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That One Thing. Was Curly, in City Slickers Wrong?

A friend of mine likes to quote from City Slickers, the movie from the ’90s where three urban guys having midlife crises go on a cattle drive in Colorado and learn life lessons. At one point the grizzled old cowboy named Curly, played by Jack Palance, tells them the secret of happiness in life. 

Holding up one finger, Curly says, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s—t.”

The three guys think Curly’s about to tell them what that “one thing” is. But when they ask, the old cowpuncher just smiles and says, “That’s what you have to find out.”

It takes a minute to realize what he’s saying—that you have to find out what that “one thing” is for yourself—your “one thing.” It’s not something in particular.

My friend quoted that line for years. I guess he was looking for his own “one thing.”

But I think Curly got it wrong.

Years ago, I went on a vacation where I’d planned everything down to the hour—not just where I would stay, but exactly what attractions I would visit and where I would eat every day. I was so afraid I would miss something, I treated it like a military maneuver.

In the middle of the trip, I was supposed to take a train and spend the second half of my trip in a different town. But the train workers were on strike, so the trains weren’t running, and there was no way for me to get to the other town. I spent the rest of my vacation in the same place I’d already been, and I was forced to throw out all my plans and just wing it.

Of course, that turned out to be the best part of the trip. 

Without all the scheduling to follow, I relaxed and did things spontaneously. I explored the city more deeply and took time to meet people. 

I learned it doesn’t really matter where you are. The world is full of interesting places and things to do. Just pick one and enjoy it.

As Americans we often celebrate our freedom to choose, but strangely, sometimes lack of choice can be more inspiring and helpful than having a menu to choose from.

Jane Friedman, who has carved out a niche for herself as a consultant helping writers negotiate the world of publishing, was asked what she’s most thankful for in her career. She said: “Lack of options.”

She explained: She grew up in a place that offered few options, but that made her learn to be resourceful.

She got only one offer for a college internship, but that was all she needed, and she made the most of it.

There was only one employment option in the city where she lived, but that forced her to learn to excel even where it was challenging and she wasn’t happy.

Later, limited opportunities in her field led her to become a freelancer and then an entrepreneur.

Throughout, Friedman rarely had the luxury of choice. Instead, she responded to the opportunities that were available, while always pursuing the kinds of work she enjoyed. This combination of flexibility and focus led her down a path that was rewarding, satisfying, and ultimately uniquely right for her.

“Bloom where you’re planted” has always seemed too limiting to me—I love to get out, explore, and learn different ways of living, in different places. After all, Dorothy Gale didn’t appreciate her home in Kansas until after she’d had her adventures in Oz. 

And at times when you do have plenty to choose from, I say make the most of it—try a little of everything, find out what you like.

But the whole point of freedom is the ability to choose. If you never settle on something, thinking you’ll preserve your freedom that way, what’s the point?

Globe itself started out as a silver mining camp, after all. The name came from a ball of silver someone dug up, apparently. But the silver petered out and what really made Globe a thriving city—and still does—was the copper. No one chose between silver and copper. The copper was here, and so the miners dug it up. 

So sooner or later you’re going to want to pick something, your own “one thing.” And it almost doesn’t matter what it is. 

What does matter, and what will lead to satisfaction and rewards down the road, is the dedication, commitment, perseverance, and loyalty that you apply.

When you’re standing at a crossroads, don’t agonize too much over what to choose. Whatever you choose will be the right choice—when you make it your “one thing.”

About Patricia Sanders

Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She currently lives on Santa Maria island in the Azores.

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