The One Thing

curly 1I was invited to speak again this year at Mark Divine’s Unbeatable Mind Academy in Carlsbad, California.   I chose to speak about The One Thing, inspired by that famous scene in the movie City Slickers, in which Curly (played by Jack Palance) holds up one finger to Billy Crystal and tells him that the meaning of life is “…just one thing. You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean shit.”

I have given a lot of thought to figuring out my own One Thing. I’m still working on it. I thought I had uncovered it – my one main driver –  but now, I’m not so sure and am back to re-assessing. To take seriously the question, “ What is my One Thing?” demands patience, self-awareness, and perhaps some painful soul searching.

WHY do I do what I do?

Obviously, I live the way I live, and do what I do in order to get something I want.   Which begs the next question:  Why do I want that something?  The answer to that question begs the next question:  Why is that important to me?   And then, why again. Our One Thing is the answer to the final “Why”  question:  Why do I think I am here?

Your One Thing is your North Star – your Guiding Vision, your Purpose.  It is the value or principle  you choose that underlies the decisions you make and what you do.   It is what Mark Divine calls your Set Point, in his book The Way of the SEAL, what  Paolo Cuelho calls your Personal Legend in his famous parable, The Alchemist.  Cuelho says that the closer your actions bring you to your Personal Legend, the more powerful your Personal Legend – your One Thing – becomes.

Most importantly, your One Thing should be a challenge, and inspire you forward – whether you are 25, 45, or 85 years old.  Is your one thing a couch or rocking chair?  Or is it a mountaintop – YOUR mountaintop? If your One Thing doesn’t have energy – energy that you feed to it, and energy you draw from it, then it isn’t serving you well, and perhaps isn’t really your One thing.

Determining our One Thing is a process, not a one-time task. It should never be final –  our values and our One Thing evolve as we gain more experience and greater wisdom.   Mine is somewhat different today than it was 10 years ago, and will continue to evolve.

As we deal with the challenges of our daily lives, it is often difficult to step back and think about what is truly important to us – our One Thing easily gets lost in the noise.  But I contend that this is the project of a lifetime.   After she died, Mother Theresa’s diaries revealed that she struggled with and questioned her faith, until the very end.

To test the resilience of my One Thing, I try to apply the “Chip Garry test.” Chip is a good friend who many years ago played football for Villanova’s division 1 football team. Soon after he graduated, he was in a car accident,  hit by a drunk driver.  In an instant, Chip went from star athlete to quadriplegic, and for 30 years,  he has been dependent on others to feed him, dress him and help with nearly everything most of us take entirely for granted. Yet whenever I am with him, Chip is upbeat,  engaged with life, and cheers up those around him.

Many young men and women who have returned broken and disabled from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced their own versions of what my friend Chip has faced. I have previously written about Dan Cnossen, a SEAL and champion triathlete, who lost both his legs above the knee and nearly died, after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan

The Chip Garry test is this:  How would my One Thing hold up to facing what Chip, Dan and many disabled vets have faced? Would my One Thing continue to inspire me to live well, or would it collapse under the stress of such hardship? How would it hold up to having those I love taken away from me?  Questions like these are a good test of the resilience of one’s values, of one’s One Thing. My One Thing discussions with Chip have been profound, and are worthy of a separate essay.

How do you determine your One Thing?   I suggest thinking about it, coming up with some possibilities,  and then discuss it with someone who knows you well.  When I shared my One Thing with a good friend, she challenged me with a couple of pointed questions that made me squirm – which told me I had more work to do.

Finding our One Thing can be hard, but when we do, pursuing it can be even harder. If my personal One Thing does not meet the approval of friends, family, or conventional values, then pursuing it requires courage, commitment, resilience, and sacrifice. It is not easy to choose to pursue one’s passion, when our community, friends and loved ones expect, or DEMAND that we fall in line with social norms regarding money, matrimony, getting ahead, and following the well-beaten path toward comfort and conformity.

To thoughtfully consider what is truly important to us, and then to commit to live by those values, to follow our own path, and take full responsibility for that path and its outcomes  –  is truly challenging.

And because it is so uncommon, it is heroic.

 “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.”  

   Paulo Cuelho in The Alchemist         

“So, WTF is that supposed to mean?”   (Bob, whispering in Bob’s Corner)

“That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.”

Curly in City Slickers                           

curley & Billy Crystal cropped

(Note: The recent book The One Thing by Keller and Papasan was also inspired by that same scene in the movie City Slickers. While it addresses the same One Thing I do, it provides excellent guidance for how to focus one’s efforts toward achieving interim objectives that are part of living in accordance with one’s One Thing.)

12 thoughts on “The One Thing

  1. Excellent blog sir. After my divorce I have been thrusted into doing a lot of looking inward and asking myself a lot of tough questions. Many of which I still don’t have answers for. My “one thing” is l one of those questions.

    Right now I feel like my one thing is to get through the next 10 years of work (I am a NJ State Trooper) and get to retirement with good physical health and mental awareness.

    Along the way I plan on challenging myself physically and mentally in order to create an internal dialogue that is going to hopefully stay with me for a lifetime and force me to face the hard truths about myself and not do what the common man does which is to deflect and/or blame others.

    Thank you for taking the time to post this.


    • Hi Alain – I wondered if you would be open to reframing your one thing to something like: “Enjoy the next ten years being of service…” Choose happiness now, don’t put it off until retirement! 😉


      • Thank you for that suggestion. I definitely need to re assess my approach. Just making it to retirement is not enough. I need to make the best of the journey.

        Maybe break it down to smaller goals. Like yearly goals.
        Thank you for the suggestion.


  2. Alan – thanks for your note. My own view is that spending time thinking about what is most important to who you are and how you want to live helps make key decisions. I am working on an application for a position which I had previously turned down – but then thinking about my One Thing in preparation for the presentation at the Unbeatable Mind Academy, I realized that this position is more in line with my One Thing than the alternatives I was looking at. Staying healthy is really important – and I spend a lot of time and energy doing that myself. But remember the Chip Garry test. Stay fit and healthy in order to what? Stay with it – this is one of the most important projects of your life. And until you figure it out there are only a couple of simple rules: Do the best you can, have faith in yourself and your future, and treat all others with respect – even if they don’t deserve it – and as a cop, you deal with a lot of jerks who may not deserve it. But with those 3 rules, you can’t go wrong – while you’re figuring out your One Thing. Bob


    • Thank you sir. I won’t give up on figuring out my purpose. It’s turning out to be quite a challenge. But in the mean time I will follow your advice and stick to those guidelines you mentioned.


  3. Below is a response I got by email from Lynn a fellow NOLS instructor who had a couple of issues with my One Thing essay. My response is below her email. She makes good points and I love a thoughtful challenge!

    Hi Bob, Thanks for sending your latest blog. Two things that stand out for me are what I hear as Judgment & Comparison, as I read it.

    1. Judgment “Is your one thing a couch or rocking chair? Or is it a mountaintop – YOUR mountaintop?” Who knows what someone is doing in a chair. I find the way it is used is diminishing to those who are in rocking chairs. I think you are trying to make the point of get up and do something. It reminds me of a t-shirt that someone gifted me, “Don’t just do something. Sit There” ; )

    2. Comparison ” The Chip Garry test is this: How would my One Thing hold up to facing what Chip, Dan and many disabled vets have faced?” If we each have a One Thing – we should never need to compare it to someone else. I think when we do that individually or culturally, we fluff up some people while putting others down as lesser.

    As much as figuring out what my “One Thing” is, part of that process is how I choose to relate with it during this lifetime.

    My response:

    Great Feedback Lynn! Thanks! I truly appreciate your comments. Here is my response:

    On the Judgment piece, you’re right – I could have said that better. My wife didn’t care for the judgmental part either, or what she says sounded self-righteous and condescending! I agree that the couch or rocking chair was inappropriate. But my point is to indeed be judgmental about not being willing to stretch one’s self. I’m not a relativist who says, “Whatever, dude – do your own thing – it’s all cool.” I am an Aristotelian who believes that our moral responsibility is to try to be as good as we can be, and I do choose to judge sometimes harshly – those whose One Thing is to do as little as possible (the couch/rocking chair), to get away with as much as possible, to be a taker and not a giver, and look for the free ride. I could have said that better. But I’m ok with being judgmental (and accept being judged) ––it’s part of having standards.

    On the Comparison comment, I’m not sure I understand your disagreement. My point with the Chip Garry test is that MY STANDARD is that we should seek to identify a One Thing that works no matter what happens. I realize now in writing this to you, that this is my inner-Stoic coming out. The Stoics said, “It doesn’t matter what happens to you; what matters is what you do with what happens to you.” Being a victim is a mindset – it is up to us to choose to respond well. The Stoics believed that our only real freedom is our attitude toward our experience. Kind of Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty on steroids. So my One Thing should hold up under the adversity that is inevitably coming –hopefully not what happened to Chip, but as my parents continue to tell me -life gets harder as we get older, not easier.

    Thanks again Lynn for your comments – I love the exchange of different views. I DO agree that your, my, or someone else’s mountaintop might be a couch or a rocking chair. In one sense, for most of us, it is: Being 95 years old, in a rocking chair, smiling, and looking back on a life well lived, with no regrets, with young people coming to us, and wanting to hear our story, and wanting our opinion on …


  4. As always, great essay Bob! Maybe The One Thing is a function of age? I do not know anyone my age (and especially no one younger) who are tapped into this search or are even aware there is a journey going on. Hope to meet some millenials one day that are on this quest!


  5. I just read a blog by Darren LaCroix – a champion international toastmaster. His blog was entitled – What is the One Thing I need? I was obviously intrigued.
    He made a point that I’ve heard Marshall Goldsmith make. Many (most) people make the mistake of thinking, “If I only had ________(fill in the blank) I’d be happy.” They are almost always wrong. They often get that one thing, and with it comes a whole different set of problems – and often worse problems than they had before. The stories of how winning the lottery has ruined peoples lives are legendary.
    The One Thing I refer to should be self sufficient. Most One Things that people are looking for are MERE MEANS to something else, but the something else – the last something else – is The One Thing I’m looking for. Darren’s One Thing he got from Mother Theresa: Trust in God. Faith. Everything else is secondary – and is a mere means to what faith can give us. Does that work for me? For you? Something for us to think about. The Stoics made Serenity their One Thing – which Mother Theresa and those like her would say ideally should come from faith in God. I’ve written elsewhere why Serenity in itself doesn’t work for me. But it’s better than wealth, power, popularity, celebrity, which are what drive many people. FWIW – For What It’s Worth….


  6. Since writing this blog, I continue to give this idea thought, and want to record a bit of it here, so that when (not if, but when) I come back to it, I’ve got my thoughts and those of others in one place to refer to.
    When I gave my speech, I went into a number of areas that I didn’t have space to include in a 1k word essay. Specifically:
    – If an ethos is a handrail to keep you wandering off track, then the One Thing is the direction the hand rail is going. To stay with that metaphor, the handrail is taking us toward our One Thing. I’ve used the ethos-as-handrail metaphor before. We use the handrail to help pull us up the trail when it gets rough and steep, and to slow us down and keep our footing when we’re going down hill with the wind at our back.
    – The One Thing is like a North Star – you keep going in that direction, but you’ll never get there.
    – The One Thing is like Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity in military planning. In the military, all your offensive effort needs to be directed to undermininig your enemies CoG –the one thing upon which all his strength and power is based. Your defensive measures need to be connected to protecting your own CoG. Any where you spend energy or resources that do not weaken your enemy’s CoG, or protect your own, is wasting time and resources.
    Many people don’t understand the One Thing question. I believe we can only think of our Our One Thing in terms of where we are on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If we are struggling at the basic level of physiological needs, our one thing will be at that level. As in Kohlberg’s hierarchy in moral development theory, you can communicate with a person at most one level up from where s/he is – otherwise they can’t relate. I believe it’s similar in thinking about a One Thing on Maslow’s hierarchy. For example, if I am stuggling at meeting my physiological or security needs, I am not interested in or able to relate to a “One Thing” at the top of the pyramid – Self Actualization. Bob


    • I am glad you came back to add this extra bit of thought. I love the hand rail analogy. And I also agree with the inhabikity of some to get a full grasp on some of these concepts because they are still stuck in the very basic steps of development.

      Keep updating us ! By the way, I am about to walk into my very first yoga class. Hoping that this will be one of the avenues that helps me move forward in this self enlightenment journey.


  7. Pingback: Living Heroically (Part II) | Bob Schoultz's Corner

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s