The Most Important Life Lesson from Tom Sawyer

In 1876, The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer was published and put author Mark Twain in the literary map of the world. It was a novel that was so ahead of its time in that it was filled with meaning and symbolism, aside from being engaging and fun to read. It was a story about the titular mischievous young boy, who wittingly tricked his way to get everything he wanted.

One of the most prominent scenes in the book was the “fence scene”, where Tom Sawyer was tasked by his Aunt Polly to whitewash their fence as a punishment for a prior mischief. Tom Sawyer, being young, wished he could play instead, naturally. Ben Rogers, one of his friends saw him doing this job and did his best to ridicule the boy for his penance.

Most people would bow their heads and take it in the chin. But Tom Sawyer not only turned the situation around, he spun it like a top on his palm. At the end of that day, a dozen boys painted the fence for him while he played to his heart’s desire. Here’s the kicker, they even paid him in kind for the privilege.

But how did he do it?

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” — Mark Twain

Most people have a negative sentiment in the work they do. They view their work primarily as a source of income, a means to put food on the table, roof over their heads and purchase all else they think are necessary. Beyond that, work is simply a requirement of living, a demand from the individual. Unfortunately for some, it can even be a cross to bear — a punishment. This is not unusual, after all, work is mostly not fun.

However, when we hear people who get ahead, people who make success look so easy, we can always find one, sometimes two, great common characteristics in them. One is, they do great work. The other, is they make people do great work.

Here’s how Tom Sawyer did it.

Ben Rogers was playing around Tom when he facetiously commented about Tom’s work. Tom simply asked, “what work?” and proceeded to paint the fence with careful precision, checking the application of the paint every stroke of his brush. Ben, curious, lamented why Tom was not distressed about his situation. Tom simply said, “I don’t see why I would be, you don’t get to do this everyday” acting as if he were doing a very difficult task.

At this point, because of Tom’s seemingly dedicated poise, Ben has gotten perplexed, yet completely absorbed in the work Tom was doing. Ben couldn’t help himself but ask, “Say Tom, let me paint a little”. Tom Sawyer refused but grinned. This is when he knew that his ruse has worked.

He continued the act and spoke lines like “Only one in a thousand, maybe even two thousand boys can do this” and “Aunt Polly said this is so important only Tom Sawyer can do it”, which of course, she didn’t say. Ben couldn’t resist to have a go at this important calling, and offered his apple to Tom in exchange for the chance.

And so it goes.

“To make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” — Mark Twain

Most people who don’t value the work that they do as much as they’d like to unconsciously feels the lack of two aspects of valuable work. One, work must be difficult enough to challenge the person constantly. The other, the work must be important in his perception enough for him to want to take on the challenge.

Now granted, it should be known that not every act of man falls in the category of valuable work. Not every person gets to do a difficult task everyday, especially when it’s the exact same job he gets to improve upon the next day. More so, we know that only a handful of work are actually important in the eyes of the common society.

But this is not to say that people should not try to value their work beyond its mundanity. Or that people should not try to find work they can deem valuable enough. It is up to the man to zoom out and look at the big picture to see the importance of their contribution. Or if all else fails, look at another picture entirely.

The responsibility to identify valuable work then, falls on two kinds of people. The first, is the leader, who don’t simply delegate difficult work, but emphasizes its importance first and foremost. The other, is the follower himself, who don’t just aspire to do important work, but first understands and embraces the difficulties entrusted to him. These are the very same people that make success look easy.

If Tom Sawyer, in his own childish little way, realized this. What’s our excuse?

Essays and fiction on life that I myself can’t tell apart.

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