The stories of John Henry, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill were passed by word of mouth until they blossomed into the tall tales we know and love. And these tales kept spinning for a reason: As adults, we can look past the story-time performance and glimpse into the deeper teachings of the larger-than-life characters. Here’s what the tall tales you know can teach you about life.
Johnny Appleseed, an apple fairy of sorts, doled out apple seeds to pioneer families in need and planted apple orchards along thousands of miles of westward expanding America.
Though we now turn to supermarkets for our apple needs, we tell and retell Appleseed’s tale: He gave a gift that continues to yield nutrients and lasting provision to this day. It was an epic act of service. The more you serve, the more joyful you’ll be. A documentary, “HAPPY” scours the world for how one achieves happiness, and the answer: Through living for others, your life becomes joy you never thought possible.
Johnny Cash, Doc Watson and Bruce Springsteen have immortalized the tale of John Henry in song. This railroad working legend used his superhuman strength to race a steam-powered drill through a mountain, as men couldn’t afford to lose their jobs to machines. Shortly after his miraculous victory, John Henry’s heart failed from the exertion. A popular rendition of the “John Henry Ballad” ends with, “They took John Henry to the White House/ And buried him in the san’.”
Moral of the story: Talk less. Do more. Entitlement often blinds us from realizing doing may be more effective than asking—we expect promotions with time and ask for higher wages without increasing performance. John Henry knew his job was at stake and he died proving his worth. If you are unhappy with the compensation you receive, show—don’t tell—why you deserve what you believe you’re owed.
Though he had to leave his native town due to chaos inflicted by his gigantic size, Paul Bunyan was able to employ his strength for good. In his story, Paul and his also gigantic ox, Babe, help a logging crew traveling west across America, digging out the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and Grand Canyon while also giving shape to the Rockies. There were pancakes and maple syrup somewhere in there, too.
From Paul Bunyan, we learn to play to our strengths. Are you super-sized and ridiculously strong? Maybe a logging adventure is in your future, even if your mom wants you to be a neurosurgeon. So often we cram into restricting molds. As Albert Einstein is purported to have said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Pecos Bill and his family, including 18 brothers and sisters, travel across Texas to evade the squatters encroaching 50 miles away from their land. En route, Pecos Bill falls out of the wagon into the Pecos River and is subsequently raised by a pack of coyotes. Later in life, Pecos Bill’s brother finds Pecos Bill and informs him that he is a human, not a coyote. Bill then matures into a phenomenal cowboy as he invents the rodeo by riding a tornado, saddles a cougar, ropes an entire herd at one time, uses a rattlesnake as a whip and invents the lasso to help man do what he can do with his bare hands.
Self-belief is the ticket: Pecos Bill believed himself exempt from the confinements of mankind as a coyote. We can accomplish wild feats when we don’t put limitations on ourselves. The frontier cowboys were charged with arduous tasks in the Wild West, and stories like these inspired perseverance to triumph and glory. Today, we can believe ourselves into achievement as well. If you believe you can, you can, if you believe you cannot, you cannot—but maybe leave the tornado riding to Pecos Bill.