Category Archives: Goal Setting

Muley Sykes: A Man Whose Job Was His Calling

Gary North

Steve Spurgin is one of the most talented performers I have ever seen. He writes great songs, sings them flawlessly, and plays an acoustic guitar better than most, but without flash.

For four decades, he has had a calling. I define “calling” as the most important thing you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace. His calling is to perform. The trouble is, there aren’t a whole lot of people who have seen him perform. It’s not a job that has matched his income with the level of his talent. Like most men who try to make a living from their callings, he has never made it onto Oprah.

One of his songs is about a man with a calling. It is the only song I have ever heard that gets across the idea of the driving power of the calling in a man who has clearly been called. The lyrics grabbed me.

I use this song in a course I teach in the Memphis inner city to adults who do not have jobs. Some of them have never had a steady job. My task, as I see it, is to explain the difference between a calling and a job.

I know their first jobs will not be exciting, high-paying, or prestigious. But that first job is a step in the development of a career. If they see the larger picture, they may not get discouraged and quit that entry-level job.

Spurgin’s song is about a porter on a passenger train, back in the days when passenger planes provided ear-popping experiences for the rich. Trains were for the middle class. It’s title: “Muley Was a Railroad Man.” Here are the lyrics.

Muley Sikes had one gold tooth,
An Elgin watch, and a porter’s suit.
He hustled bags for fifty years,
And he worked the railroad line.

From overalls and cotton fields
To spit-shine shoes and rumbling steel,
His life was made to roll on rails.
And that suited Muley fine.

His old Pap never got so far as
Twenty miles from a sharecrop farm,
While Muley, he’s seen shooting stars
From Denver up to Maine.

He loved the gentle, rolling sway,
The sound the lonesome whistle made.
He knew his calling from the day
That he first saw a train.

Muley was a railroad man,
From Portland to Miami’s sand.
He knew that in this great big land
There’s nothing like a train.

He’d tell the children stories
How the rails were laid by hand.
And they knew his name
From coast to coast.

Muley was a railroad man.
Muley was a railroad man.

He’d spend his off-days at the yard.
And he knew each engine there by heart.
He could have taken one apart,
But they never let him try.

He said, “We’ve all got a gift to use.
Some drive the train; some shine the shoes.
The engineer may get folks there,
But me, I make ’em smile.”

He always spoke about the time
That Woodrow Wilson rode the line,
And tipped him twenty dollars, gold,
He carried ’til he died.

But he’d have praised the Lord
If someone laid a quarter in his hand.
God put him here to ride the trains.

Muley was a railroad man.
Muley was a railroad man.

Muley spent his golden years
Explaining throttles, wheels, and gears:
Caretaker for the train museum
At the Dallas County fair.

He’d tell you how the whistles blew,
The engines roared, and the cinders flew.
When he got to heaven, he just knew
They’d still be running there.

He lived to be a hundred-four.
He died in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
Laid to rest in his porter’s cap,
A double eagle for his fare.

And when I step off heaven’s train,
He’ll have my bags in hand.
With a smile and a “Yes, sir,
Right on time.”

Muley was a railroad man.
Muley was a railroad man.

Muley was a railroad man.
Muley was a railroad man.

A song never sounds the way we think it will when we read the lyrics. This one is no exception. For a sample of the song, click here.

Muley knew what he wanted to do with his life as soon as he saw a train. Most people never experience this early. It’s love at first sight. I had the same experience at age 18. It changed my life.

Second, he was content to shine shoes, yet he had a mastery of all aspects of the operation. “He knew each engine there by heart.” African-Americans were legally and socially limited in what they could achieve in that era. Porters were an exception. They could have good careers in an undistinguished field. That is sometimes the nature of a calling: undistinguished but good.

Third, he was committed to the customer. “We’ve all got to give to you.” He understood his task: to make them smile.

Fourth, he did his job with enthusiasm for five decades.

Fifth, he stuck with the field after he retired. He tried to show people what was great about trains.

Spurgin wrote this song years after encountering a porter who impressed him as a child. This song is a testimony to what a calling is: God-given. When you find yours, pursue it even after you retire, if you retire.


What’s Holding You Back?

Gary North

Lots of things, of course. We live in a world of scarcity. We cannot get everything we want at zero price. We can barely get anything we want at zero price.

But these same sorts of things are holding back everyone else, too. So, why are a few people so far ahead of you?

The fact is, almost everyone is ahead of you in something. That is the great gift to society of specialization. In a free society, each person is legally free to pursue his interests, using his skills and capital in an attempt to achieve success as he or she defines it. The rest of us are just not interested in matching most people in their pursuit of happiness, excellence, or money. “Do your own thing,” Americans say, and they generally mean it. “To each his own.” They mean that, too.

I am speaking about your thing. What’s holding you back?

Let’s round up the usual suspects.


The bills come due each month. You have to hustle to pay them. “Money doesn’t grow on trees!” (True enough; it grows in the computers of fractionally reserved banks.)

You are out there buying money. You buy it with your innate skills, your time, and your years of experience. You trade time for money.

Almost everything in life is a trade-off between time and money.

If you are short of money in modern society, you are long on time if you’re in the middle class or higher.

In the allocation decisions between time and money, you must conserve the resource that you value most highly. Most people say they worry more about money more than they worry about time. But if they kept time stubs the way they keep check stubs, their records would testify against them. They are profligate with their time far more than they are profligate with their money. They waste more time than they waste money.

The great time drain today is television. Radio preceded television, with similar results. I think of Jack Benny’s running gags about money. “Your money or your life,” the radio thug told him. “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!” was his legendary reply. He got rich kidding about his obsession with money. He got rich because so many people allocated so many hours listening to him, and then went out to buy the products his sponsors promoted.

Jack Benny was a net gainer in the transaction. So were his listeners, or else they would not have listened. But they, unlike Benny, put a low price on their spare time.

There ain’t no such thing as free time (TANSTAFT). It’s our only unrenewable resource. We should allocate it wisely.

If Americans had skipped “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” had gone to sleep 90 minutes early, and had gotten up 90 minutes earlier to work on their businesses and careers, the American economy would have grown by an extra 10 percent per year — minimum — for three decades. The Tonight Show was expensive. I can hear Ed McMahon. “How expensive was it?” I can hear Carson: “It was so expensive that. . . .” I just can’t think of anything funny.

Television is a time-sucking monster. It should be treated as an addictive drug.

If you have a problem with money on the expenditure side, you need help with budgeting and self-control.

If you have a problem with money on the income side, start managing your time better. You are letting time dribble away. Time is money.

In the time-money trade-off, the ignored issue is time-preference. It’s about how you value the future in comparison with the present.

We all value the present more highly than the future because we live in the present. But some people value the future more highly than others do. They are future- oriented. If there is one characteristic that marks the highly successful person, it is high future orientation.

Harvard’s political scientist Edward Banfield a generation ago called this outlook the upper-class mentality. Class position has more to do with a person’s outlook on time than the amount of money in his bank account. Present-oriented people are lower class. Economist Ludwig von Mises called this orientation high time-preference.

Three features mark present-oriented, lower-class cultures and societies: high interest rates, high illegitimacy rates, and low economic growth rates.

So, your lack of money is not your biggest problem. Look elsewhere.


You don’t have a college degree. Or you don’t have a master’s degree. You don’t have a license. You don’t have a certificate.

You are like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz before the witch was dead.

In the good old days, there were fewer degree-granting institutions. The result was greater legal freedom to enter a new field. Only a few fields were closed to outsiders by degree requirements: the ministry, law, and medicine. This exclusion began early: the twelfth century for ministry and law. It took longer for medicine.

Today, the main barriers to entry are institutional: formal certification by one or another government-licensed trade monopoly. Call it restraint of trade.

But because the screening system is widespread, there are lots of loopholes. If you can’t get into one school, you can get into another. Decade by decade, the minimal performance standard moves ever lower in almost every field.

In very few fields is an above-average IQ the primary screening factor: nuclear physics, chemistry, and a few other narrow professions. In most fields, the ability to endure years of mental drudgery is primary.

Money is not necessarily the main barrier. Ignorance of alternatives is. It is possible to earn a bachelor’s degree in four years for under $11 per hour on a part-time basis. But not many people know this. They needlessly pay retail for college.

If you are willing to give up television for four years, you can get through most of the hoops that bar your upward move. But most people are unwilling to do this after age 25. That is their barrier to entry. It need not be yours.

If you lack certification, you can get it. The cost is mainly time. Blame something else.


I think this is the biggest single restraining factor in most people’s careers.

People tend to assume that they have a minimal competitive advantage. They think, “Everyone knows what I know.” They do not recognize the nature of specialized knowledge. They assume that knowledge is widely shared. Access to knowledge in a free society is widespread. The Web has made it even more widespread. But a specific aptitude isn’t. Specific experience isn’t.

Employers pay for specific performance that enables the company to produce whatever it is that specific consumers want to buy at specific prices.

What is your specific advantage? You have one. If you didn’t, you would be working at the counter of a fast food restaurant. You would by pressing illustrated buttons on a computerized cash register. The cash register would make change.

“Anyone can do what I do.” This is not true. Hardly anyone can do it. Even fewer can do it better than you can.

If you were to put in an extra two hours a day on learning how to do it better, you would gain a far greater advantage within three years. But there is a better way.

Most people are more comfortable burrowing deeper into their niche than they are learning how to market their skills. They focus on polishing what they already know. They do not learn the techniques of broadening the market for what they already know.

This is why so few people climb to the top of their field. They become technicians. There is a market for technicians, but employers know that technicians have tunnel vision, especially regarding employment opportunities elsewhere. Even if technicians have knowledge of the market outside corporate headquarters, they lack the knowledge of how to exploit this demand for their own advantage.

Because technicians lack self-marketing skills, they are fearful of being cut off from the umbilical cord of a predictable paycheck — predictable as long as the company doesn’t go under or get swallowed up in a merger.

People lack self-confidence because they lack the following: (1) knowledge of the job market; (2) knowledge of how the techniques for increasing demand for their specific skills; (3) knowledge of what motivates consumers; (4) knowledge of where to start learning what they don’t know. All of this adds up to a lack of self-confidence.

Start working on this. It is probably your #1 problem.

But how? By dealing with subordinate problems.


We speak of having the courage of our convictions. The courage of most employees is minimal because their convictions are minimal. They think: “I’m mediocre. Safety first.”

In my first full-time job, I saw the handwriting on the wall within months of being hired. The pay was never going to be great, although it was the best offer I had. In the region where I lived, wages were high. I was going to fall behind if I stayed.

The job demanded little, but it offered only one path to advancement: replacing the boss. The boss said he was going to stay on until he died, which he did a dozen years later. I knew I had to get out.

I spent a year trying to find a way to get out.

I eventually found a way. That escape hatch proved to be a mirage. I quit again, with no alternative employment. I immediately got another offer. It turned out to be more of a dead end than the first job, but it allowed me to launch my newsletter, “Remnant Review,” which I still publish. “Remnant Review” was my life preserver. Its income let me take more chances. I did not spend it. I saved it.

By the end of the decade, I was making twenty times what I had made when I began. But the pace was faster, and the risk was greater.

If I had kept that initial job, you would not be reading this. I would also not be rich. I would not have written 40+ books. (Ten, maybe.) However, I might not have white hair.

When you perceive that you are facing a dead end, start looking for an off-ramp. If necessary, drive off the highway and go looking for an on-ramp on another highway.

If you can stay on the dead-end road long enough to find a paved off-ramp, that’s best. But it’s not always possible.

I did not leave my first job in search of wealth. I left it in search of significance. I knew I was in a cocoon. Butterflies want to get out. I had spent too many years in graduate school as a caterpillar. It was time to break free.

Most people are unwilling to break free. This is why they become contented with a caterpillar’s life. But they see the sky and long to fly.

Are you afraid of heights? Look for a landing pad close to your cocoon.


Motivation is internal. It is based on an internal assessment of external conditions. You compare where you are with where you could be, given your skills and opportunities.

At the beginning of a career, most people don’t know their limitations. Most people think they are more limited than they really are. What they lack is experience. This is why the military requires boot camp. It is also why it has ranks. Within the ranks are significant barriers: non- commissioned vs. commissioned officers, captain vs. major, full colonel vs. brigadier general. To get beyond each barrier, men must abandon their comfort zone.

The tyranny of the comfort zone is mild but ruthless. Beware the comfort zone.

The most effective period for breaking through a military career barrier is during a war. The enemy produces holes in the chain of command. It is easier to become an officer in wartime than in peacetime. You get promoted if you survive. There is a lot of motivation to survive.

Profit-generating employees rise rapidly in a company that is facing tough competition. College degrees count for less than black ink. It is when market competition is replaced by government licensing that advancement depends on certification.

People say, “I want to be successful.” Yes, they do: at zero price. They want success on their terms, not the market’s terms.

When people say, “I want to be successful, even if it costs me everything I own,” they are serious about success.

Most people are somewhere in between.

Where are you?

If your goal in the future is big enough (external), and if you don’t discount the future steeply (internal), then you are likely to be highly motivated. If your present array of talents and capital is minimal (external), but you are emotionally committed to achieving your goal (internal), then you are highly motivated.

It is problematical to say that positive internal motivation will overcome external circumstances in most cases. Frankly, I suspect that it won’t. But this kind of internal/external motivation ratio is a common characteristic of people who are successful. I see it as analogous to running the race. Most competitors don’t win, but all would-be winners must run.

The main inhibiting factors are these: (1) a minimal goal; (2) minimal capital; (3) high time-preference. In such circumstances, a lack of courage, money, and self- confidence produce paralysis.

I think most people who are not internally driven to achieve a significant goal blame their failure to achieve much on their lack of capital. What is inherently an internal problem is blamed on external circumstances.

When people are not highly motivated, the other inhibiting factors take over.

It boils down to this:


What do you want to achieve?How long will you work to achieve it?What are you willing to pay?The larger the goal, the more the effort is required and the more time is required to compensate for minimal capital.

I believe from my observations that capital is less important than the size of the goal, unless a person is close to the end of his career. Yet even here, no one knows for sure. Ludwig von Mises arrived in the United States as a refugee, almost penniless, in 1941 at the age of 60. Over the next quarter century, he established his reputation here, although it never matched his reputation in Europe in 1930 during his lifetime. Today, a generation after his death, he is better known than he was in 1930. 


Something is holding you back. The question is: How can you overcome the premier inhibiting factor in your life?

It would not be a bad idea to spend the weekend reassessing your capital, your top goal, and the time you probably have remaining to you.

How steep a discount do you apply to your goal? The lower the discount, the more likely you can achieve that goal.

Think back to your decision to get married. Talk about a leap in the dark! How much money did you have? How much education? Not much. But you were highly motivated. You were self-confident — just this once. You showed courage — just this once.

Considering the permanence of that decision, and the high cost of escaping from it, career decisions are minor. Yet men seem paralyzed when facing a career change. They prefer to burrow deeper into their niches if they are willing to do anything extra at all. Worse, they bide their time. This used to be called punching the clock. They inserted a time card into the clock, which stamped the card. The card recorded their physical arrival and departure.

Their mental departure took place long before they stopped punching the clock.

Life Expectancy. When Setting Lifetime Goals, Begin Here.

Gary North

We all know the warning: “Don’t run out of money before you run out of month.” We need to budget our money to match our salary period.

That sounds easy enough, but it’s very difficult for most people. American households are now failing to do this. The household savings rate has gone negative in recent quarters. Americans are not cutting back on their spending. They are spending by drawing down their savings or even borrowing to pay the bills.

I trust you are not among them. But you still should work on budgeting.

The crucial budget ratio is the income/time period ratio. Are you likely to run out of money in any time period?

Let’s apply this to the longest relevant time period for your budgeting: your life expectancy.

Have you ever used an on-line life expectancy calculator to see what the statisticians say about your expected longevity? Probably not.

You should.

It’s best to get a second opinion. Here are two calculators that I have used. Just click.–lifeevents–longevityThe second one is clever. The results, when you’re finished, are in a box in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.

Remember: Half of the people will live longer than the age that the calculator produces.

The older you get, the longer the projection is.

See if you’re doing your best to bankrupt Social Security ahead of schedule.

The Confirmation I Received in June of 1959

Gary North

June 29, 2009

Fifty years ago this month, I graduated from high school. As part of the graduation liturgy, the school held an awards ceremony for seniors.

I won a California state scholarship for college. Several students did. There were other awards. I don’t remember them.

I remember a remark by another student. “I wish I had won an award.” That was an honest statement.

The student was a goof-off. He had never shown any interest in academic things or athletic things. He had never distinguished himself at anything. He had drifted through high school. He had been in only one class with me. He had never said anything in class. He just sat there.

At the time, I thought to myself, “this guy never understood what it takes to achieve anything.” Today, half a century later, his statement to me is the only thing I remember about him.

That incident confirmed my determination to set plans and execute them. A year later, I set my lifetime goal: to find out what the Bible says about economics. I am still working on this project. I have written over 30 volumes on this topic. I have many more to write. This took planning.

Maybe he changed. Maybe he attained something significant. But unless he changed, it is unlikely that he achieved much. Habits set at an early age stick with us. We must actively seek to replace them with better habits.

Goal-setting is rare. Setting plans for attaining these goals is more rare. Sticking with them for a lifetime is exceedingly rare.

Start with lifetime goals. Then shorten the time limit. You attain lifetime goals by mid-term and short-term goal-setting, planning, and execution.

You Need Goals Beyond Debt Freedom if You Expect to Attain and Keep Debt Freedom.

Gary North

 “There is more to life than staying sober.” — James A., AA member

An Alcoholics Anonymous member wants to stay sober. But there is more to staying sober than wanting to stay sober and having a plan to stay sober.

James A. got sober in 1955 and stayed sober until he died in 2005. He told others who wanted to get sober and stay sober that they needed to have goals beyond staying sober. Then they needed a plan to reach these goals.

Similarly, there is more to staying out of debt than wanting to get out of debt.

There are negative sanctions for being in debt. They range in intensity. There are far more positive sanctions for being out of debt. They range in greater intensity.

It’s kind of like Adam in the garden. There was only one thing he was not allowed to do. Everything else was legitimate. There was only one negative sanction facing him: death. The positive sanctions were so numerous as to be effectively infinite. He ignored these goals and went for this one: to know good and evil. Especially evil.

You need goals. You need a plan to reach these goals. You need positive sanctions in your plan to reach your goals.

You know all about negative sanctions for not paying off your debts. But at some point, if you follow the advice on this site, you will reach the goal of being debt-free. Then what?

It is like a fat person who sets a weight goal and reaches it. Then what?

To stick to a plan for getting out of debt and making the negative sanctions go away, you need a plan for achieving personal goals that will produce positive sanctions.

Your first step in setting your lifetime goals is to understand what your calling is. What is a calling? This: the most important thing you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace.

It takes action to convert a to-do list to a changed life. Taking action is the difficult part. Taking systematic action over a lifetime is rare. This is why so few people leave behind the legacy that they could leave. Their lives dribble through their fingers.

Your Job or Your Calling: Which Comes First in Your Life?
Gary North
This is the story of a man who died well . . . and amazingly. . . . keep reading
The Confirmation I Received in June of 1959
Gary North
It was something a fellow student said. . . . keep reading
Life Expectancy. When Setting Lifetime Goals, Begin Here.
Gary North
I did this years ago. It has helped me focus. . . . keep reading
What’s Holding You Back?
Gary North
Debt is not the main restraint. But it’s a big one. . . . keep reading
Calling vs. Occupation: Get This Distinction Straight.
Gary North
If you are like most people, your job is not your calling. What is your calling? To find out, start here. . . . keep reading
Muley Sykes: A Man Whose Job Was His Calling
Gary North
Muley Sykes is fictional. The song about him is real. . . . keep reading
Money Is a Result. It is Not a Wise Goal.
Michael Masterson
Here, a multimillionaire tells why money is not #1. . . . keep reading
Cheating Yourself for a Lifetime
Gary North
Focus. Focus. Focus. . . . keep reading
Success in Life: Imagine Your 75th Birthday Party. Prepare an Outline for Your Speech on Your Greatest Successes
Gary North
I gave this assignment to a group of high school students. . . . keep reading
Goals Come in Stages. Smaller Goals Should Precede Big Goals. Becoming Debt-Free Is a Fine Preliminary Stage.
Gary North
We all know this, but most people don’t plan their lives in terms of it. . . . keep reading
Update Your Resumé Soon
Gary North
This is always a good idea. In a bad economy, it’s crucial. . . . keep reading

Get Expert Career Advice for Under $1.00 (2009).
Gary North
In a multitude of counselors, there is safety, says the Proverbs. Counselors are cheaper than you think. . . . keep reading

Career Plans

Gary North

If you have concrete plans, you will find it easier to reduce your debt. Make these plans concrete.

This will take you at least an hour if you do it correctly. Think through all aspects of your present career.

First, write down where you are today. Consider why your employer keeps you on the payroll. You must be clear about the benefits you sell to your employer. Your goal should be to add to these benefits. Replace one only by something more valuable to your employer. This is called a promotion.

The focus should be two-fold: benefits suppled and responsibilities accepted. You must be able to specify these. If you can’t, you are flying blind.

When you have written a numbered list of benefits/responsibilities, you will be in a position to add to both sides of each existing reference. Again, be specific. What will you provide in five years that you are not providing now? What new responsibilities will each benefit mandate?

Your goal is to provide ever more benefits by accepting ever more responsibilities. How much can you provide?

Focus on output. With respect to input, salary is the main one. How much more should you be paid? Here, you must guess. You don’t know what your competition will be. You are competing against other suppliers of these benefits.

When you have written down a detailed multi-part description of your career in five years, including such things as your own website, YouTube channel, and mailing list, you are ready to outline the steps you must take to reach these goals.

The steps list should probably be annual. At the end of each year, what is plausible? Be specific.

Review your mid-term plans annually — quarterly if you do not set up annual goals.

Family Plans

Gary North

If you have concrete plans, you will find it easier to reduce your debt. Make these plans concrete.

This will take you at least an hour if you do it correctly. Think through all aspects of your present tasks.

First, write down where you are today. How many children. Where they are in their development. Problem areas. Success areas.

When you have written a numbered list of successes and failures, you will be in a position to add to your successes and decreasing your failures. Be specific. What will you attain in five years that you have not attained yet? What new responsibilities can you take on?

Your goal is to increase your level of responsibility. How much can you take on?

When you have written down a detailed multi-part description of your family in five years, you are ready to outline the steps you must take to reach these goals.

Focus on time. Where will you get it? The allocation of time is crucial. This should be part of your short-term plans. But the overall estimation of time required must come here: planning for medium-term action.

How large a house will you need? What neighborhood?

What about your children’s education? Public schools? Christian schools? Home schooling? With home schooling, it is time vs. money, as usual. (The cheapest curriculum in terms of both time and money is here:

The steps list should probably be annual. At the end of each year, what is plausible? Be specific.

Review your mid-term plans annually — quarterly if you do not set up annual goals.