Avoid the Mulberry Bush at All Cost

Here I am autographing a copy of Journal of a Fast Track Life for our grandson, Ronnie. Chapter 23 chronicles an unforgettable incident that occurred during my basic training at Lackland Air Force base in 1961. Because it’s his favorite chapter, Ronnie and I always greet each other with the final words of that chapter: “Never ever quit.” See the excerpt below for the full story.

The year was 1961. The place was boot camp at Lackland Air ForceBase in San Antonio, Texas, in the summer. The specific incident was part of a rigorous daylong obstacle course exercise.

Midway through the obstacle course, my fellow troops and I were sent into a burning house with no gas mask, challenged to find ourway out safely. After a few desperate minutes, I found my way out. Somewhat disoriented, I stumbled outside only to hear some male voices singing, “Here we go around the mulberry bush.”

At first, I thought I was hallucinating. Then I saw three very tall, athletic guys holding hands and singing the mulberry bush song as a rough looking drill sergeant barked his orders. The sergeant was unrelenting and harsh.

I quickly realized that the problem was that these three guys had failed to scale the two-story cliff that was the next step on the obstacle course. I looked at the rope that was the key to scaling the cliff and glanced back at the three poor athletes who were holding hands.

All of this caused me to approach the cliff with strong determination. I was not about to let myself fail and have to hold hands with those guys and sing around the mulberry bush. Fortunately, my determination prevailed, and I scaled the cliff successfully.

For reasons I have never really understood, the image of those three athletes being humiliated by a drill sergeant has been imbedded in my mind for what is now more than half a century. It’s an image that has flashed to the forefront every time I have faced a difficult decision or challenge. It has consistently provided me with the will and determination to make bold and tough decisions at times when the odds have seemed stacked against me.

Throughout my book, I have chronicled many barriers that I have had to confront in my fifty-plus years on the firing line in the public arena. The voices of those three athletes singing about the mulberry bush resonated in my mind as I probed the Bernard King eligibility issue, as I plowed ahead with the “impossible” plan to merge the two community colleges in Memphis, as I fought to keep UT Nashville alive and relevant when the federal court case clouded its future, and as I raced uphill against all odds in the gubernatorial campaign. The list goes on and on outside the pages of this book, and ever present in every case was the memory of those three guys holding hands and singing.

Bottom line: Stand strong against all odds, steer clear of that dreaded mulberry bush, and never ever quit.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 23, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

The Third Decade of Life Crucial to Career

One of the most important decisions a college student faces upon receipt of a degree is whether to go on to graduate school or to enter the job market, and if the latter, which job. Too often, mistakes made at this juncture will limit one’s career options later in life.

The two most common mistakes I have observed are (1) opting to go directly into graduate school and (2) selecting the first job offer for the wrong reasons. The almost inevitable problem with the former is that the individual will consume the better part of his/her third decade of life in school pursuing Master’s or PhD degrees and emerge as a thirty-year-old with lots of degrees and no experience in the workplace. It is a mismatch that can, and often does, play havoc with an individual’s career aspirations. The reason, stated simply, is that the multiple degree-credentialed individual expects more pay than an employer who is looking more for evidence of workplace experience wants to pay.

The second common mistake relates to selecting a job based on the level of pay rather than on the opportunity to gain valuable experience and/or to learn from bosses who can serve as mentors.

My first full-time job was editing the weekly newspaper in my hometown. It offered two things that higher paying alternatives elsewhere failed to offer: (1) the opportunity to be a visible community leader at an early age, learning firsthand all aspects of the newspaper business in a small- town environment where rookie mistakes, which were inevitable, had minimal impact and (2) the opportunity to work for Coleman Harwell, former editor of the Nashville Tennessean and the man who hired famous journalists such as David Halberstam and John Seigenthaler. Harwell was my first mentor and later became a key figure in three of my most important career moves.

Mr. Harwell was a taskmaster. He expected perfection, even from a novice twenty-one-year-old editor. But he never asked me to do anything he was unwilling to do. Many nights I would leave the office at midnight with typewriter and paper to finish the news stories for the following day’s issue at home so I could be with my wife and son. Without exception, as I walked out the door, I would see Mr. Harwell, then nearing retirement, still toiling at the typewriter with the next day’s editorials.

When I decided to leave Harwell to go to graduate school in Nashville, he introduced me to John Seigenthaler, then editor of the Nashville Tennessean, and paved the way for nearly four years of solid experience working on a major daily newspaper. And relevant to the point of this lesson, it was Seigenthaler who then became a mentor and opened the door for the third major experience in my formative years from age twenty to thirty, serving as press secretary to the Democratic nominee for governor.

The important lesson is that during the formative years, gaining experience, visibility, and quality mentors are far more important than salary and perks. Short-term loss of potential income in return for long-term gain in experience from working with strong leaders and helpful mentors is a tradeoff that has paid rich dividends for me over the years.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 3. © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.