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Priming the Pump

   One of the props I use in my talks around the country is an old-fashioned chrome-plated water pump.  I personally love the story of the pump because to me it represents the story of America, the story of the free enterprise system, and the story of life.   For your benefit, I hope you’ve had the opportunity of using one of these old-fashioned water pumps on at least one occasion.  That experience will help you to appreciate the significance of this series of thoughts.  

   Several years ago two friends of mine, Bernard Haygood and Jimmy Glenn, were driving in the South Alabama foothills on a hot August day.  They were thirsty, so Bernard pulled behind an old abandoned farmhouse with a water pump in the yard.  He hopped out of the car, ran over to the pump, grabbed the handle and started pumping.  After a moment or two of pumping, Bernard pointed to an old bucket and suggested to Jimmy that he get the bucket and dip some water out of a nearby stream in order to “prime” the pump. As all pumpers know, you must put a little water in the top of the pump to “prime” the pump and get the flow of water started.

   In the game of life, before you can get anything out you must put something in.  Unfortunately, there are many people who stand in front of the stove of life and say, “Stove, give me some heat and then I’ll put some wood in you.”

   Many times the secretary comes to the boss and says, “Give me a raise and then I’ll start doing better work and being more conscientious.”  Often the salesman goes to the boss and says, “Make me the sales manager and I’ll really show you what I can do.  It’s true I haven’t done much until now, but I need to be in charge in order to do my best work.  So just make me the boss and then watch me go.”  Many times the student says to the teacher, “If I take a bad grade home for this semester my folks will really lay it on me.  So Teacher, if you will just give me a good grade this quarter, I promise I’ll study real hard next quarter.”  My experience has been that it doesn’t work that way.  If it did, I could easily imagine a farmer praying, “Lord, if you will just give me a crop this year, I promise to plant the seed and work hard next year.”  What they are really saying is, “Reward me and then I’ll produce.”  But life doesn’t work that way.  You must first put something into life before you can expect to get anything out of it.  Now, if you’ll just transfer this knowledge to the rest of your life, you can solve many of your problems.

   The farmer must plant his seed in the spring or summer before he reaps the harvest in the fall.  He also “puts in” lots of work before the crop reaches the harvest stage.  The student puts in hundreds of hours of work before he acquires the knowledge and the graduation certificate.  The secretary of today who is the office manager of tomorrow puts a considerable amount of extra into her job.  The athlete of today who becomes a champion of tomorrow “puts in” a great deal of himself in the form of sweat and effort before he reaps the champion’s reward.  The junior executive of today who becomes the corporate president of tomorrow is that individual who put himself into the job.  The salesman of today who becomes the sales manager of tomorrow is the person who understands the principle of priming the pump.  When you put something “in,” the law of compensation says you’ll get something “out.”

Don't Stop Now

   Well, let’s get back to my friends in South Alabama.  South Alabama is hot in August and after a few minutes of pumping, Bernard worked up a considerable sweat.  At that point he started asking himself just how much work he was willing to do for that water.  He was concerned about the amount of reward he would receive for the amount of effort expended.  After a time he said, “Jimmy, I don’t believe there’s any water in this well.”  Jimmy replied, “Yes, there is, Bernard; in South Alabama the wells are deep and that’s good, because the deep well produces the good, clean, sweet, pure, best-tasting water of all.”  Jimmy is also talking about life, isn’t he?  The things we have to work for are the things we appreciate most.

   That which is easily obtained is generally not worth a great deal.  If you could become an MD in a six-week summer course, just how much would it be worth?  If you could become a super salesman by listening to a four-hour sales lecture, competition would be so intense your commission would be considerably smaller.  Go down the list and you’ll discover that those skills and objectives that require your blood, sweat and tears are the ones that bring the real satisfaction and rewards.  Back to the pump.

   By now Bernard was getting hot and tired, so he threw up his hands and said, “Jimmy, there just isn’t any water in this well.”  Jimmy quickly grabbed the pump handle and kept pumping as he said, “Don’t stop now, Bernard; if you do, the water will go all the way back down and then you’ll have to start all over again.”  That, too, is the story of life.  There isn’t a human being in existence, regardless of age, sex, or occupation, who doesn’t occasionally feel he might as well “stop pumping” because there isn’t any water down there.  So if you occasionally feel that way, it should be comforting to know that you’ve got lots of company.

Just One More Time

   Now let’s look at something intriguing and obvious.  There’s no way you can look at the outside of a pump and determine whether it will take two more strokes or two hundred more to bring forth the water.  There’s often no way you can look into the game of life and determine whether or not you’ll get the big break tomorrow or whether it will take another week, month, year or even longer.

   This I do know beyond any reasonable doubt.  Regardless of what you are doing, if you will pump long enough, hard enough and enthusiastically enough, sooner or later the effort will bring forth the reward.  I also know that just as you add nothing to the score if you stop on third base, you can’t quench your thirst with the water that almost comes out of the pump.  Fortunately, once the water starts to flow, all you have to do is keep some steady pressure on the pump and you’ll get more water than you can use.  This is the story of success and happiness in life.

   The message is clear.  Whatever you’re doing, work at it with the right attitude and the right habits, but above all, keep at it with bulldog tenacity and persistence.  Just as the flow of water is often one stroke away, the sweet taste of success and victory is often just over the hill or around the corner.  Whether you’re a doctor, lawyer, student, housewife, laborer or salesperson, once you get the water flowing, it’s easy to keep it flowing with a little steady effort. 

   We will never know how many youngsters missed winning a college scholarship because they didn’t study just 10 minutes more every day.  Or how many employees missed out on a promotion because they didn’t stay at their task just a few more minutes each day for a few more weeks.  Or how many sales were missed because the prospect wasn’t given just one more reason to make a yes decision today.

   I believe the story of the pump is the story of life and the free enterprise system.  I say this because it has nothing to do with age or education, whether you are black or white, male or female, overweight or underweight, extrovert or introvert, or whether you are Catholic, Jew or Protestant.  It has everything to do with your God-given rights as a free person to work as long as you wish, as hard as you wish, and as enthusiastically as you wish to get everything in life you really want.

   As you move to the top, remember the story of the pump.  If you start pumping casually or half-heartedly, you will pump forever before anything happens.  Pump hard to begin with and keep it up until you get that water flowing.  Then a great deal will happen.  Once the flow of water starts, just maintain that steady pressure and the time will come when the rewards will be so enormous that you’ll be getting what you want instead of having to want what you have.

   The analogy I used earlier of starting the locomotive is certainly appropriate here.  It’s often difficult to get the train started, but once it’s moving it requires considerably less fuel to keep it on its way.

   Now as you look at the symbolic you on the Stairway to the Top, you find yourself on the “work” step.  You are now ready to take the last or “desire” step, which will put you squarely in front of the glass doors of tomorrow that are ready to be opened by you.  At this point it is obvious that with a little extra “push” you have no need for “pull.”  So “push on,” friend; you’re just one exciting step from the banquet hall of life.

From See You At the Top, Pelican Publishing Company, 1974