He was a veteran of the War of 1812. At age sixty-nine, John Burns was one of the few but oldest civilians to fight in the battle. As a former constable his instincts told him to establish some order in his town. But Mrs. Burns wanted her husband to exercise some common sense in the December of his years, and expressed her apprehensions in no uncertain terms.
Patriotic or just plain cantankerous, with an old rifle he left the comfort of his home, the care for his cows, and headed for the nearest fight. His age and past experience prepared him well for this temporary venture. Asked what he did in the fight, he responded: “Oh, I pitched in with them Wisconsin fellers.”
At one point in the battle, it was feared that he would be captured and shot on sight as a “bushwhacker.” If you were going to fight, you had to play by the rules. One rule said that in order to fight you had to be a real soldier. A quick-thinking officer swore in Burns as a volunteer, a baptism that was followed by plenty of fire.
Burns was wounded three times, and was lucky enough not to have a limb introduced to an unclean hacksaw for amputation. When the Union army had retreated, Burns was detained by a group of Rebels and claimed to be an innocent bystander, careful not to admit to his roll as an enemy combatant.
Because the press was hailing him as the “Hero of Gettysburg” four months later, President Lincoln asked John Burns to accompany him to a prayer service on the day he delivered the Gettysburg Address. But Mrs. Burns may have considered her wounded spouse the Shakespearean fool who rushed in where angels fear to tread. To the soldiers with whom he fought that day, Burns was an inspiration, demonstrating that you are never too old to fight for what you believe in.
Burns was later eulogized by American poet, Bret Harte:
John Burns – a practical man -
Shouldered his rifle, unbent his brows,
And then went back to his bees and cows.
Age and experience are assets.
Before you become involved in a situation that will demand a great investment of your resources at considerable risk, find a John Burns to influence you on what to do and what to avoid. Look to older retired people, or to those who have lost their jobs, or who are in second, third, and fourth careers. They and many senior citizens possess a wealth of experience, and many are perfectly willing to give it away for the sake of enhancing their sense of self-worth. Mrs. Burns may have been upset that day, but Mr. Burns was feeling the confidence that comes with past experience.
Once you have achieved expertise in a specialty, match your activities with your abilities. Stick with what you know and shine in your competence. It will influence others to judge you fairly as an expert. Otherwise, you stand to be wounded grievously and taken out of an enterprise in which you do not belong.
Enthusiasm is not enough.
Do not take a job as a carpenter if you cannot pound a nail. This is not to suggest that you should not challenge yourself to try something that is foreign to your experience. In fact, try things you have not experienced and obtain guidance on how to master a new skill. If you cannot develop a certain expertise after you have made a reasonable effort, move on to something else. America’s most respected basketball player, Michael Jordon, tried to be a baseball player. He quickly learned that baseball was outside of his training and expertise, a sport for which he could not develop a skill, no matter how hard he tried. Predictably, he returned to his area of competence – his area of influence. In the process he got back the confidence he needed to excel on the basketball court.
Copyright 2012 Paul Lloyd Hemphill