listening to him, I would have been talking on my cell phone, surfing the Internet with my smart phone, texting, or tweeting.

In light of this cabby’s story, let me ask each of you in the audience and on stage two questions: 1.”What are the three or four most important things in your life?” and 2.”What sacrifices are you unwilling to make no matter what the choice or opportunity is?” These are tougher questions to answer than you might think and even more difficult to act upon. I know from my own experience.

Not too long after the cabby told me his story, I created a mental list of the things in life that meant the most to me. This list exerted a major influence over my choices for the rest of my professional career: 1. my family; 2. my students, including teaching and advising; and 3. my research and writing on practical problems, no matter how controversial they were or whether they were valued by members of the academy.

With the benefit of hindsight, I should have added a fourth – my own personal health. With all due respect for my former deans: annual reports and faculty meetings did not make my list. Thanks to that cabby, I can enter the checkout line when my time comes with few regrets. I am not estranged from my four children. My wife and I like, as well as love, each other. I have students who continue to care about me as I continue to care about them. I also have several really close friends, the kind who feel comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings with each other.

Strangely, the more I paid attention to the sacrifices and set aside my desire for professional recognition, the more recognition I received. At every Irish wake, it is customary to offer a toast to the body. Instead, let me offer a toast to this year’s graduates. May you experience success, enjoy your journey, and end your life with few regrets because you did not let your desires blind you to the important sacrifices inherent in your choices.

Coaching Inquiries: What helps to keep you going when life gets tough? How would you describeyour life priorities? Why have you embraced them as your own? Are you happy with them? How might they be changed to better reflect your true self, to better express your true values, and to better contribute to the wellbeing of those you love and of the world at large?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


There were no replies to last week’s Provision. I miss reading your thoughts replies. What do you think of the material in this week’s Provision? How does it move you or set you going on your own trek of life? You can reply to this email or use our online Feedback Form. Thanks!  


May you be filled with goodness, peace, joy, and health.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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