lessons from the most successful shoe shiner

he sat and shined a shoe, that’s all i ever saw him do. he must have been 10 and he sat right next to his dad, imitating his dad while he scrubbed then shined shoes right outside the location on sutter street we were staying at in kalcutta, india. they had a very meager set up, with only a wooden box the size of a shoebox to conduct business, and a sheet that had been torn through to sit on while tourists such as myself walked by. i always noticed how both father and son alike would stare at peoples feet as they walked by, maybe to evaluate clientele, or just the simple fact that shoes and shine were what they knew, and what they knew best.
through a translator i began to build a relationship with both father and son, i would share my cliff bars with them in the morning, they thought they tasted funny which made me laugh (because i think most health bars taste like chalk as well), not like the normal "candy" that they probably had before from other tourists or maybe a special occasion or two.
i asked the boy what he wanted to do when he grew up, and he said he wanted to shine shoes just like his father. i asked again thinking that maybe he thought i meant "what are you going to do," and not my original question of "what do you want to do when you grow up." the boy once again repeated that cleaning and shining shoes is what he wanted to do, just like his father, right here on the street he had grown up on and known his whole life.
"success" is a funny word. it is a topic i struggle with because everyone seems to be chasing it but i don't believe that i have ever met anyone who will self admit tingly say they have found or achieved it. for me though i believe that i have defined it as obtaining enough material possessions that one can afford luxury and the comforts of life can be obtained with minimal struggle. i know this sounds as cued but isn't that what we are taught by society, the "american dream", and advertising?
this boy had purpose. it may have not been the life i have chosen but he had purpose. he was going to shine shoes like his father before him, and to the best of his ability. the boy taught me a lesson this past couple weeks, success is not defined by what you can obtain but by the pursuit of purpose with all your soul & mind. success to me is finding ones purpose no matter how obscure, different, or grandiose, and setting out whole heartedly to achieve it. what made shoe shining so insignificant in my eyes the first couple of days? it was because i saw no monetary outcome proceeding. what makes his job any more important than the ceo of a car company, a musician, or the senior editor at the new york times. nothing. it took a ten year old boy on the streets of kalcutta to show me that success is not defined by the amount of products we can consume but by the souls task of longing & belonging to what we set our hands out to achieve.


Jon said…
I moved out of my hometown back in July &, financially, it's been like getting tossed into the pool for the first time without knowing how to swim. I never realized that life in America is less about deciding what you want to spend money on as it is budgeting so that you actually have money to spend. Rent, utilities, car payments, car insurance, health insurance, student loans... it's almost like you have no choice but to make it your top priority just to break even. I have very few friends who aren't living paycheck to paycheck. And the funny thing is that it's our talents & our passions that are the main conflicts with our ability to pay our bills.

It's the "American Dream," but it's hard for me not to yearn for something much more simple.

But I have to wonder how deeply ingrained western consumerism really is. Could I really shine shoes? If I'm THAT bothered by the "American Dream" is stealing time & energy from my passions, could I really appreciate such a stripped down lifestyle? Just shining shoes & hanging out?

Which I guess is to say... how long can you spend overseas before you really start missing home (be it access to your passions, the company of your friends & family, or just the amenities)?
Anonymous said…
Support a band, support a charity.
Christopher B said…
Wow Stephen. Its amazing that a lesson like that can be learned through someone so much younger. Be safe, have fun and keep updating!
David Alicea said…
That was an amazing post. I've really been thinking about sucess/what I want to do with my life. And I've kinda realized how stuck I am to the materialism and consumerism that your talking about. I wouldn't be able to do what your doing, and I'm terribly ashamed of it.
Book of James said…
I thank you for your mission and your musings. You have reminded me of a favorite quote.

"If God told you exactly what it was you were to do, you would be happy doing it no matter what it was. What you are doing is what God wants you to do. Be happy." Werner Erhard

When all else in our world falls away, the most basic indication of success is love. It strikes me that no matter what we do on the road of life, our success (happiness) is the love and charity we give along the way.

The Beatles said it simply: (Agape)

And in the end, the love we take, is equal to the love we make

You all are in my prayers.
jessi said…
the american dream is just a painted backdrop for the campaign commercials of our elected leaders.
Kate said…
i just followed the link to mission:calcutta and, at first, i was jealous that you got this amazing opportunity to make such a huge impact. but then I remembered that one doesn't have to travel halfway across the world to make a difference. Thats why I love the TWLOHA organization so much- the hurting people needing love are right here. It's my roomate, my society and gender teacher, and that kid down the hall.
in fact, aren't we're all hurting people in need of love? so while i hope one day i will get to have the experiences you got, for now i am content to do my best with where i'm at. if i can't handle that, i am not ready for something more.

and thanks for doing modesty. its pretty much my favourite website on the entire internet.
Anonymous said…
You mentioned shining shoes...
After my dad left his pastoral position in the Episcopal Church he and my brother shined shoes together for several years. Humbling, I'm sure, but he always stayed in good spirits and joked that he was still in the business of saving soles (souls). He made much more money shining shoes than he ever did working as a pastor, but money has never been the focal point of his life. Faithfulness to God has been and God has been faithful to him.

I'm amazed at the home in which my parents now live, complete with 4 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, and a ping pong table in the basement. Every morning he and my mom sit on the couch that faces out towards the lake to read the Word and to pray, being certain to give thanks to God for their home and for the view of the lake.

It has been years since my dad has shined shoes, but it was just last month that he saved several souls. He and his jazz band played and spoke at a prison where several inmates gave their lives to Christ. It is not uncommon for my dad to visit prisoners, to work with the mentally ill, or to visit and pray for those who are sick. Loving God and loving people - isn't that how Jesus defined success? I do believe that my dad is one of the most "successful" people I know.

~Katrina Marie
Meg-a-roni said…
I view success as something (a career, etc) that you are passionate about, that you pursue in order to make the world a better place. It isn't about how much money you make or how many materialistic things we can obtain. We need to seek out our success in how we can change other people's lives. What is it that we are passionate about? If someone has a passion for changing the world then they should pursue it. If someone has a passion for computers then pursue it. We shouldn't look at how we can make the most money for ourselves, but how can we use our efforts to better the world for good. Like you said before, not to earn money to throw at the poor, but to earn money, and use this money while getting your hands dirty helping them out and seeing the world as they see it.
bluekidcory said…
I love it when wisdom is shown through a child. They teach more than they know. Our minds become so narrow-minded that we need children for that broader view and perspective that we can't see ourselves.
Alix said…
Some of the most amazing things I've learned in life I have learned from children and from those who we typically deem as "worse off" than we are.

From a little Mexican boy in southside Chicago I learned about trust. Because while we wandered around the neighborhood lost he just came right up and offered his assistance. He couldn't have been more than 8 and spoke about as much English as I speak Spanish. In today's world children aren't supposed to talk to strangers, you know? But perhaps ignorance is bliss, and I'll certainly never forget that boy. His name was Ed. Eduardo. He had a Bob the Builder shirt on.

I plan on being in the educational system for the rest of my life. And I'm hoping and expected to learn much more while I'm at the front of a classroom than I ever did sitting at the back of one.
Story of a Girl said…
Very touching. Thank you for sharing that discovery so that we can also redefine the word success. This new definition make is more tangible. Because not all of us can make thousands and be well-off and able to buy any luxury, as you described. But all of us can work towards achieving our hearts' desire! Thanks !

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