Six or seven years ago, I was flying back home from upstate New York. It had been a good trip. I had flown over from Alaska to watch an acoustic show and concert performance of a band I enjoyed a lot, staying with a girl I had up to that point only known via a message board. I like to live dangerously.
Jenny took me to a hot dog festival (which was a total sausagefest but in a literal sense) and then the first and only frat party I had ever been to. I think I was 19. I recall winning flip cup on the lawn somewhere, a game that I am notoriously bad at and which I had no experience up to that point playing. Jenny and I had been mixing copious amounts of Grey Goose in bottles of vitamin water so we could, according to her, “rehydrate while we dehydrate”.
I ended up vomiting in the frat house bathroom and waking up with some girl’s number I didn’t remember getting and never bothered to call. I had the single worst hangover headache I had ever known. It felt like something was trying to climb out of my head and was making the attempt by slamming seven hammers in different directions against the inside of my skull. I spent the day recovering by laying in the sun and rooting for the Red Sox against the Yankees because, again, I like to live dangerously.
Anyway, I was only in NY for four days or so. I boarded my flight back to real life and found myself sitting in the middle seat in the last row on the plane. In the aisle seat was a quiet old lady I didn’t want to bother. In the window seat was a middle-aged guy. Early to mid-30s, I’d say.
We swapped names and stories, most of which I’ve forgotten over time. I remember he was moving somewhere to get a fresh start after selling off his half of a restaurant he co-owned with his best friend. I asked why he sold it and there were many reasons. The amount of maintenance was overwhelming. He never really wanted to own a restaurant in the first place. He found his friendship tested once he actually owned a business with her, and instead of risking that, he decided to sell and put some time and distance between them to cool everything down.
The following conversation is almost completely verbatim because I honestly can’t forget the earnest expression on his face the entire time.
“Wow. Well, you know…new directions can be healthy. Fresh starts and all that. What are you going to be doing now that you’re done with restaurants?”
“Making decoy ducks.”
“I make decoy ducks. It’s actually really lucrative.”
“…Decoy ducks. That’s, huh. That’s a very…how do you even get into doing that?”
“Well, while I was first starting thinking about selling the restaurant, this guy came and started telling me about it. I got interested, so I asked him what I had to do to get into that.”
“Yeah, is there like a class for that, or…”
“Sort of. We met up and he gave me this block of wood.”
“And he handed me a knife.”
“And he told me, ‘Now carve away everything that isn’t a duck.'”
“That’s really shitty advice.”
This guy went on to tell me that, yeah, it wasn’t much to work with. The first several attempts were awful. Eventually, though, it started to get the right shape. The wings grew detailed. The beak grew nostrils. The tail was edged. Then he went through the catastrophe that was learning to paint the things. But he grew better at it with time and practice and now he’s making money hand over fist selling fake animals so people can trick dumb animals into getting shot.
It was a bizarre conversation to me. I guess I knew that decoy ducks existed and logic would dictate that someone had to make them but it wasn’t something that ever occurred to me. Now there was this guy who, trying to figure out what direction to take his life, stumbles into this profession and the first and only things he is given is a block of wood, a knife, and the worst instruction ever.
But the more I thought about it, and it’s come to me more than once over time, that’s a fantastic metaphor for life. How often have you been between jobs and uncertain which direction you should go? How often have you wondered if you’re living in the right place or working in the right field or giving too much to the wrong people?
Uncertainty and the fear of failure are inhibitors. They keep you unhappy but content to stay where you are and doing what you’re doing because what if you screw up something else that could make you happier. But you know what? It’s incredibly rare for someone to get their life right all the time, the first time.
There are many variations of this message, but here’s the one I propose: It doesn’t matter if it isn’t perfect or if you screw up. The world is just a block of wood. Now carve away everything that isn’t your duck.