From Small Minds

Posted on July 9, 2012


I have a book called The Magic of Thinking Big. It’s a great title, because it explains the entire book in five words, which is why I’ve never read the rest of it. The cover promises that you’ll “acquire the secrets of success and achieve everything you’ve always wanted.” That’s a pretty ambitious claim. But then, the book has sold more than four million copies since it was first published in 1959, so we’re obviously attracted to ambitious claims. Sales would have probably been less impressive if it had said: “Acquire the secrets to barely making it through the day without ruining your life.”

Again, I haven’t read the book, and so it’s conceivable that I, too, could now be enjoying financial security, a high-paying job, and much power and influence. I did flip through the pages once, and saw that they were filled with those fake, outdated stories about door-to-door salesmen who refused to listen to the naysayers and went out and earned ten times what their co-workers were making, eventually retiring with a summer cottage and a sailboat, while their friends couldn’t pay the bills and had to work at the gas station until they died. I suppose that’s possible. My problem is that I get tripped up by words like naysayer. That one makes me think of a goat, for some reason, and I find myself wondering what goats sound like. The sound a horse makes is called a neigh, which is a homonym of nay, and that may partly justify my confusion, even though horses and goats are not very much alike. From there, I sometimes drift away to the fact that people eat food while farm animals eat feed, and I try to imagine why we needed both terms. None of this has anything to do with big thinking, but I’m just explaining why I have trouble getting through a book like that.

The truth is, I dwell on the small things. While other people are gazing upward and dreaming huge dreams, I’m scouring the ground for stray pennies. Ben Franklin wisely said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Of course, that was in 1737, when a penny could buy an acre of land, twelve chickens, and three sacks of flour, with almost enough left over to get a halfway decent beaver hat. Judging by the number of pennies I see on the ground in the mall parking lot, I’m the only person who still bothers with them. This is neither a complaint nor an excuse. I believe small thinkers provide a valuable service, although I’m too busy picking lint off my shirt to identify what that service might be.

Lint, you surely understand, comes from clothing as it gradually breaks down in the laundry. One of my private fears is that the timer on the clothes dryer will suddenly stop working, the machine will run forever, and all of my underwear will completely disappear. This seems irrational, I realize, but that’s one of the hallmarks of a small-thinking mind.

A hallmark, by the way, was originally a stamp used to verify the quality of precious metals. It’s no coincidence, then, that the word reminds me of incredibly overpriced greeting cards. But back to metals. I’ve been wondering a lot lately about iron. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, everything was made of iron: kitchen utensils, tools, bridges, cannon balls, gates and fences, door hinges, and nails, as well as enormous steam trains, the tracks they ran on, and the spikes that held the rails to the ties. Even the furnaces used to make iron were made of it. But where did all of that iron come from? How did anyone know where it was? I’ve been digging in the ground my whole life and I’ve never found any metal, except for a rusted socket wrench last September, and I was probably the one who lost it in the first place.

Somehow, humans everywhere and throughout history have been locating, extracting, and inventing uses for iron, copper, nickel, gold, and many other shiny rocks. We eventually figured out how to purify and combine these metals to make wire to conduct electricity, extremely thin filaments to light our homes, and microchips to store information inside our computers. I use the word we there in the collective sense, a trick small thinkers employ whenever they feel the need to create the illusion of personal accomplishment.

Not that we waste all of our time.

Last week, in a flash of productivity, I was scrutinizing a bag of nuts. On the front of the bag, it said in large, bold letters: Almonds. In addition, there were pictures of almonds, and peeking through a transparent window in the bag were dozens of actual almonds. On the back, below the nutrition information, it said this, in nearly unreadable seven-point type: “Allergy warning — contains almonds.” A momentary dread came over me as I worried about the survival prospects for someone with a lethal sensitivity to almonds who had somehow missed all the clues on the front of the bag. In much the same way, I felt a real concern when I spotted this tiny line hidden on a jug of bleach: “Harmful if swallowed.”

•  Just this morning, I was studying a box of Life cereal. There was a picture of a bowl filled with the cereal, and some milk had been poured in. A spoon rested next to the bowl, and under the picture it said “Serving Suggestion.” That seemed helpful, so I made a mental note. As I ate, I swallowed carefully, mindful of my tendency to begin choking on absolutely nothing. It’s a daily incident that lasts for several long minutes, leaving me teary-eyed and gasping for breath. Why does this never happen to the president-elect as he’s giving his victory speech, or a newscaster who’s advising us that on very hot days we should stay indoors and drink a lot of water? Also, why are there so many smart people who don’t know how to spell refrigerator?

•  When I’m driving my car and I go under a low overpass, I duck my head. Do you do this? It’s an especially ridiculous practice, because if the roof of the car is going to get torn off, no doubt so will our heads. In a similar way, when turning into a tight parking space, I lean my body to one side to avoid hitting the other car. That actually seems to work.

•  I recently came to the sad conclusion that I’m never going to know if Bigfoot exists. There was a flurry of activity on the subject a while back, but all subsequent progress appears to have stalled. I don’t care what they look like or how they live; I’m more intrigued by the terminology. Will the plural be Bigfoots or Bigfeet? Now that I see them together, they both look wrong. What sound does a Bigfoot make, and if it’s a neigh, will that create more confusion? What if they make no sound? They’re always pretty quiet in those videos, and in a big hurry to get somewhere deep in the forest. What could they be up to?

In truth, there are many more important issues I should be spending my time on. I’m aware of that. However, I prefer to leave the big ideas to others. To quote Franklin again, “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” I have no desire for a summer cottage or a sailboat. But I do gaze upward occasionally, especially at night, and dream huge dreams. One of mine is to get a really good telescope, the kind you can attach a camera to. I want to take pictures of the moon and planets. And I will, someday. Toward that end, I’m off to search for discarded pennies. There are always some around the pumps at the gas station, and covered with lint in the clothes dryer. I may even sell my copy of The Magic of Thinking Big. I bet I could get twenty-five cents for it, easy.