Remembering Giants In The Earth | The Blog of Jeff Bullock

Remembering Giants in the Earth

In addition to being a great novel, most scholars agree that the 1927 publication of Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rölvaag marks one of the first painfully honest assessments of the human price paid for the settling of the American West. 

Giants is a story of Norwegian immigrants who moved from Europe to Minnesota and, eventually, further west finally settling in what is now South Dakota.  It’s not a glamorous story. 

In fact, there were moments when I wanted to put the novel down in anticipation of the eventual pain and even suffering for some of the characters.  And that’s the beauty of the book.  It’s a realistic story which, at times, is written in halting English. 

It’s a story of both pain and triumph, success and failure, but mostly it is a story that captures the indomitable human spirit.

There is something about being American that is captured through Giants.  Part of that something has to do with a combination of great curiosity coupled with a vast geography that’s part of our national DNA as evidenced by the expedition of Lewis and Clark from 1804-1806. 

President Thomas Jefferson was curious about what lay west of the Mississippi River, and Lewis and Clark were more than eager to do his bidding.  That coupling of curiosity and geography, combined with the desire to improve their standing in life, motivated millions of immigrants from Norway to China, and all places in between, to leave their homes and take a chance on America from the mid-19th  to early 20th centuries; to risk and explore. 

Some succeeded.  Many failed.  And, in one way or another, they all persisted.  Indeed, there is something remarkable about the human spirit and its desire to push the boundaries of exploration.

Pushing boundaries, exploration, curiosity & adventure continue to be part of our DNA. Click To Tweet

One of the real risks of successful organizational leadership is the eventual acceptance of the status quo.  In Iowa, we call that “the just good enough” syndrome. 

Somehow, in the process of “getting there,” organizations sometimes get so comfortable with their earned success that they want to coast for a while.  Eventually, a while becomes a year, and a year becomes a decade.  And, when not looking, the organization’s mission, purpose, or product also becomes a bit stale and uninviting. 

The “it” factor, that inspired members of the organization to earned success was overtaken by the “let’s sit” factor and, without a serious intervention, that organization’s purpose, rather than inspirational, is “just good enough.”

Good leaders have their finger on their organization’s pulse.  They understand that we are an aspirational people that need to push, explore, break through boundaries and achieve challenging goals. 

Good leaders have their finger on their org's pulse & understand when to push, explore, break through boundaries. Click To Tweet

In general, humankind doesn’t do very well if it’s not working towards something.  Boredom and complacency are terrible substitutes for calculated risk and achievement, which is not to suggest that a wagon ride west is easy, but it is purposeful. 

An organization with purpose trumps complacency every time.

An organization with purpose trumps complacency every time. Click To Tweet

4 Comments

  1. Each of your blogs, Jeff, speaks to me in many ways. I have not read this book, but I will seek it out. My mother’s father came here from Finland, and my father’s father came from Sweden. I admire that push, drive, will, and striving that brought so many strong, adventurous and optimistic people to America.

    It has often been said Scandinavia has many of the world’s best looking women. Well, that may be a result of the Viking raiders throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. Do you think they would bring back the ugly women? So the Scandinavian DNA pool was constantly enhanced with genetic beauty. This nation of immigrants has been constantly enhanced by the DNA of doers, innovators, and workers.

    This summer I was cast back to the 1840’s and 1850’s, as I was standing in the ruts left from the Oregon, Bozeman, and Mormon Trails. I stood in awe of my great, great, great grandmother (on my father’s side) who left Nauvoo, Illinois in 1847 to walk with a handcart into the valley of the Great Salt Lake. But this was tempered by knowledge of the tragedies of Sand Creek, Fetterman, and Wounded Knee, while I was on the Wind River Reservation. Does accomplishment by one necessitate defeat of another?

    But I digress, the point is a leader, be it a company or a person, needs to always be innovative and strive for more. I am not speaking of more, as in bigger, but always trying to be better. All too, often in my lifetime, company products have decreased in value, such as, Wolverine boots, Tonka trucks, and many items formerly made of metal and now are plastic. Then there are organizations that adapt and reset new goals, i.e. the March of Dimes that reached their original goal and wiped out Polio.

    So with the incredible DNA of America, let us continue to welcome immigrants and continue to strive for the best in everything that touches us. Demand the best from leaders (people or companies) to keep this uniquely, America, Great.

  2. Then, there was my paternal grandfather, with no formal education occasioned by beginning to work among coal miners in Wales at the age of seven, who came to the coal regions of eastern Pennsylvania. Choir director at a Welsh Baptist Church and later assistant organist at a Methodist Episcopal Church, steadily improved his positions in the coal mines to “Fire Boss” responsible to setting off dynamite underground. He could have become an Inspector, but declined because corruption dictated that hazards be overlooked by the Inspectors. “Pop loved his Welsh Bible,” stated one of his daughters, but learned to read English, thereby becoming “self-educated” particularly in music (naming one of his sons Felix after Felix Mendelssohn!) His offspring included a nurse, a school teacher, a high school principal, and a nurse, and from some of those, the next generation included a dentist, psychiatrist, missionary, ministers, and others, including a librarian. His DNA, from the age of seven, pushed the boundaries which would have held him down, and certainly excluded boredom! His picture from 1903 is in my library, near a cross carved from coal!

  3. I’m happy that you mention curiosity, because I think that, along with a sense of humor, keeps mankind of any nationality from becoming stagnant and complacent. I find it a shame that many, at least in our country, appear to have lost both, along with the ability to see the value in science and exploration. I hope we can regain all of those qualities, which I think many of our forefathers and foremothers had in spades.

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