Q: “Your daughter Anne said this about you: “Dad is the smartest person I have ever known. He always wins at Trivial Pursuit. He looks great in a tux or his dress blues. His successes never surprise me; they just make me proud. He’s the best mechanic in town.” Which of those compliments do you value the most?”
Colin Powell: “The last one, of course.”
* * *
Over the first few months of our exploration of passion, we have found there are a few constants, and none of them are more constant than this: We treat our passions unseriously. That is to say, we cannot help but think of them as frivolous, pointless, unworthy of discussion, complete wastes of time. Life moves too fast and it is too fraught with responsibilities, duties, meetings, and worries for us to freely spend time working in our garden or noodling with the guitar or going through our old baseball cards.
Now consider Colin Powell. He is a retired four-star general, Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command, Secretary of State, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor … you think he had a few things on his mind through the years?
Behind the gorgeous mansion where the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff lives in Washington, there are garages. Gen. Powell had three of those garages. It’s where he kept junker old Volvos. And, as often as he could, he would go there and try to make those Volvos run again.
“The garages faced away from the house,” he says, “so my wife did not see what was going on back there and so I was not disturbing her. … She got fed up with that, by the way. You’ll notice I’m not allowed to disassemble anything now at our home garages. My car rebuilding days are over.”
He says this with a touch of sadness in his voice as he stands in his garage with his beloved Corvette and classic 1970s Mercedes. You would think this is the dream. But for Gen. Powell, breathing life into those old cars was not just a passion. It was his source of delight. It was his engaging daily challenge. And it was his salvation.
Gen. Powell readily admits that he’s not a natural mechanic, not one of those rare people who has an innate sense of how things fit together. Like all great passions, it took work. He taught himself how to fix cars.
“I had manuals,” he says. “I spent my time reading, studying. I bought these manuals -- you can get them at any auto parts store -- to tell me what was wrong, what was in the car, how to take it apart. I never had any formal training. I just started pulling it apart, taking off pieces to see if I could get it back together. Slowly but surely, I attempted and mastered some things. I learned all about the English carburetors that were difficult to synchronize. I learned how to pull an engine, pull the head off an engine, how to reconnect a transmission.”
Working on old Volvos -- taking $200 rattletraps and getting them back on the road -- was endlessly fascinating to him. When dealing with some of the most complicated and intractable problems from around the world, he would go to the garage, pull an engine, think and rethink ways to get the car moving again.
“It was about keeping my sanity,” he says. “In this case, rather than dealing with humans, I knew what was wrong when the car was telling me what was wrong. What I had to do was reduce the possible causes, then think about it for a couple of nights. Which of these is the real problem? If I thought this was the real problem, I’d go out and that was what I’d fix. If the car would start and run, I was so happy.
“You can’t do that with human beings, because as soon as you’ve got a problem solved, somebody brings a new problem.”
For Colin Powell, fixing cars was an escape. But it was more than that. It clarified his thoughts. It gave him a short-term purpose. It brought him great joy. Plenty of people couldn’t understand it. But these old Volvos, the oil on his hands and clothes, the countless hours he spent thinking about making an old car go, these are what brought balance to his life. If you ask Gen. Colin Powell to talk about his proudest achievement, something he looks back on, he might talk about his statesmanship, his leadership, his impact on the world. His life has no shortage of glorious accomplishments.
But if you get to know him, what he will REALLY tell you is how proud he is that he was able to keep the same car going for all three of his children through college. He gave it to his oldest son, Michael, when he went to William & Mary. Then it was passed to Linda, who also decided to go to William & Mary. Then his third child, Anne, she was about to go to Princeton, changed her mind, also went to William & Mary, and she got the car. Again and again, four-star General Colin Powell fixed that car, kept it going, kept it breathing, until Anne graduated.
“At the end, they finally brought it back home,” he says, “and that was it. I could not get it started. I finally had to junk it. We got ten years out of a used car. You’re not going to do much better than that.”