My Grandfather’s Journal: Don’t Be Afraid to Try

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Donald Mortlock’s journal held by David John Marotta.

I have enjoyed rereading the journal of my maternal grandfather, Donald Mortlock. He started writing it on his 75th birthday. In the journal, he recorded both mundane details as well as profound thoughts.

My grandfather was part of the Episcopal religious tradition which used the Book of Common Prayer, filled with prayers for many different occasions. Today, spontaneous prayer is often considered more authentic. However, my grandfather preferred a prayer book that had been carefully written for good theology and stood the test of time.

His journal is filled with quotes and ideas that he thought were worth remembering or reflecting on. There is something very comforting about seeing my grandfather’s reflections in the quotes and concepts he chose to write down in the last few years of his life.

One of the very first quotes he put into the journal was one written by William Shakespeare. It is from Measure for Measure, Act 1, Scene 4 and reads:

Our doubts are traitors

And make us lose the good we oft might win

By fearing to attempt.

It is normal and natural to fear trying something that has a small chance of success. It is especially difficult for perfectionists or those who have high standards. However, making the attempt is good in and of itself. Even if we don’t fully succeed, we often learn something in the attempt that could not be learned ahead of time. It is in the process of trying that we develop a measure of mastery.

There are a handful of decisions that can ruin your life in a way that is difficult to overcome. Serious life regrets include marrying someone who treated you badly, getting hooked on drugs, or breaking the law. You can recover from these, but you will lament the spiritual death and wasted opportunities along the way.

In general though, people are more often filled with regret about what they did not try doing rather than what they tried and failed. Our lives can change course dramatically because of small attempts. If you let fear keep you from trying, it is easy to wonder what life would have been like if you had taken a chance.

Author Samuel Butler wrote, “Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.” Our faults are often embarrassingly obvious and humbling. First, we have to learn to play the instrument. Then, we need to learn to make our own music. It takes time and a willingness to have a venue for being bad while we are learning to improve.

Fearing failure, or even just embarrassment, keeps us from starting, from trying, from learning, and ultimately from having some measure of success.

It was nice to see the idea of attempting things in my grandfather’s journal because he modeled that attitude with much of his life, even in his retirement years.

My grandfather did not lead a quiet retirement. Initially, he retired to Milford, Delaware to be able to spend more time fishing. Finding no local Senior Center there, he decided to start one in 1969. He took them through the early formative years. Recently, the Indian River Senior Center celebrated their 50th Anniversary thanks in part to Donald Mortlock deciding that starting a senior center was worth the attempt.

The early years of many organizations are shrouded in a romantic haze of new beginnings. People think, “Oh, would it have been interesting to see when some great organization or social movement was first getting started.”

In reality, most beginnings are very ordinary. There is usually no romance when organizations are first getting started. Most beginnings are like the squeaky scratching of a novice violinist. You put up with them because you hope that things will improve.

My grandfather started the Indian River Senior Center with just 35 members in an Episcopal Church. Churches begin by setting up folding chairs in a school cafeteria. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Disney, and Hewlett-Packard all began in garages. Because of the humble beginnings, it is easy to miss the fact that something important is happening. Someone is overcoming their natural reticence and making an attempt to do something worthwhile. If beginnings were glorious, more people would undertake them.

The first time a paint brush is put to canvas, the result is not likely to hang in a museum. The first time words are crafted into a story, the result is not likely even to be sold.

Marotta Wealth Management began with my father and I meeting clients in the basement of my parent’s Charlottesville home. We sat on folding chairs around a ping pong table. On one infamous occasion, my mother had folded laundry stacked on the table’s other side during our client meeting. Between the orange shag carpet and the fake wood paneling, the most common question we were asked was, “Do you do this full time?” Our overhead was low and our advice was sound. As we took on more clients, we rented and then bought an office building.

Similarly, my grandfather’s initial efforts developing a senior center were met with ordinary gradual success. Starting with 35 people in November, 1969, they had 120 by the end of the year. By 1971, they had grown to 250. By 1975, membership passed 500, and they stopped taking new members because there wasn’t room for more. After that Donald Mortlock helped receive a grant for a new civic center and expand membership to 1,000. He lived to see it become successful and self-sustaining. Now, it is part of the legacy of good won by his life lived.

There is no age too old to begin a great endeavor. Even in failure, the attempt is honorable.

An article published in 1981 illustrates his attitude not to sit back and let fear of failure stop him from attempting great things. The article described the thousands of retirees of his generation who “give of their time and talents.” The article suggests that “if the generation that came of age in the ’70s was the ‘me’ generation, the generation now approaching age 70 might be called the ‘thee’ generation.” For my grandfather, starting the senior center was just another good thing to do with his life. The article reports:

Mortlock said he started the center because he was just not inclined to spend the rest of his life in a rocking chair. …

“We’re all volunteers so we can’t spend seven days a week there. We compromise and spend 6½.” he joked.

It is nice to have had a grandfather who was a model of industry and responsibility. New ventures can be all-consuming, but they can also change the course of time.

Later in his journal, my grandfather wrote the quote:

Success usually comes to one who is too busy to look for it.

This quote from Henry David Thoreau adds to the idea that those who are seeking success often do not have the perseverance to achieve it. But those who are working diligently, often find success after years of industrious labor.

There are several financial movements today that focus on retirement as life’s primary goal and an early retirement is an even more desirable goal. However, a life of leisure and recreation is not a fulfilling life. Every job, even our life calling, will have times when it is difficult and when grit and determination are required to complete the necessary tasks. Lost in a goal of retirement is the fact that we will likely always have a calling and a vocation. Retirement is not life’s goal. The goal of life is for you to fulfill your calling, which might also be your vocation.

There is a well known quote which is taken as the gospel which goes, “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.'” But that statement is simply not true. Many do die wishing they did more at the office .

I believe that doing worthwhile work is valuable both to others and also to your own soul. When we talk about a work-life balance, we implicitly suggest that work is not part of life.

In my grandfather’s encore career, he was able to work on an endeavor which did not pay a salary because his finances were secure. Work was a choice, not a requirement. He still chose to fill his retirement years with meaningful work. That is financial freedom, which I would argue is a better financial goal than retirement, the ability to work without the financial requirement of a specific income level.

In my grandfather’s journal, shortly after the quote from Shakespeare, my grandfather wrote this quote:

Footprints in the sands of time

Are never made by sitting down

I agree with my grandfather that we should not be inclined to spend the rest of our lives in a rocking chair.

Photo by Megan Russell.

Follow David John Marotta:

President, CFP®, AIF®, AAMS®

David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.