Wading the Mississippi: Six Surprising Secrets of Success I Learned from Ol’ Man River

What does it take to achieve great things?

Recently, I waded across the Mississippi River.


And as I thought about that accomplishment, it seemed this great river had a lot to say about what it takes to achieve something great.  Here are six secrets of success the mighty Mississippi taught me that day, and how any of us can use them to achieve great things ourselves.

Wading the Mississippi - Six Secrets of Success I Learned from Ol' Man River

Six Steps in Bare feet

Actually, wading across the Mississippi River only took about six steps.  I didn’t even get my knees wet.  I took off my shoes, stepped into the cool, clear water, and moments later, I was across.  It was that easy.

And yet this was the mighty Mississippi.  Most people think of this great river as the miles-wide gargantuan that cuts a massive swath though the central United States.

It is.  But that’s not the part of the Mississippi I was on.  I was at one end of Lake Itaska in north-central Minnesota – the headwaters of the river.  It was maybe six feet across and about two feet deep.

Yet this was the same river that travels over 2,000 miles and drains the watershed of 31 states and two Canadian provinces.

So how does it grow to become the river of legend and song?  Let’s take a look – in many ways, I think by mimicking its six secrets of success, we might manage to become a little bit greater ourselves.

Six Secrets of Success from Ol’ Man River

1.  Beginnings don’t predict endings.   From its headwaters, the Mississippi actually starts out by going the wrong way.   It goes north about 20 miles before it sorts itself out and begins to work its way around to the south.

Similarly, how you begin does not necessarily predict how you will end up.  Everyone comes from different starting points and circumstances.  Our first steps may even be in the wrong direction.  The point is to get started.

Like the river, if you keep at it, you’ll eventually find the right direction.  It’s not as much about where you came from, as about where you are going.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. – Mark Twain Click To Tweet

2. Always be searching.  From its very beginning until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi refuses to flow in a straight line.  It wanders and meanders.  Looking at a map you can see the many paths that it has tried and then later abandoned for better ones.

Successful people are also continuous searchers and experimenters.  Finding a path is never enough.  You have to continually seek other ways to improve, and better ways to get things done.  Sometimes these attempts fail.  Learn from the experience, and then try something new.

It’s not an experiment if you know it’s going to work. – Jeff Bezos Click To Tweet

3. Have patience and persistence.  The river doesn’t start out miles wide.  It gets there little by little over the course of thousands of miles.  At its beginnings you could barely float a canoe on it.  It has many miles to go before it’s worth the effort to launch a fishing boat, let alone a river boat.

Anything worth accomplishing usually takes time and continuous effort.  The payoff doesn’t usually come immediately.  It’s the patience and persistence that ultimately lead to success one step at a time.

Instead of trying to become something great today, just shoot for “a little bit better.”  All those “little bits” will add up to a lot over time.

Energy and persistence conquer all things. – Ben Franklin Click To Tweet

4. Team up with others.  The Mississippi starts out as not much more than a trickle, but very soon it gets help as other streams and rivers join it on its journey.  The power of the river comes in the aggregate.

Those other streams and rivers join the Mississippi because it is going where they want to go – to the sea.  By forging a path that others are interested in following, the river makes it easy for the rest to join and follow.

Great leaders set a clear vision, then unite with people in its pursuit.  So form teams and partnerships.  Share ideas, develop unity of purpose and direction.  Your combined efforts will increase your impact far faster than anything you can achieve on your own.

Where there is unity there is always victory. - Publius Syrus Click To Tweet

5. Serve as you go.  A big part of the river’s greatness is not only it’s size, but the fact that it serves.  For the 700 miles from St. Louis to New Orleans the river is free of dams, allowing it to accommodate 2,000 foot-long barges driven by as few as two tow boats.

Aided by the river’s flow, a thousand tons of goods can be moved a mile using just one gallon of fuel.  It’s by far the most efficient shipping method in the United States.

The more you find ways to help others meet their needs, the more your ability to influence grows.  People are attracted to those who they believe will help them get better; as a servant leader, people’s respect for you will build, and your influence will grow with it.

Help others achieve their dreams and you will achieve yours. - Les Brown Click To Tweet

6. Stay humble.  At its origin, the Mississippi is shallow and narrow.  As the water collides with rocks or tumbles through narrows, it gurgles and rushes in noisy confusion, as if to attract our attention.

Farther down river, where it is wide and deep, there is almost no sound at all, and the water seems smooth and still.  You feel a presence.  It doesn’t have to advertise itself; you just know it’s there.

Like the great river, some of the greatest people I have met have been very humble ones, quick to pass credit on to others, almost reluctant to attract attention to themselves.

I think they realize that in the end, it’s not about them, but about making life better for others.  Having found themselves in a position to do that, they simply go about the business of making it happen.  Any advertising comes simply through the merit of their good deeds.

Still waters run deep. - Latin Proverb Click To Tweet

Six Secrets of Success – The Takeaway

We think of the Mississippi as a great river, but it sure didn’t start out that way.  Looking at that narrow trickle of water up in Minnesota, you would never guess what it becomes by the time it arrives at the Gulf of Mexico.

Like that river, we can become better, more influential versions of ourselves by following its six secrets of success:

  1. Don’t let mis-steps at the beginning dictate the ending
  2. Keep trying new ways to get better
  3. Persist
  4. Combine efforts with others who share your vision
  5. Find ways to serve
  6. Stay humble

If you do all these things, maybe one day they’ll write songs about you.

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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