Take first things first

By Henrylito D. Tacio

On the night of April 14, 1912, the great ocean liner, the ‘Titanic,’ crashed into an iceberg in the Atlantic and sank, causing great loss of life. One of the most curious stories to come from the disaster was of a woman who had a place in one of the lifeboats.

She asked if she could return to her stateroom for something and was given just three minutes. In her stateroom, she ignored her own jewelry, and instead grabbed three oranges. Then she quickly returned to her place in the boat.

Just hours earlier, it would have been ludicrous to think she would have accepted a crate of oranges in exchange for even one small diamond, but circumstances had suddenly transformed all the values aboard the sinking ship. The emergency had clarified her priorities.

“The last thing one knows is what to put first.” When Blaise Pascal said those words, he was actually talking about priorities.

American president Dwight Eisenhower himself said, “The older I get the more wisdom I find in the ancient rule of taking first things first – a process which often reduces the most complex human problem to a manageable proportion.”

To succeed in life, you must know your own priorities. The legendary industrialist, Henry Kaiser, when asked to give his philosophy of success, replied: “Decide what you want most of all out of life, then write down your goals and a plan to reach them.”

One of the reasons why most people fail is because they don’t know which things to do first. A young concert violinist was once asked about the secret of her success. “Planned neglect,” she replied. Are you curious? Well, here was her explanation: “When I was in school, there were many things that demanded my time. When I went to my room after breakfast, I made my bed, straightened the room, dusted the floor, and did whatever else came to my attention. Then I hurried to my violin practice.”

She continued, “I found I wasn’t progressing as I thought I should, so I reversed things. Until my practice period was completed, I deliberately neglected everything else. The program of planned neglect, I believe, accounts for my success.”

In other words, her top priority was her violin practice. The rest were second things. “The reason most major goals are not achieved is that we spend our time doing second things first,” said Robert J. McKain.

In setting priorities in life, you must know the most important of them all. In January 1984, American Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts announced that he would retire from the U.S. Senate and not seek reelection. They were all surprised by his announcement. After all, he was a rising political star. He was a strong favorite to be reelected, and had even been mentioned as a potential future candidate for the Presidency or Vice Presidency of the United States.

What many didn’t know that a few weeks before his announcement, Tsongas had learned he had a form of lymphatic cancer which could not be cured but could be treated. In all likelihood, it would not greatly affect his physical abilities or life expectancy. The illness did not force Tsongas out of the Senate, but it did force him to face the reality of his own mortality. He would not be able to do everything he might want to do. So what were the things he really wanted to do in the time he had?

Tsongas decided that what he wanted most in life, what he would not give up if he could not have everything, was being with his family and watching his children grow up. He would rather do that than shape the country’s laws or get his name in the history books.

Shortly after his decision was announced, a friend wrote a note to congratulate Tsongas on having his priorities straight. The note read: “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business.’”

Once you know the most important thing in your life, be sure to set your mind on it and do your best to achieve it. In 1985, a sickly child was born in Upper Alsace who was slow to read and write and was a poor scholar. But as he few up, he made himself master subjects that were particularly difficult, such as Hebrew. In music, he turned out to be a genuine prodigy, playing the organ at eight when his legs were scarcely long enough to reach the pedals. At nine, he substituted for the regular organist in a church service.

His name was Albert Schweitzer, and everyone knows how early manhood he had several professional lives proceeding concurrently. At the University of Strasbourg, he earned his first Ph.D. in philosophy, and then went on to win doctorates in theology and music theory. By the time he was 30, he had a flourishing career as a concert organist and was publishing a stream of books.

But then, he abruptly stopped his academic career in order to study medicine and devote the rest of his life to being a missionary. This sudden shift was due to a magazine article about Congo which he had read. “While we are preaching to these people about religion,” it said, “they are suffering and dying before our eyes from physical maladies.”

Schweitzer had found his top priority in life, and he began to lay plans to go to Africa. Friends protested: if the aborigines of Africa need help, let Schweitzer raise money for their assistance. He certainly was not called upon to wash lepers with his own hands.

But Schweitzer found his ally through his wife-to-be, Helen Bresslau. He bluntly proposed to the daughter of a Jewish historian: “I am studying to be a doctor of the Negroes of Africa. Would you spend the rest of your life with me – in the jungle?”

Her reply surprised him. “I shall become a nurse,” she told Schweitzer. “Then how could you go without me?”

And on Good Friday of 1913, the couple left for French Equatorial Africa. For more than 50 years, he served there, eventually to become a Nobel laureate and a legend.

“Too often the opportunity knocks,” Rita Cooledge once said, “but by the time you disengage the chain, push back the bolt, unhook the two locks and shut off the burglar alarms, it’s too late.” — ###

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