White Gold: A Story of Persistence

With obstacles, frustrations and nay-sayers, how do you find the persistence  you need to succeed?

It’s one thing to have a great idea or an inspiring vision.  Sticking with it until you are successful can be an entirely different matter.  In this instant-gratification world, we can all learn a thing or two about persistence from the story of Samuel Platt and an unexpected discovery he made over 150 years ago.

Persistence - White Gold

Trying to Cash In

It started with the oil boom.  In 1859, an unemployed railroad conductor near Titusville, Pennsylvania drilled 69 feet into the earth and stuck black gold.  His discovery set off a frenzy that attracted speculators and dreamers from far and wide who wanted to cash in.  Before long, oil wells were popping up all over the place.

Within seven years, petroleum had become the second most valuable export in the United States, helping fuel industrial expansion and development at home and abroad.

Hoping to take advantage of this opportunity, in 1866 Samuel Platt organized the Goderich Petroleum Company in Ontario, Canada, secured the backing of local investors, and started drilling on the north bank of the Maitland River.  Oil had recently been found not far away on Black Creek.

Not as Easy as He Thought

But the quick success he hoped for was not to be.  After weeks of back-breaking effort, he had managed to drill through 686 feet of solid limestone, but found nothing.

There was no sign of oil, money was running out, and his stockholders, who had fronted $10,000 to fund the effort wanted to abandon the project.

Platt was ready to give up.

To make matters worse, some of the town’s locals were making fun of him.  They said his search was foolish and he was wasting his time.

Some even jokingly poured oil into his drill hole to trick him into thinking he had finally succeeded, then laughed when he discovered the truth.

Fortunately, both the local county council and the nearby town wanted him to continue, hoping they would prosper if he was successful.  As incentive, they offered him a combined bonus of $1,500 if he would continue to drill to at least 1,000 feet.

White Gold?

Platt resumed drilling.  But all he encountered for the next 278 feet was more of the same:  limestone and frustration.

But then, finally, at 964 feet down, he made a discovery.  The drill stuck a different kind of rock.

This rock was white.  It was salt.

Platt had discovered what turned out to be the great Michigan salt bed, one of the largest and purest salt deposits in the world.

Quick to realize his good fortune, Platt drilled the remaining 36 feet to secure his bonus money, then used the cash to start a salt recovery plant.  By 1867 his salt works was turning out over 15 tons of salt a day.

Today the Goderich mine is the largest salt mine in Canada and is one of the most productive salt works in the modern world.  The mine is part of Compass Minerals, a conglomerate with a market capitalization of $2.5 billion.

Platt never found the oil he was looking for, but in the end things turned out better than he could have imagined.

Persistence – The Takeaway

It was in Mark Kurlansky’s fascinating book Salt:  A World History that I came across Samuel Platt’s story.  And from his experience, I think  we can take four key lessons about persistence.

1. Stick with it.  You have to be persistent to be successful.   You never know what might turn up with just a little bit more effort – one more phone call, one more redesign, or just a few more feet of drilling.

Sometimes it takes years for a person to become an overnight success. - Prince Click To Tweet

Often the things that separate the successes from the failures are simply the will to persist and the commitment to do the hard work every day.

Focused effort is what brings us closer to our goals, not hoping and wishing.  We have to be willing to roll up our sleeves and do the work.

2.  Ignore the haters.  Critics don’t accomplish anything; their only success is bringing others down and maintaining the status quo.

Leading is about changing, improving, and often challenging how things are so that they can be better.

You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks. - Churchill Click To Tweet

Keep your eyes on the road ahead and be clear about what specifically you need to do today.  Save your energy for that.

3. Do look for feedback.  That’s not to say we charge blindly ahead ignoring all input.  Honest, objective feedback is critical to making sure we’re still heading in the right direction.

Platt’s feedback came in knowing how deep his drills were going, and understanding what he was looking at each time he checked to see what was at the bottom of the hole.

4. Keep your eyes open.  We have to be smart enough to recognize that success can take on different forms.  Sometimes the strategy needs to change to allow us to continue the march in the direction of our vision.

A pivot is a change in strategy, not vision. – Eric Ries Click To Tweet

The results of your efforts may not be what you imagined; there may be more than one path leading to your vision.

Platt was looking for oil but struck salt.  That reality didn’t make him a failure; he had found another way to succeed.

The key to remember is that to get any result at all, first we must act.

So dare to dream, get to work, and when the inevitable obstacles arise, persist.

Lead On!



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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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