ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: WISDOM

By James M. Decker

On September 11, 2019, the legendary T. Boone Pickens passed away. He was far from perfect (as are we all), but he was inspirational. He was self made. He was a visionary entrepreneur who took daring risks. He was honest about his failures, alongside his successes. He never retired, working hard into his 90s. He improved the lives of countless people, by giving away a majority of his fortune. His foundation recently released his farewell letter. It was powerful, so today, I’m sharing an excerpt:

“If you are reading this, I have passed on from this world — not as big a deal for you as it was for me.

In my final months, I came to the sad reality that my life really did have a fourth quarter and the clock really would run out on me. I took the time to convey some thoughts that reflect back on my rich and full life.

I’ve long recognized the power of effective communication. That’s why in my later years I began to reflect on the many life lessons I learned along the way, and shared them with all who would listen.

If I had to single out one piece of advice that’s guided me through life, most likely it would be from my grandmother, Nellie Molonson. She always made a point of making sure I understood that on the road to success, there’s no point in blaming others when you fail.

Here’s how she put it:

“Sonny, I don’t care who you are. Some day you’re going to have to sit on your own bottom.”

After more than half a century in the energy business, her advice has proven itself to be spot-on time and time again. My failures? I never have any doubt whom they can be traced back to. My successes? Most likely the same guy.

Never forget where you come from. I was fortunate to receive the right kind of direction, leadership, and work ethic — first in Holdenville, then as a teen in Amarillo, Texas, and continuing in college at what became Oklahoma State University. I honored the values my family instilled in me, and was honored many times over by the success they allowed me to achieve.

I also long practiced what my mother preached to me throughout her life — be generous. Those values came into play throughout my career, but especially so as my philanthropic giving exceeded my substantial net worth in recent years.

For most of my adult life, I’ve believed that I was put on Earth to make money and be generous with it. I’ve never been a fan of inherited wealth. My family is taken care of, but I was far down this philanthropic road when, in 2010, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates asked me to take their Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. I agreed immediately.

I liked knowing that I helped a lot of people. I received letters every day thanking me for what I did, the change I fostered in other people’s lives. Those people should know that I appreciated their letters.

My wealth was built through some key principles, including these:

  • A good work ethic is critical.

  • Don’t think competition is bad, but play by the rules. I loved to compete and win. I never wanted the other guy to do badly; I just wanted to do a little better than he did.

  • Learn to analyze well. Assess the risks and the prospective rewards, and keep it simple.

  • Be willing to make decisions. That’s the most important quality in a good leader: Avoid the “Ready-aim-aim-aim-aim” syndrome. You have to be willing to fire.

  • Learn from mistakes. That’s not just a cliché. I sure made my share. Remember the doors that smashed your fingers the first time and be more careful the next trip through.

  • Be humble. I always believed the higher a monkey climbs in the tree, the more people below can see his rear. You don’t have to be that monkey.

  • Don’t look to government to solve problems — the strength of this country is in its people.

  • Stay fit. You don’t want to get old and feel bad. You’ll also get a lot more accomplished and feel better about yourself if you stay fit. I didn’t make it to 91 by neglecting my health.

  • Embrace change. Although older people are generally threatened by change, young people loved me because I embraced change rather than running from it. Change creates opportunity.

  • Have faith, both in spiritual matters and in humanity, and in yourself. That faith will see you through the dark times we all navigate.

I left an undying love for America, and the hope it presents for all. I left a passion for entrepreneurship, and the promise it sustains. I left the belief that future generations can and will do better than my own.

Thank you. It’s time we all move on.”

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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