Have you ever met someone so calm, so at peace, that you thought, just maybe, they were on drugs? I had spoken at a Toastmasters International meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. After that meeting a stranger stepped forward, saying, “That was great. You have most of the math right, but the most important parts are missing.” Then he handed me his business card and turned away. The card read: Russell Swank, Toppers Oil, Inc.
The instant he was out the door I turned to other people, seeking information. I learned that Russell Swank had left school when he was 13 to help his mother raise a fatherless family. I learned that Russell was a highly respected businessman who had climbed from being deeply in debt (a total of $800,000), to amassing $16 million without filing bankruptcy or harming anyone. That he owned several businesses, including a chain of gas stations. That he drove a new Lincoln Continental and lived with his wife in a double‑wide trailer.
I called Russell’s office the next morning to see if he would meet me for coffee. I was shocked at how fast his receptionist put me through and, without hesitating, Russell agreed.
Within the hour Russell and I were seated in a restaurant. I ordered coffee and he ordered tea, requesting that he be allowed to place the tea bag into the water. When the water and tea bag arrived, Russell pushed the tea bag aside. He drank water as if it were tea.
When questioned about the hot water, Russell explained that he no longer desired coffee or tea. However, ordering only hot water caused problems. Some servers came unglued trying to put a price on the water, and others acted as if he were stealing.
Rather than ruffle feathers Russell ordered hot tea, and asked for the tea bag on the side.
With that mystery solved, I moved toward my primary objective by asking Russell, “How did you become so calm, peaceful and strong?”
Without hesitation he replied, “I wasn’t born this way. My father’s sudden death forced me to become a wage earner before I could legally drive, and I learned about life and the games people play at a very early age. There is a difference between thinking we know, and knowing we know.
“Richard, how did you learn to respect hot stoves? Was it when someone told you they were hot? Or was it after you got burned? To truly know—with every cell of your being—you must have an experience. Without that experience, the best you have is blind faith in something that may or may not be true.
“One of the reasons life seems so difficult is that most of what we have been led to believe is based on myths and rumors. The collective insanity of mankind is passed down from generation to generation.
“Since time began, people have gathered to pray for peace. Today, more people are praying, but less peace exists.
“How many people, Richard, have died fighting over a god in the name of peace? Not the God, but images of gods that do not exist. Blind‑faith followers willingly kill and die for the myths they believe in. “Don’t get me wrong—there is a God. There is a Higher Power—an unseen, unknown Intelligence that cannot be defined. Something tells radish seeds to grow into radishes, acorns to grow into trees, and cells within your blood to rush to heal cuts. Behind everything that can be seen there is Something that cannot be seen.
“People who refuse to accept the possibility of a Higher Power have yet to look deeply into the eyes of a newborn child—or ponder the annual flights of birds, the beauty of flowers, the sounds of music, the cycle of seasons, or the creatures of the sea.
“Now that I’ve discovered a few Truths and have begun to see through the smoke and mirrors, I’ve changed my mind about how much I know. I now believe that life is 50% mystery, 50% miracle, and that the very best we can do is to work our way through the fog with love in our heart. Love is the most important part.
“One of my earlier mistakes, which I repeated for years, was telling God what I wanted and asking for favors as if I were ordering pizza for home delivery. That didn’t work for me—I no longer believe it is God’s responsibility to bring us anything. That which we need we have already been given.
“And please remember, Richard, God is just a name, the same as Larry, Mary, Peter and Paul. Power isn’t in the name, but in the meaning behind the name. There is a source of universal power, a cosmic guidance system and infinite knowingness that cannot be explained. This It, whatever It is, can only be experienced. We can prove the existence of It through personal experience, but no living person can explain what It is. “Spaceship Earth, this spinning mass of natural resources, was a gift, a toy to be shared. Yet, self‑centered leaders, like children playing in a sandbox, fight over its resources as if they can steal from another person’s garden.
“In a universe governed by absolute law there are two sets of rules. On the one hand, we have Universal Rules, like the laws of music, the law of gravity, the law of cause and effect, and all of the other laws that govern life as we know it. And these cosmic laws are the same for everyone, everywhere, whether or not they are aware of them.
“On the other hand, we have man‑made rules and regulations. Officials in most governing bodies feel the need to establish their importance. In some places, leaders accomplished this by killing people. In other places, nations die as a result of over‑regulation.
“Yesterday someone on the radio claimed that we have over 48,000 laws on the books, with more being written every year. Why are there so many rules and regulations? And why are most people trying to avoid the really important ones?
“One example of a really important one is the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.’ It’s a karma thing. What goes around comes around. What we sow we eventually reap. What we do to another we have done to ourselves.
“Another example comes from West Point’s Code of Conduct: ‘I will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.’ “These two rules are all our nation needs to rise from the ashes of insanity and the graves of greed, yet most people don’t see it that way. They want what they want when they want it, and honestly believe in discretionary ethics. But, right now, saving this world isn’t our job.
“At birth, Richard, you were given the mind of a genius, the desire to play, no common sense, and free choice. That means you are going to make mistakes and you have lessons to learn, yet there is only one person who can truly tell you what to do. That is you. You do have the freedom to make your life a living hell, or a grand adventure. The choice is yours, as it is for everyone.
“Heaven and Hell are not distant places we go to, they are states of mind right here. And, time has three compartments—past, present, and future. The past consists of all the mental pictures you hold of all your yesterdays. The present is the ever‑present now that moves with you. And your future is only one nanosecond from now.
“The error, easily made, is paying too much attention to the compartments we cannot live in. Now is the only time that matters—the only time we can change anything.
“If you dug deeply into the lives of people who have experienced rich, full lives, you would discover one thing they all have in common: they mastered the art of focusing on the tasks at hand.
“Technically speaking, now is the only time where you can change anything; being born again means to begin anew. And it really doesn’t matter how many sins we’ve committed—we are not going to burn in Hell. In cases where the clinically dead have come back, none have returned with burns.
“In terms of being born again, you can begin anew the instant you make up your mind to become a different person. The day I quit smoking I didn’t quit smoking. I became a person who no longer smoked. And, you can do the same with smoking or any other bad habit you have.
“Every day is a new day, and every day can be a new beginning. People who remain stuck are stuck mentally. Most prefer to remain where they are, rather than change their minds.
“Richard, have I lost sight of your original question?”
“Not really,” I replied. “I asked how you became so calm, peaceful and strong. I don’t know what it is, but I know you’re different. And, whatever it is, I want to become more like you, if that’s possible.”
Russell replied, “It’s possible. You came into this world with everything you need. However, you must be willing to make several discoveries about yourself, what you believe, and the laws that I have been speaking about.
“I can point the way and give you things to do, but you must be willing to take the steps and do the work. And it is work. Are you ready to take the first step?”
Damn! What would Russell ask me to do? He wanted commitment, but was I ready? I stalled by asking, “If I agree to do whatever you ask and we begin to work together, what will that look like in terms of time and money?”
Russell replied, “Putting your life together is a process, not an event. Who knows how long it will take? There is a sequence involved, and how fast you make each discovery depends on you. What has worked for others are weekly meetings lasting about an hour, with weekly assignments.
“What I need from you is not your money. I need honesty, commitment, and a willingness to do the things I give you. When I ask questions, I demand straight answers. When I give assignments, I expect you to complete them. As long as you are willing to help yourself I am willing to point the way.
“Millions of people claim they want to be taught, yet very few are willing to learn. Learning occurs at the center of your being. Moving to higher ground demands a solid foundation, one that cannot be built with a hide‑and‑seek mentality.”
And I thought, Am I that transparent?
“If you agree to begin a life‑altering journey,” Russell said, “Thursday right after work would be best for me. Will Thursdays work for you?”
My inner voice screamed, Run, you idiot. Run!
I felt like running, but where would I go? My life sucked, I was going deeper into debt, work was a dead‑end street, and everyone who had been close to me was turning away.
The last time I tried to put my life together I made a list of things in need of repair. That list was so long that I went drinking. Dark bars were designed for people like me who drink alcohol to dull the pain.
Russell saw me sweating and sat in silence, watching me stew. As the first drop of perspiration fell from my face I said, “Thursdays will work just fine.”
“Great,” Russell replied. “As you drive away from here, I want you to start thinking about your life and what you want. Most people live with vague hopes and wishes, but never put down in writing what they really want.
“Once you get back to your office and have the time, find a pad of paper and begin a list of all the things you would like to have or to become. List what comes to mind without concern for better or worse, right or wrong.
“Once your list is complete, pretend that you have a magical lamp, one with the ability to grant you three of your desires. But you have to pick them.
“Two‑by‑two, compare one desire with another, and determine the one you most desire. Continue this selection process until you find from all of your desires the three that are the most important to you. And, don’t worry about how you will get what you want.
“One error, easily made, is allowing our lack of funds or weaknesses to lower our sights. Most people can’t plan beyond their current limitations, which keeps them trapped by their points of view.
“When you are doing this, I want you to step beyond your beliefs. I want you to think and act as if there were no limitations.
“Can you have your list of three completed by Thursday?”
What choices did I have? I could down‑shift into a passive‑aggressive gear, call Russell a meaningless fool, and wander away. Or, in blind faith, I could agree to make my list and narrow it down to three.
I was sitting on the hot seat, not knowing what to do. Could I do this? Would it mean anything? If this was so important, why haven’t I been asked to do it before? Not knowing for sure what I would do, I told Russell I would have it done by Thursday.
Russell stood, we shook hands, he paid the bill, and, as we walked in silence out the door, Russell handed me a card and left. Once I was seated in my car I looked at the card. Printed on that card:
There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is . . . which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.