5 Mistakes You Should Make While You’re Young

800px-spruce_trees_covered_in_heavy_snowGeorge and Jacob were successful men looking for a little adventure in retirement. They’d done well in business and decided to relocate their families to sunny California. They packed up their possessions and savings and prepared to head west.

They chose to travel overland, and built themselves the biggest, most luxurious vehicles money could buy. They outfitted them with expensive furnishings, the best gear available, and hired a team of professionals to handle the driving.

They were going to arrive in style and bring their high standard of living with them.

450 miles into the trip, things were going great. George’s wife wrote this to a friend back home:

“The trouble is all in getting started.” 

But in fact, the trouble was just getting started. George and Jacob’s success in business made them overconfident. They failed their due diligence, assumed they knew more than they did, and made rookie mistakes. They packed way too much stuff and put their faith in all the wrong people.

And too late in their lives they made a mistake from which they could not recover. Somewhere in southwestern Wyoming they decided to take a shortcut. This is where all the trouble started for George & Jacob Donner.

Yes, those Donners. Of the Donner Party. The doomed wagon train that suffered every misfortune and mistake and got trapped in the Sierras in the winter of 1846.

Only 48 of the 89 men, women and children in the party survived. It took a heroic effort by them and their rescuers, and the ultimate sacrifice of the other 41 members of the party. The survivors had to eat the flesh of their dead just to stay alive.

So what caused the demise of these two decent, hard-working men? George and Jacob only wanted the best for their families and were kind and supportive toward their fellow travelers. They weren’t bad guys who deserved a bitter end.

They were unlucky guys who made some bad decisions.

They took the advice of a wannabe pioneer guide named Lansford Hastings. He recommended a shortcut away from the Oregon trail that would cut 350 miles from the trip along an easy, smooth path.

But Hastings had only ridden the path on horseback, and never with a wagon train. The “shortcut” took the Donner Party 150 miles out of their way, taking a month they could not afford to lose. It wore them out, destroyed their morale, and cost them their lives.

This mistake was piled on a list of others that sealed their doom:

  • They built oversized and overweight wagons that got stuck in the mud, wore out their oxen and slowed them down
  • They were traveling with too few able-bodied men
  • They did not have the knowledge or skill to survive the deserts, mountains, snow, and hostile native tribes
  • They took advice from an untrustworthy source
  • They heard what they wanted to hear (a 350 mile shortcut) instead of what was really being offered – a route never traveled by wagons mapped out by an inexperienced opportunist.

Ultimately the wealthy Donner brothers got into the kind of trouble they couldn’t buy their way out of.  All because of mistakes, mistakes Manic Impressives and Donners can’t afford to make. Here are a few tips to help your party avoid the fate of the Donners:

  • Take risks when you’re young and on your own –  George & Jacob had 2 wives, 12 kids and 6 hired hands between them. You can risk your own life, but don’t gamble with the lives of others.
  • Know what will be useful and what will be dead weight – Pack accordingly. When you realize something’s weighing you down, dump it quick! There’s a reason we say you can’t take it with you…
  • Make adjustments to your plan after careful and intelligent consideration – Don’t put your faith in the opinions of people as inexperienced as you. Get expert advice and confirm it against more expert advice.
  • Know what you know and what you don’t know – The Donners had never seen snow like they faced in the Sierra. Back home they’d get a few inches that would melt away in a few days. Truckee had a snowpack of 22 feet in 1846. No way these midwestern farm boys were prepared for that.
  • Take the road less traveled when you’re young and can handle the bushwacking  – At ages 60 & 54, George and Jacob should have stayed on the well established trail. They would have died old, fat and happy, instead of frozen, starved, and eaten.

So before you head off to retirement, make sure you’ve made plenty of mistakes in your early years. Take your big risks when stakes are low and you have time to recover. Learn those tough lessons that only experience brings, and don’t repeat them once you’ve been taught.

And when you’re driving east on Interstate 80 from California, stop at the bottom of Donner Pass and check out the statue at Donner Memorial State Park. Then thank God for your 4-wheel drive, your tank of gas and your heater, and say a prayer for George, Jacob, their families and the rest of the Donner Party…





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