Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
The following article was first published on October 19, 2005.
This story begins in the spring of 1954, not long after my eighth birthday. At this time in my life, two important events happened over the same weekend—Mother’s Day and the appearance of a traveling carnival. Both required money. Lots of money. Fortunately, after months of squirreling away most of my weekly 50-cent allowance, I was able to set aside six whole dollars—two dollars to buy my mom a pair of Mother’s Day earrings she had pointed out at a local jewelry store, two dollars for an unlimited ride pass at the carnival, and two dollars for food and bus fare.
When the appointed day finally arrived, I leaped off the bus and set straight off to buy Mom’s earrings. I was on a mission: first secure the earrings, and then go have fun. Unfortunately, as I approached the jewelry store I also drew closer to the carnival and its joyous and tempting sounds. To me, the rumble of the rides and the squeals from the children were the modern-day version of Ulysses’ sirens. Since I had neither a ship’s mast nor men to tie me to it, I eventually gave in to the irresistible clamor. I decided to put off buying the Mother’s Day earrings and go straight for the home of the Loopty-Loop. This was my first mistake.
I made my second mistake when I arrived at the carnival itself. Instead of going directly to the ticket booth and buying an unlimited ride pass, I wandered into the midway where a hoard of carnies tried to convince me to win Kewpie dolls, pinwheels, and the like. At first, I resisted the invitation to play the games. They weren’t in my budget and besides, who wanted any of that cheap junk?
And then I came across a booth that awarded winners a small cage containing a parakeet. I had never seen such magnificent birds. They weren’t just green and blue; they were fluorescent green and blue. And according to the nice carnie with the missing front teeth who worked the booth, you could teach the exotic creatures to talk. Plus the fellow had a “MOM” tattoo on his right bicep. It was fate. It was kismet. It was a sign.
“I would like one of the parakeets far more than the earrings,” the “MOM” tattoo whispered to me.
Hesitantly, I loosened my grip on my six dollars as I sized up the challenge in front of me. All I had to do to win the most extraordinary prize ever offered by a man with a pack of Lucky Strikes trapped under his right T-shirt sleeve was throw a dime and land it on a plate—a huge plate no less. And there were dozens of plates. So I took a deep breath and cashed in one of my dollars for ten dimes. I could practically see the smile on Mom’s face.
The first dime hit right on a plate—oh boy, oh boy, oh boy—but then it bounced off. But then it almost landed on another plate. This was going to be a breeze. Of course, it wasn’t one bit easy. After bouncing six dimes and winning nothing, I started having second thoughts. But then the fellow with the whispering tattoo told me not to worry. “You’re bound to win soon!” he promised. “Honest.”
And so went the two dollars I had set aside for food and return bus fare. But all wasn’t lost, I reasoned. If I won a bird soon, I would no longer need the two dollars I’d set aside for the earrings and I’d be back on budget. The next twenty dimes bounced pretty much like the first twenty. They would hit one plate, glance off another—and almost win me a bird. Almost.
As I clutched my last two dollars, I was tempted to walk straight to the jewelry store before it was too late, but then as I turned to exit from over my shoulder I heard one of the parakeets chirp, “Pretty bird!” In retrospect I believe the exclamation did indeed sound like “Pretty bird!” but only if spoken through missing teeth. In any case, I cashed in for twenty more chances to win the best present any kid had ever given his mom for Mother’s Day!
The three-mile walk home was a dismal one. I hadn’t eaten anything, I didn’t get to ride anything, I had no money, no earrings, no bird, and worst of all, boy, was I going to get a lecture!
As I trudged down the dirt road that led home, my next-door neighbor, George Lockhart, drove up in his milk truck. George arose every day at the crack of dawn and delivered milk to the front doors of various families around town. He was now on his way home. Normally I would have been thrilled to hitch a ride with George—you know, ride up front with a guy wearing a cool milkman uniform; maybe he’d even give me a fudgesicle. But not this day. I had just suffered the great parakeet debacle of 1954.
As I told Mr. Lockhart about my failed attempt to win my mother a bird, I explained how I had lost my entire six dollars to a game that looked ever so easy but was probably impossible to win. George nodded knowingly but didn’t say a word. Eventually, when we arrived at his house, Mr. Lockhart turned to me and said, “I’ve done you a good turn by giving you a ride home, would you do something for me? I’ve just had a new load of wood delivered and I need some of it chopped into kindling.” Then he handed me an ax.
Things were looking up. I wouldn’t have to go home and face the music—at least not right away—plus, I’d get to swing an ax. Now, before you go all safety-conscious on me, let me remind you that this was in 1954. Back then, eight-year-old boys went to the carnival unescorted, walked long distances alone, and yes, they even swung the occasional ax. Well, I did anyway.
After a couple of hours of fevered chopping, Mr. Lockhart reappeared, gave my stack of kindling a nod of approval, and said it was getting dark so I should go home. As I turned down the path that led to what would certainly be a stinging lecture, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked around and there stood Mr. Lockhart. In his right hand he was holding six one-dollar bills. “This is for the work you did,” George explained. Then he handed me the money, turned on his heel, and walked away.
Six dollars! It was a miracle! It was exactly what I had lost! I could hardly wait to get home and tell Mom what had happened.
When I returned to town the next morning, I made a beeline to the jewelry store and bought the earrings Mom wanted. (She wore them on special occasions for over fifty years.) When I made my way over to the carnival, I didn’t let myself walk within a half-block of the parakeets. I knew I’d be too weak to resist the temptation. Instead, I bought a wad of cotton candy, purchased an unlimited ride pass, and spun myself into oblivion.
I learned several lessons that day, but I think the most interesting one is about influence. When someone you know does something really stupid and your natural inclination is to lay on a lecture and lay it on thick—think about George. He knew better than to smugly point out my obvious poor choices. Before launching into the traditional diatribe laced with “what were you thinking?” and “hard-earned money,” he correctly assessed the situation. He realized my intentions had been pure and that I had most certainly learned my lesson, so instead of lecturing me or preventing me from trying again, he gave me a second chance. What a wonderful idea. He gave me a do-over.
Sometimes it’s just what the milkman ordered.