Guideposts Classics: Colin Powell on the Value of Dedication

In this story from November 1991, the former U.S. Secretary of State reminds us that whatever we do in life, someone is always watching.

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Colin Powell in 1991; Photo by Jerome Delay/Staff, Getty Images

Not long ago I faced an enjoyable yet formidable challenge. I was returning to my old neighborhood in the South Bronx to speak to the students of my old school, Morris High. As we drove down streets where my friend Gene Norman and I used to race bicycles, I thought of the pitfalls awaiting the kids living here. The drugs, the temptations, the crime. What could I say to encourage them?

As we passed the hamburger place that I used to haunt, I remembered my growing-up years here, the joys, the sorrows, the choices. Even then kids faced choices. There were drugs in my neighborhood and a youngster could gain easy access to them if tempted. But in my family, the decision was simple: You just didn't do it. We knew it was stupid and the most self-destructive thing you could do with the life God had given you.

Dad and Mom had moved to America from Jamaica. They both worked hard in the garment district, Dad as a shipping clerk, Mom as a seamĀ­stress. Our folks gave my sister and me structure. and direction; they made it clear they had high expectations for us. And kids usually live up to expectations.

Moreover, their guidance was buttressed by an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins all living in the area, keeping an eye on us. Someone was always watching. But that "someone" would be far more than just family, I was to learn.

At age 17 I found a summer job in a local soft-drink bottling plant at 90 cents an hour. I was thrilled. On my first day of work, having joined the ranks of other newly hired teenagers, I was full of enthusiasm. The bottling machines caught my eye, but only the white boys worked there. I was hired as a porter and the foreman handed me a mop.

I got to work. I mopped what seemed like acres of sticky, cola-stained floor. Today as I talk to young people who may face the same frustrations, I tell a story that mirrors my experience.

It seems there were three men who were ditchdiggers. They'd be out there every day, except that one guy would be leaning on his shovel talking about how one day he was going to own the company. The second guy leaned on his shovel and complained they didn't pay him enough. But the third guy just kept on digging.

Years went by, and the first guy was still leaning on that shovel telling how one of these days he was going to own the company. The second guy was still complaining about the hours and pay. But the third guy was now driving a forklift truck.

More years passed; the first guy, now gray-headed, still leaned on that shovel, saying, "One of these days I'm going to own this company." The second guy had retired on disability after a phony injury. And the third guy? He owned the company.

For me, that story has a moral to it. It says that in whatever you do, someone is always watching. Perhaps I was conscious of that fact as a teenager, for I decided to be the best mop wielder there ever was. Right to left, left to right. One day someone let 50 cases of cola crash to the cement, and brown sticky foam cascaded across the floor. It was almost more than I could bear. But I kept on mopping. Right to left, left to right.

At summer's end the foreman said, "You mop floors pretty good."

"You sure gave me enough opportunity to learn, sir," I said.

Next summer he put me to work loading bottles on the filling machine. The third summer I was deputy foreman.

Someone far more important was also watching, I learned. We Powells faithfully attended St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in the Bronx, where Dad was senior warden. I'll never forget when I was confirmed, the bishop laying his hands on my head and intoning, "Defend, 0 Lord, this Thy child with Thy heavenly grace; that he may continue Thine forever; and daily increase in Thy Holy Spirit more and more, until he comes unto Thy everlasting kingdom. Amen."

Those words gave me a deep assurance, and every year thereafter when I heard this supplication, that feeling of God watching over me was reaffirmed. Along with it was a sense of needing to live up to His expectations, and my family made it clear this involved getting all the education we could. Dad had never finished high school. "I want you to do better than I have," he emphasized.

Though I was in the "slow" class as a fourth-grader at P.S. 39 and a C student in high school, I managed to squeeze into City College of New York. Its main attraction was the tuition, $10 a year. My grades weren't the best, but I did well in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. In fact, had it not been for ROTC, I might not have had the grades to graduate.

The Army felt right to me, and when I graduated I was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Some folks in my family wondered: "Cousin Johnny went into law, cousin Cecilia is studying medicine, and here Colin, of all things, is going into the Army. He isn't in trouble or anything?" But Dad and Mom gave me their blessing.

Within four years of my 1958 graduation from college, I was assigned to Vietnam, where I began to find the truth in the adage that even when necessary, war is a terrible thing.

In 1963 I went to Fort Benning, Georgia, followed by further studies at the Army Command and General Staff College located at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. There I became interested in opportunities for an advanced degree in graduate school. This became a shining goal, and I decided I would apply despite only average college grades.

I'd come to recognize the value of striving to learn as much in and about life as I could. In fact, by that time I clearly recognized that one had to work especially hard for the things that were of value and importance. Out of a graduating class of 1,244 at Command and General State College, I ranked second. Upon graduation in 1968, I was sent back to Vietnam.

Not long afterward, the Army Times ran an article about the staff college's top five students. Again someone was watching. When my division commander in Vietnam saw the story, he pulled me in from the field to be his operations chief.

In 1969 my opportunity for graduate school finally came. I entered George Washington University, where I earned a master's degree in business administration.

In the 20 years that followed I held many military commands and served in the Pentagon and at the White House. In 1989 President Bush appointed me Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It has been a busy two years since.

As our car rolled on, our driver's voice broke my reverie. "We're here, General." I looked up at my old school; it hadn't changed much. As I walked up its familiar stone steps I remembered racing up them to beat the bell. The setting for my talk to the student body was the gymnasium.

"I remember this place," I told the students. "I remember it all. I remember running through Van Cortlandt Park with the track team, the route I used to take each day from my home on Kelly Street to school.

"I also remember, upon occasion, experiencing the feeling 'You can't make it,'" I continued. "But you can. When I was coming up, opportuniĀ­ties were limited. But now the opportunities are there to be anything you want to be. But wanting to be isn't enough, dreaming about it isn't enough. You've got to study for it, work for it, fight for it with all your heart, energy and soul, so that nothing will be denied you."

I wanted them to make the right choices, to work hard and not lose sight of a dream. And I wanted them to know that someone is always watching.

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