Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Hole in Our Backyard

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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Sometimes when I wake up it’s 1957 and I’m eleven years old. The genesis of this repeated misgiving is rooted in a time from my early childhood when my dad held a job at the local plywood plant and collected payments on magazine subscriptions at night. Between his two jobs, Dad earned enough money to put us just below the poverty line. We lived down a long, lonely, dirt road in a house so small Kareem Abdul Jabbar could have stretched out his arms and spanned the entire structure. But Mom had dreams. She would help us work our way to greater prosperity.

After trying a variety of failed home businesses, Mom read an ad in the local paper placed by an elderly couple who wanted to sell their college boarding house. The massive structure they were selling sat across the street from the local college and housed a gaggle of college girls. Mom immediately borrowed our neighbor’s car, drove to the domicile, met with the aging couple, and talked them into loaning her money so she and Dad could then make a down payment on the home.

“It’s easy,” Mom enthused. “All I have to do is cook breakfast and dinner for seventeen people seven days a week. How hard could that be?” The day after inking the deal, Mom was up at 6:00 a.m. making breakfast—which included throwing bacon on the grill at 6:20 a.m. Eventually, the smell of this frying bacon would awaken me just in time to complete my task of setting the table for the crowd. To this day, when someone arises early at our home and cooks bacon, I wake up to the familiar smell and think it’s 1957.

Thanks to Mom’s dream, our little family had climbed out of a shack in the woods and into a large and comfortable boarding house, but there was never any money left over for things such as vacations and college funds and I was now a teenager with an eye set on a higher education. So Mom put me to work painting the entire boarding house—four hours a day, every day, for three summers. “I’ll pay you when you graduate high school and I send you off to college,” Mom explained one day when I had the audacity to ask for money for the work I was doing.

But how would Mom earn the college money she had promised me? At first, she made wedding cakes. But that was a lot of work for a small profit. She needed to dream bigger. And then, it hit her. She lived across the street from a college, why not attend? So, in 1964 when I graduated from high school, Mom graduated from college and took a full-time job as a teacher—generating, as promised, whatever college funds I lacked.

And Mom’s dreams didn’t end there. After I married and graduated from college, Mom dreamed her way across the country to live near my growing family. After she and dad retired, she dreamed the two of them to Guadalajara, Mexico where they set up affordable living in a small American retirement community.

But not all of Mom’s dreams panned out. “What’s the hole in the backyard?” I asked Mom one day after returning from college to a new home Mom and Dad had moved to while I was away.

“I’m digging a swimming pool,” she explained with a straight face. She and Dad didn’t have the money to build a pool, but if Mom dug a hole, then maybe they’d find a way. Always the dreamer.

A few days later, I overheard a woman at church asking who my mother was. Another woman from the congregation explained, “She’s the lady with the hole in her backyard.” Apparently the word had spread of her harebrained scheme. What middle-aged woman digs her own swimming pool with a hand shovel? And it turns out the detractors were right. Mom never did finish the pool—just the hole.

Throughout her life, Mom had many detractors. “You’ll never be able to buy a boarding house. You have no money.” “You’ll never be able to settle in Mexico. How will you get there?” “You’ll never, you’ll never, you’ll never . . .”

And sometimes they were right. Years of cooking for seventeen people yielded no profits. Dozens of wedding cakes resulted in little money. And then there was always that hole in the backyard. People who only saw that hole and knew nothing of Mom’s other more successful endeavors thought she was zany—even irresponsible. Friends and family who heard of Mom and Dad’s misadventures as they pulled a trailer down the Baja to find affordable housing in Mexico shook their heads in disbelief. “She comes up with these crazy schemes, and then he has to live them,” Dad’s side of the family would lament. Everyone was always taking shots at the dreamer.

But Mom wasn’t your typical, high-profile dreamer. She wasn’t a Cinderella. Cinderella, as did most fairy princesses of her time, dreamed of the day she would be rescued from her plight and taken away to live in a sumptuous castle where she would live happily ever after. Just because she was nice and pretty, she would be rescued.

Unlike Cinderella, Mom never asked for or expected handouts. All she wanted was a chance to work her way to a new station in life. Her dreams always ended with her and Dad (and often me) working our way to the next rung up the ladder.

I share this with you today because with the recent economic downturn and the accompanying malaise, I see far too many people who have the courage to dream, fail. After enduring ridicule from the people around them, they give up. Many simply settle. They take a job they absolutely despise because they need the work and then stay on for years. Or they close their eyes and imagine better times, but in order to reach them they do little more than buy a lottery ticket. They hold out for the mathematically impossible.

Or, perhaps worst of all, they stop dreaming. Instead, they come up with unimaginative plans that lead to marginal improvements. They assume that setting mini-goals will take them to their Valhalla, when, in truth, they need bigger hopes, bigger plans, and a bigger harness. Equally important, when they run into problems (and they will), they need to see setbacks not as evidence that dreaming is futile and silly, but as helpful feedback on what needs to change. In short, they need to dream, try, fail, make adjustments, and then dream again.

And so today (on my mother’s birthday) I honor her and all others who fight for their dreams, despite the naysayers and setbacks. I honor those who not only have the courage to dream, but also the energy to fight for it. I honor those who, despite the occasional loss, dare to create one more dream because, unlike most of us, they open their eyes wide enough to see the fruits of their past efforts—not just the hole in their backyard.

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40 thoughts on “Kerrying On: The Hole in Our Backyard”

  1. Tweets that mention Crucial Skills » Kerrying On: The Hole in Our Backyard --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by rogwalter, Crucial Skills. Crucial Skills said: Crucial Skills: Kerrying On: The Hole in Our Backyard #newsletter […]

  2. Karen

    Here’s to backyard holes and dreams that never end. Thanks for the inspiration Kerry!

  3. Susan

    Thanks for the inspiration today! Happy Birthday to your mom!

  4. Kevin

    Home run!
    Thanks Kerry!

  5. Kathy

    Just when I think Kerry could not surpass the lessons he has taught us, he shares this. He is an inspiration beyond words!

  6. Kate

    A lovely story and a great reminder that just because others aren’t able to see your vision of the future doesn’t mean that it’s not real.

  7. Jodie Brown

    I truly enjoyed your story and thank you very much for sharing it with us. I believe ‘Dreams’ are the back bone of society, if no one reached for their dream where would we be today. Mahalo Nui Loa

  8. jacqui

    beautiful, inspirational story. Thank you for sharing

  9. Joseph

    Thank you for speaking from your heart and sharing these truths. You do honor your mother.
    Thanks Again!

  10. velda

    Thanks for the great article! I’m especially loving that bit about her being a dreamer, but not a Cinderella. That will be my affirmation of the day: “I am not a Cinderella!” Granted, I am lucky enough to have some great friends who help rescue me from time to time, but for the most part I think I’m doing okay. Even if people think I’m a little nuts 🙂 Thanks again.

  11. Young-Hee

    Thank you again for how you relate your childhood stories in mentoring and encouraging people. They are simple, yet powerful because they are real.
    Today, I honor you for honoring your mom and her dreams!

  12. Jenny

    Wow, this was just the perfect end to the perfect morning! I got up before the crack of dawn today to create my financial plan for getting my enrolled agent certification and starting my own business. I’m hoping that this step will fund the rest of my college education in financial planning. I’d like to help military families get out of debt and meet their financial goals. Going to law school with a wife and 4 children left my husband with mountains of student loans and personal debt. He’s now a JAG officer for the Army. These two factors give us a very tight budget. But, we should have enough to pay off our debt just in time to send our kids to college 🙂 I’m dreaming big today and actually (no joke!) just sent my older son out to the back yard with a shovel to fill in a hole. Thanks for today’s newsletter!! It was just what I needed 🙂

  13. sharon burr

    You tell the best stories – I feel as though I am with you.
    Your Mom sounds like a wonderful person – Bravo to her to dream when women did not have the opportunities as they do today.

    Happy Birthday Mom

  14. Colleen

    Amen! God bless and keep the dreamers. They make the world a better place one dream at a time!

  15. Trudy

    I agree with you, if part of what we’re dreaming is a march on Washington. I hope those of us who are underemployed now are not blaming ourselves for our lack of imagination. Dreaming big or not, because of the structural nature of unemployment (i.e., the “job creators” no longer need the American workforce), we may still be without a job or a way to earn enough to survive.

  16. Maxine

    Thank you for the encouragement. I, like your mother have had several aspirations and dreams. I have tried a few and did not fair well. I will keep on dreaming and trying.
    God Bless You and Keep You.

  17. Chip

    Thank you for this article! I am such a person as you described. Nearing 60 years old I was suddenly unemployed without a means to retire (yet). I took a secure, uninspiring job for lower wages just to make ends meet. My dreams of continuting my explorations of Scotland and Ireland that I began just a few years ago died completely. The hole, just barely begun, has sat undug in my backyard. Because of this article I now plan to examine my dreams and find ways to pick up that shovel to move that dirt. The swimming pool will be full of water yet!

  18. Anita Friedlander

    Great article! Your mom reminds me of my own. During the Cuban missle crisis many folks in Florida built bomb shelters, having not realized their futility in the atomic age. My parents wanted the shelter but had no means to do it. My mom, who was home with the four of us little kids, decided our shelter would be under our house which was built on an old brick yard. She began to dig out the underneath crawl space and haul wheelbarrows full of red clay morning after morning and dump it into a space near our back porch. Little by litte, she opened an earthen room surrounded by solid red clay while at the same time creating a mound of clay alongside our porch. Each evening, my dad came home and smoothed it into what became our patio. It was an amazing feat! Not only did my mom develop muscles and get very shapely after childbirth, she created a shelter she stocked with canned goods and water and we could access through a trap door in their bedroom! Our patio was a miracle of determination as it overlooked the yard and rose 20 feet on one side as we lived on a hill. This is the same woman who never finished college but sent my dad through, then went back, secured her degree, and became a computer programmer in the earliest days of computers. Her earnings from her second job paid off their mortage and bought her a second home at the beach! Dreaming big must have been her mantra. I recall a sign which hung in our home which had hung in her father’s store during the Depression. It said , “if you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?” Her favorite saying was,”God helps those who help themselves.” We could all take a lesson from these folks!

  19. David Crandall

    I loved this! Your analogy about being Cinderella and waiting for someone to come rescue you is so accurate. I’ve made a lot of changes this past year to break out of the Cinderella mold and it constantly amazes me how quickly people jump to criticize it.

    Thank you for the encouragement today!!

  20. Chris Medvescek

    Thanks Kerry, and thanks to your Mom too, for providing the unstinting encouragement that resulted in YOU! I hope you will consider submitting this column as an op-ed to newspapers or other media — in these times, there are a lot of us out there who need to know about your Mom.

  21. Jim Smith, PCC

    Best and most inspirational column you’ve ever written, IMHO. Thank you for sharing a beautiful story — as well as a very practical reminder about who’s in charge of my future: Me!

  22. Suzanne

    Boy, did I need that! When you are a dreamer and receive criticism from even your loved ones, you rely on yourself to stay positive. When self-doubt is lurking, a few words of encouragement from someone else at the right time goes a long way. Thank you!

  23. Roberta Stephens

    You have just told my story, I am your mother. I founded a business in 1994 and today we are still going strong. Many friends and family members were not supportive of my venture.

    thanks for sharing.

  24. Sherri Sutherland

    Thanks for another great story. I’m going to call my Mom now.

  25. Randy

    Once again… I stopped my busy day to read your story, and as always it was well worth it!
    By the way, I have started my dream of helping people… as a Hypnotherapist, and have blended some of the lessons taught in crucial conversations and influencer into a nice session. I’d be happy to talk further about it… Just contact me at Randy at myInsightUnlimited and I’d be happy to explain how I’ve taken CC and I to the next level.

  26. Bette H

    Awesome story! Bless you and your mom!

  27. Cindy O'Keeffe

    Glad I took a little blog-reading break! Seems people only share Big Huge Successes or Dismal Failures. Life is really a series of choices toward or away from our dreams – we flow along a continuum rather than live On or Off. Love how your post elegantly demonstrated that reality. Happy Birthday to you Mom 🙂

  28. Julie De

    As always Kerry, a very humble and insighful story that I always enjoy reading. Thank you for sharing and reminding us how important it is to dream, in order to become. I admire your Mother for always striving to do better for the sake of her family. She is a wonderful woman!!

  29. Ella

    Thanks Kerry. We can’t forget that this country was built on dreams. We have to keep dreaming and keep changing things (for the better).

  30. Cynthia Meadows

    Thanks for the great story and inspiration! Have to tell you I also dug a hole in my backyard for a fish pond and I finished it! Everyone thought I was nuts but I dug it shovel-ful by shovel-ful. It was 4 feet deep and about 20 feet long by 10 feet wide. No one can tell me I can’t do what I set my mind on! Laid in an enormous piece of lining, river rocks, plants and some goldfish. Your mom must have a shovel collection like me. The only person stopping any of us is really ourselves. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is tough.

    Also, I have been going through a rough time (no employment) and this has given me renewed strength.
    Thank you!

  31. Melanie Escott

    This was the best article ever written in this column. Thank you for sharing this triumphant story!

  32. Cheryl Smith

    This is a great reminder, and such a worthy tribute to a woman who’s impact is farther reaching than she, you or any of us will ever know. Bless you for sharing this here, on my daughter’s birthday, and for the reminder that sometimes dreams need adjusting. Other times they need a paint brush, and other times, they don’t come to fruition. But aren’t you glad your mom dreamed!

  33. Anne

    What a loving tribute to your mom–just goes to show you that every day is mother’s day in your heart. Thank you for sharing yet again what drives your world and inspires others.

  34. Darla

    Thank you for this article. I have two dreamers in my family, my brother and my sister. I have typically been the down to earth realest, however they are teaching me to dream and I love them for it. I sent this to them and my brother especially is having a difficult time right now and needed to read your tribute to dreamers!
    Thank You!

  35. Kristen

    Thank you for sharing that story. It impacted me on so many levels from being a strong mother to finding a vision in my business. As she had the courage to dream and see beyond her immediate circumstances so she has inspired many others to do the same!

  36. velda

    @David Crandall You’ve got a lot of people cheering you on, too. Keep up the good work!

  37. Jean-Francois

    Hi Kerry. Thanks for the inspiration this Monday morning. I passed this onto my 12-year old daughter who is an aspiring writer. Thanks again!

  38. Tom Hanley

    I love the way your mom’s dreams were “connected to purpose,” and that she took logical steps to make them come true. I am fond of these two quotes: “Without vision, the people perish,” and “If the dreams are big enough the facts don’t count.”
    Thanks for honoring your mom with this moving account of how she inspired you, and for sharing the power of a great story.

  39. Lynn Stephens

    Kerry – you are my favorite. Another great article. Thanks!

  40. John

    Awesome! Thank you for sharing!!

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