Why working harder and smarter isn’t enough
You have to plant your flag.
Driving east out of Los Angeles on Interstate 10, you couldn’t miss it.
To your left were the towering San Gabriel Mountains, but everything to your right was flat as a pancake -- except for one lone mountain, all by itself.
Towering 500 feet above the surrounding valley, Slover Mountain was such an important local landmark, the local high school was even named after it.
Besides its isolation, the little lone mountain had another claim to fame.
Whereas the nearby San Gabriel Mountains were formed of granite, this mountain was completely different geologically. It was made of marble and limestone -- both very useful building materials, scarce in that part of California. Sure enough, in the 1800’s, an enterprising company started quarrying its beautiful marble to build some of the most famous buildings in the state.
After the marble played out, they turned their attention to the limestone beneath it, which they cooked in kilns to make cement and concrete.
For decades, bulldozers and trucks tore down the little mountain. Little by little, the mountain shrank. They carved roads and terraces all over it until it became unrecognizable to longtime local residents. Saddened to see the mountain they knew and loved disappear, they started complaining to their elected officials, demanding that the last remnant of the mountain be saved.
That’s when the company that was mining the mountain did something creative.
They planted an enormous American flag on top of it.
Can you guess what happened?
The complaints stopped. Overnight.
When I first heard that story, I was skeptical. But a few years later, I witnessed firsthand the power of that flag. I was editing a promotional video set to the song "The Hall of Fame" by the Irish rock band The Script.
It’s an inspiring song. The lyrics give you a list of reasons why you should always do your best. One verse says: do it for your country, do it for your name.
So at the exact moment that "country" came up in the song, I dropped in a visual of a flying flag. To me, it was just a logical cue.
But when I screened the video for my customer’s focus group, I was surprised by the reactions it provoked.
“I’m sorry, give me a moment,” one said. “I’m choking up here a bit.”
“You nailed it,” another said. “That is exactly what this company is all about.”
Psychologists are probably only just beginning to understand what makes these symbols act so powerfully on us. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Even if most of the people in the room had never been in uniform, they probably knew someone who had. Some of them probably knew people who had fought and died for what that flag stood for.
So using that symbol carries a heavy responsibility. It has to be authentic. It has to be for the right reasons.
Wasn’t the mining company wrong to raise the flag on the mountain? Wasn’t it just a cheap shot -- a cynical ploy to keep their opponents quiet?
No. Not at all.
The high school, the local hospital, and the roads that brought people home -- all were built by rock from that mountain. That mountain was a cornerstone of the community. It built the community and brought the community together.
That’s why the flag belonged there. The miners who mined that mountain were working on something bigger than themselves.
They had a purpose. Their work had meaning.
That’s why it’s not enough to work hard, or even to work smart. Work by itself is aimless and nothing to praise. It has to be guided by purpose. By meaning.
That mountain on the edge of L.A. is now just a small hill. A few years from now, it will probably disappear.
But its meaning will persist.
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