Thomas the Tank Engine, The Fat Controller & Wilbert

If you have ever visited the Island of Sodor you will know exactly how the locals define success.

Success has nothing to do with being a puffed-up bragger with airs. On Sodor, being important is not that important.

Pull an engine out of the swamp, stop some run-away, rescue a friend stuck in the snow and later that night the Fat Controller will stand on a lump of wood and pronounce to all and sundry that: “you are a very useful engine.” On Sodor, this is the ultimate accolade, a sure sign of success.

Wilbert Awdry, the creator of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, lived this philosophy himself. He became a publishing phenomena with over 50 million books sold. It was never his original purpose, though, to write a book or to have it published. Just being useful was his rationale.

When his young son, Christopher, was recovering from chicken pox and was confined to bed in a darkened room for a week Wilbert entertained him with stories he made up about trains.

Wilbert himself grew up in the age of steam engines. He lived near the railway junction and he would lie awake at night imagining trains were talking to each other.  As they tooted through the station and yards Wilbert imagined they were exchanging news about what had happened to them during the day.

These imaginary conversations became the basis of Wilbert’s stories for his sick son. Christopher recovered but he still wanted to hear the stories. Christopher insisted his father retell his stories, word perfect, every night.

Wilbert started to write the stories down to avoid complaints that he had changed a detail here or there. Then he added illustrations. He couldn’t draw so he drew the people in the stories as stick figures. To illustrate the personality of each of the engines in his stories, Wilbert drew them head on and gave them each a big moon face. Some were always happy and cheerful, others were worriers. Some were just plain glum.

Wilbert had no intentions of publishing his stories. His wife, however, insisted his characters and stories were better than most other books written for children at the time. Wilbert wasn’t so sure, but in the interests of domestic bliss he mailed some stories to publishers.

The publishers unanimously rejected his submissions. And Wilbert never helped his own cause. He sent his stories to publishers on bits of scrap paper found lying around the house. He also insisted that his weird little drawings of moon-faced engines were a critical part of his stories. Eventually, though, the books were published and quickly became a sensation.

This never changed Wilbert’s motivation. He wrote for his son’s pleasure, and when Christopher grew up, Wilbert started to write for the enjoyment of other people’s children. For Wilbert and the inhabitants of Sodor, the hub of success and motivation is simple. Find something useful to do and power and enthusiasm quickly follow. It’s a strategy that works for Thomas. It’s a strategy that worked for Wilbert. It’s a strategy that will work for me.

It’s not that I want to pay tax. Paying tax is a measure. It’s a way I will measure that I’ve returned to be a useful contributor to our business.

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