You get what you give

CarolinaFireJournal - Ken Farmer
Ken Farmer
04/21/2013 -

Recently I have been in a reflective and somewhat pensive mood. It’s due to many things that are going on including recent surgery; a new year and some needed changes in my life. In addition, it seems that every week I hear about people who started their careers after I did choosing to retire for the good life. That’s a good thing for them but boy am I feeling old! I have also had several friends that have undergone serious shoulder, hip, knee and heart surgery. They have all done well and are healing well. When you add all of this together, it makes you stop and think about what is important in life. As an example, my recent surgery was technically simple and I went through it without any major setback or problems. I did worry about the “what if” something went wrong and my life plans were changed suddenly. Fortunately it went smooth.


When you add to that list the start of a new year when we all swear we will lose weight, clean out the garage, start everything new it all adds up! I started the year with a new approach to life on many levels. This sort of assessment makes you stop and consider what is really important in your life. Is it the new job, the fancy new car, the flashy clothes, that big trip — or maybe something simpler and more appropriate?

Like many of you, music is an important part of my life. I recently began to follow and listen to a southern rock/county band named The Zac Brown Band. They are based in Georgia and released an album in 2010 called “You Get What You Give.” This title struck home to me as the album is full of strong and sentimental music including such titles as “No Hurry,” “Who Knows” and “Colder Weather.” Each of these songs talk of how to keep pace with yourself instead of everyone else; how there is no need to hurry from all the pressure and decisions of life and how we never really know what the storms of life will bring. The lyrics of the songs carry a strong message also. As an example, one of the lines in a song called “Let it Go” says:

“Keep your heart above your head and your eyes wide open so this world will not find a way to leave you cold.”

More importantly, life has given me a time to think about what was important. It made me consider the following three simple rules:

1. Consider What People Will Remember About You When You are Gone

The late Steve Jobs was a famous advocate of connecting to his own mortality. In a commencement speech at Stanford University, he said: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important thing I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life, because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” These are sobering words from a man with as much money as any could ever want and yet as he approached his certain death, he clearly understood what was important. Many of you have read the poem called “The Dash” by Linda Ellis. ( The poem reflects on the short dash on your tombstone between your birthdate and the date of your death. In Ms. Ellis poem she says simply that the dash represents what mattered most of all. So true!

2. Write Your Personal Mission Statement and Hang it on the Wall

For many years, there has been a strong push to have all fire departments write an official mission statement that describes what they value and what they want to accomplish to serve the citizens. It’s important to have this written down and hanging on the wall so you will have a simple way to answer the question of “what are we here to do best each day?”

The famous author Stephen R. Covey’s advice in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is to take the time and write a personal mission statement. A personal mission statement is an individual statement of who you are, what you are about and what you value. The process of writing such a statement helps to clarify your inner-most thoughts and feelings, and once finished is something you can turn to for guidance. (If you are interested in writing your own personal mission statement, I recommend you consider Dr. Covey’s Mission Statement Builder at

3. Your Work May Define You But Your Family Is The Most Important

Most of us guys strongly believe that the most important thing in our life is our job or our hobby. We tend to wrap our entire definition of our level of success in this sole measure. I can tell you from my perspective that is simply wrong. When you hold your grandchild for the first time, give away your daughter at her wedding, hug your son you soon realize what is important in life. We have all made the mistake of choosing a work project over a family project. Please don’t make the same mistakes I have in the past. I once told my department that we were going to be driven by three guiding principles. These were:

  1. FAIR — my promise was that I would treat everyone the same and try to always be fair to everyone at all times
  2. FUN — we all need to have fun and enjoy our work and keep humor alive.
  3. FAMILY — Family is more important than any fire or any call. If you need to choose between going to your son’s ballgame and a call — go to the ball game every time!

In closing I hope these few words may help you in some small way in your daily decisions in life.

Ken Farmer is Section Chief, Leadership and Fire Risk Reduction at the National Fire Academy, United States Fire Administration in Maryland. Email him at [email protected].
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