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What I Learned At The Grand Canyon About How To Live My Life

By M. Burke Koonce, III


Almost exactly three years ago, I wrote this brief essay about a trip to the Grand Canyon our family had taken while my daughter was being evaluated at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. She was born with a chest-wall abnormality that would eventually require surgery.

That “eventually” eventuated three weeks ago, and I am thrilled to report that the procedure went wonderfully, and, so far anyway, she is doing extremely well—so well that it’s difficult for any of us to believe—a long, tall and healthy 16-year-old girl, with even a few smiles thrown in. If you don’t believe in miracles, or if you just want to feel a little humility and gratitude, spend some time around a pediatric hospital. Trust me.

Meantime, there’s a new stripe on the canyon wall of my memory. Special thanks to the physicians and staff at Wake Med Children’s Hospital.

I was in Arizona this week tending to some family business at the Mayo Clinic—it was possible that my daughter would require major surgery, so forgive me in advance for any subconscious del into an overly emotional state. However, I wanted to share with you my thoughts about perhaps the most incredible thing I have ever seen.

It’s the Grand Canyon.

I’d seen it once before, years ago. I drove from Raleigh to the Grand Canyon over a couple of days after graduating from business school. And it was an unforgettable sight even back then, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the more acute sense of human frailty that develops with middle age compounded the impact of seeing it again.

Part of the fun of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time is that there’s no dramatic build up—there’s no mountain range in the distance or obvious change in the immediate surrounding landscape. It’s hidden by trees until you’re just steps away, because, after all, it’s a hole. And then, it’s as if you’ve suddenly arrived at the edge of the entire world. Edging closer to it, your heartbeat quickens and you sense a primordial command installed by evolution—be careful. Five to fourteen miles across and more than a mile down to the Colorado River. I enjoy imagining what the Spanish conquistador Garcia Lopez de Cardenas must have thought upon encountering it for the first time. What did he say to his boss Coronado about not being able to make it down to the river? “Um, Francisco, all I can tell you is that it’s really big.” It’s also 277 miles long. That’s the distance from Raleigh to Charleston, S.C.

Of course, as you gaze into the Grand Canyon, your eyes are immediately drawn to the rock strata exposed on the canyon walls like layers of a cake. The Colorado River has been cutting away at the Colorado Plateau for about 6 million years. That’s a difficult number for human being to comprehend. As the Nobel-prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman pointed out, we have no environmental reason to be able to really understand how large of number that is. But the fact is, the Colorado River has been seeking sea level for 6,000 centuries.

Now, 6,000 centuries is a long time, but rocks exposed inside the Grand Canyon date back almost 1.8 billion years. Said another way, the rocks exposed in the basement of the Canyon, in a section called the Vishnu Schist, are 300,000 times as old as the Grand Canyon. (You know when a rock formation is named after an ancient Hindu god, it’s old.)

The exposed Vishnu Schist section dates from a collision between a group of volcanic islands and the southwestern coast of North America, which was at the time near present day Utah and southern Wyoming (did everybody know this but me?). About 1.2 billion years went by, and eventually this gigantic rocky crash site had been ground down to sea level. This allowed inland seas to form and fade, with their fortunes painted in the rock strata in the color of rust, because, after all, that’s what water does to iron. Then, a mere 250 million years ago, tectonic activity resumed, drying out the seas and forming the humungous sand dunes that cause the top section of the Grand Canyon to appear white, not red. Finally, in the geological equivalent to fairly recent (a mere 60 million years ago), the subduction of the Pacific plate beneath the North American plate caused the Colorado Plateau to lift up through the earth’s crust, exposing all of this cool stuff. That’s why the topography of Arizona changes so dramatically starting around Sedona, a couple hours south of the Grand Canyon—a huge plateau basically just got raised thousands of feet above the rest of the earth’s surface. Think of the plateau as a tall stack of pancakes and the Colorado River as a knife exposing all that flaky goodness.

So compared 1.8 billion years, 6 million years seems like a hockey season. It’s nothing. And yet it’s as long as the twenty centuries since the time of Christ multiplied by 3,000.

Again, our brains are just not equipped to comprehend how old this planet is. In all that time, so much has happened, both to the earth itself and to the creatures that inhabit it. It’s a shame we cannot really put it into perspective. The indefatigable power of time is relentless, remorseless, and truly invincible.

In contrast, the presence of humanity is like a fraction of a nanosecond in the geological spectrum. Our time here is so brief! Borrowing some financial nomenclature, the time that humans have been present on earth, about 200,000 years, represents less than half of a single basis point vs. the age of the earth.

Our ventures, concerns, and businesses could hardly be more meaningless in the fullness of time. But of course, it is the rarity of life that makes it so precious. The fact that it doesn’t last, that our time here is so fleeting and ephemeral, is what makes every moment so important.

Our family had a scare recently. Our daughter was diagnosed with a condition that could eventually require major surgery around her heart. We received good news at the Mayo Clinic—the doctors determined that we didn’t need to do anything now. But those moments in the clinic waiting on the verdict with a 13-year-old girl, all skinny elbows and knees and long, long hair—those moments will live forever in my mind. Those moments are now a great rust-colored stripe on the canyon wall of my life.
So what does all of this have to do with anything? (I warned you about the emotional state!)

I think the takeaway from my week studying geology and musculoskeletal biology is a lesson in probability and compounding. To achieve even the smallest goal, financial or otherwise, you’ve got to harness the power of time and try to employ it in your favor. Anything else is just folly and dumb luck. You’ve got to allow your successes and good habits to compound and you’ve got to avoid playing near the edge of the abyss. That’s it. We’re all human beings who take uncompensated risks and do dumb things, but you’ve got to keep your eye on the cliff wall. You’ve got to let the seas form and the wind blow. You’ve got to let the pressure build. And you’ve got to remember that 13-year-olds don’t last forever, and neither do 48-year olds. Your life and the lives of your loved ones aren’t special in the sense that they are worth more than somebody else’s but they are rare indeed and if you don’t want the odds in your favor as you try to protect and nourish them, you’re a fool.

As you allocate your time, do so in way that considers the opportunity cost and the power of compounding. As you consider your own health, do so in a way that considers opportunity cost and the power of compounding. Certainly, the same goes for your capital.
And remember the words of Ellis “Red” Redding, Andy Dufresne’s friend in the film The Shawshank Redemption:

“Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes, really… pressure… and time.”


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