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It was in July, a bright sunny morning. I was 12 years old at the time. I went with my dad to the farmers’ market with a load of freshly picked peas from our farm. The peas were in baskets ready for customers to purchase. Sales were brisk that morning and my dad was very good at what he did, including sales.

My dad offered to help a customer with some just-purchased produce, and so he said: “Son, you take charge, while I help this lady load her truck.”

Wow. For the first time, I was in charge, and so exhilarated to do so! I knew I would sell lots of baskets of peas. But, while my dad was gone – for about 15 minutes – I had not made a single sale. Suddenly, all my exuberance turned to devastation. I was in charge and had nothing to show for it. And so, life moved on.

Being on top of the mountain in one’s life is great at the time. All is supreme and sublime, for the moment, and we have the feeling that we have arrived. But it is when we are in the valleys and low spots of life that really defines who we are. We have all experienced the ultimate ups and the dreary downs of life. But it is the down times that seems to shape who we really are and identify our values and priorities in life.

As a child, I cannot really remember, but others have told me that it was so: making the winning run in a baseball game or winning election as the president of our 4-H Club (there were 6 members), or winning a spelling bee.

But, by contrast, I have never, ever forgotten NOT being chosen to be on a specific athletic team, or NOT being able to get a new “fancy” bike like my best friend had, or NOT winning an essay contest. It was the latter three events and other so-called dreary-downer events that followed that really shaped my life and defined what really matters in life.

I remember trying to be someone I was not, or trying to pattern my life after others that I so admired. But I soon discovered it is far better to be a first-rate image of yourself, rather than a second-rate image of someone else. It has been said, “Know thyself and to thine own self be true.”

I remember well not getting that desired promotion in my work, having a research application not accepted and receiving a rejection notice from a publisher. But these sorts of events are temporary, an inevitable part of the process. What’s important is that when you find yourself off track on a goal that you don’t classify it as a failure or as a dead end. One just needs to notice that you have stalled a bit, and then identify where you are and consciously choose to take the next steps.

You know, as I think back to that day many years ago at the farmers’ market when I did not make even one sale, THAT was the beginning of learning a valuable lesson in life. It is not when one is at the mountaintop that one really grows, but rather, it is when one is in the valleys of life that one refines one’s thinking and defines one’s course in life. It is at those so-called down times that I strongly lean on “knowing oneself” and strive to fulfill a first-rate image of self, rather then a second-rate image of what it might have been without the process of defining, refining and growing.

Those baskets of produce that I did not sell have indeed became powerful baskets of common-sense virtues of truly knowing thyself.