The Thing at the Back of the Garage

How do we stay focused on what’s important?

There’s something in the back of my garage, and every time I see it, it stops me in my tracks.  Hidden among the storage shelves and suspended bicycles, and partially obscured by the work bench, it’s always there, waiting for me when I come home.

But I’m thankful it’s there.  I’ll tell you why, and why you might want something like this too.

The Thing at the Back of the Garage

Home Again

In 2008 I returned home after a long absence.  I had been away, serving in the Army overseas. This was hardly the first time, but it had been one of the longest – about 15 months.

Thanks to technology, there had been regular contact between my family and me, and it was good.  But it’s not the same as being home.  I had missed them.

Welcome HomeAnd apparently, they had missed me.  To celebrate my return, my wife and kids had hung a big banner over the front door of our house that said, “Welcome Home!

There were hugs, laughter, and smiles all around.  It was great to be home.  The reunion was every bit as wonderful as I had imagined.

But there was something different about this return.

Back to “Normal…”

After finally getting home, among the things I looked forward to was settling back into some sense of normalcy.  Not one for big displays, I was ready to take down the banner the next day.  I must have thought that returning to ‘normal’ meant making it appear as if I hadn’t been gone at all.

But the trash can didn’t seem like the right place for that banner.  Instead, I found a spot on the back wall of the garage to hang it up. 

Placing it there began as an expedient.  On the back wall it would be safe and out of the way. 

Unintentionally, this location transformed that banner into something more. 

The Big “Reveal”

From that day on, every time I came home, whether from a short errand or a long trip, as the garage door scrolled slowly upwards, it was like a dramatic “reveal.” Especially at night, it was as if a stage curtain was going up, and my headlights were the spotlights coming on. 

In any good production, the director uses the spotlights to help us focus our attention on what’s important, and that’s what happened as the door went up.

My garage is a busy place that always seems to be a work in progress – partially completed projects lying about, outdoor gear drying, the bike trainer awaiting my next indoor ride.  But the lights shone past all those things – those distractions – and seemed to pick out the one thing that really mattered. 

The Thing at the Back of my GarageThe lights shone on that banner welcoming me home.

And as that banner came into view, I would be reminded of something very important:  How it felt to do without.  

Focusing the Spotlight

Joni Mitchel may not have been the first to say it, but her words ring true: 

You don't know what you've got till it's gone. - Joni Mitchell Click To Tweet

More than once, in seeing that banner there on the back wall of the garage, I have paused, taken a deep breath, and reflected for a moment on what it represented. 

And when I finally walked into the house, I tried to focus my own mental spotlight.  Like my garage, there’s lots going on in my mind – the task list balance sheet, the radio news report, the thing on my phone vying for my time.  But the light needs to shine past all those distractions and zero in on what matters.

Remembering what it was like to do without made it easier to value those things while I had them.

A New Normal

We have moved twice since then, and the banner has become a fixture on the back wall of the garage at each new place.  It is one of the first things to go up, and the last things to come down.

More than ten years have passed, and still the daily “reveal” of the thing at the back of my garage is a regular reminder that the old normal wasn’t what I was after. 

Having been gone, the goal was not to pretend as if I had never been absent.  The goal was to remember what it was like to be without, and use that memory to help me value those things while I still have them around me.

For me, that starts with family.  Walking into the house, I try to recapture some of that “Welcome Home!” excitement, and act in a way that shows that I’m glad to be sharing this journey with them.

The Takeaway

Whatever our station or situation in life, there is always something to be grateful for.  There is always something good that we risk taking for granted.

Maybe we’re down to just a roof, a meal, or one good friend.  Still, in the wry Infantry vernacular version of this idea:  “It could always suck worse.

In the rush of the day it’s easy to lose sight of the good things we have.  But in ignoring them, we risk losing them.  To keep that from happening, it can help to have a little (or big!) reminder of what life might be like without.

And then, to make this more than just a mental exercise, we should ask ourselves a simple question:  “What can I do right now to value, honor, and be worthy of those things I claim are so important, so that if I ever should lose them, there are no regrets?” 

Let’s let the answer to that question guide our actions.

What’s in the back of your garage?

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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