Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, 4 Lessons in Transformation

Mike Mulligan

This month, we are focusing on lessons from my favorite children’s books. Today’s book is Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton.

Could it be that the books I loved as a child foreshadowed my passion for transformation as an adult? I’m starting to believe that.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is about Mike and his steam shovel Mary Ann. They were known far and wide as the fastest steam shovel team, building sky scrapers, airports and roads….until the gas and diesel shovels came along and made Mary Ann obsolete.

Mike loved Mary Ann and didn’t want to relegate her to the trash heap, like the other steam shovels. They found their way to a job in a small town, digging the basement of the town hall. Mike made a deal with the leaders that if he couldn’t finish the job in one day, they didn’t have to pay him.

They dug the basement in one day, but Mike forgot to leave a way out! Everyone in town had different ideas about how to handle this challenge. It took a little boy to think of the perfect transformational suggestion. What if Mary Ann became the furnace for the new town hall and Mike became the janitor? So that’s just what they did. The little boy provided a solution that used the best qualities of Mike and Mary Ann in a new way.

In this story I learned four things:

  1. Success can be fleeting.  Just because you’re on top now doesn’t mean you’ll be on top later.
  2. Faster isn’t always the best way to prove yourself.
  3. Solutions may come from unexpected places.  (This seems a recurring theme – it happened in The Little Engine that Could, too.)
  4. Unwanted transformation can lead to surprising purpose and satisfaction.

Unwanted Change isn’t Fun

Life brought Mike and Mary Ann unwanted change, their claim of being fastest and best was overtaken by others who could do it faster and better. That change was forced on them and it wasn’t fun. It’s not fun to go from top of the heap to searching for a place to add value.

Many of us have faced that experience at some point in our life. The definition of success we’d grown accustomed to no longer had meaning; either we outgrew it or the workplace didn’t value it any longer. Mike and Mary Ann didn’t give up, though. They went searching for a place where their services had meaning, even if they had to prove themselves all over again.

In this process they found the transformational change they needed. As a steam shovel, Mary Ann would always be outdated. Her days of being fastest and best were over. That didn’t mean she didn’t have meaning, though.

Transition as Opportunity

The same can be said for us as we transition. Each transition we pass through provides an opportunity to see things in a new way. If we can see the new opportunity – or have a wise guide work with us on it, we can find a new, potentially more meaningful way to engage and add value.

In my observation, it’s in these transitions that our purpose, our WHY reveals itself. The wisdom of the young boy who suggested Mary Ann as the furnace for the new town hall is a great metaphor for finding a new way of using the knowledge and experience you’ve built over the years.

The transition may not be easy or even what you would choose, but the transformation will allow you to contribute your strengths to the world in a different way. Who knows, you may even be able to make a bigger difference in this new place.

Where have you experienced success and then found yourself searching for new solutions? Share your thoughts and comments!

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