The Janitor’s Tale

I heard this parable on a radio talk show. It explores some important lessons about conventional wisdom, expectations, and opportunity, so I thought I would share it. I don’t know where it originated from here’s a paraphrased version of it.

16-06-janitor-cigarettesThere once was a janitor who worked for a large corporation in the 1900s. Like many working class folks at the time this janitor couldn’t read or write. 🙁 Although he was a quick learner, he never finished school because he started working at a young age to help out his family. Over time many of the other custodians at the company would go through janitorial education and get certified and promoted. But because this janitor was illiterate he couldn’t pass the certificate exams to become a world class janitor.

On his way home he would sometimes pass by a group of men loitering outside a local pub. They would often complain how there was no place to buy cigarettes around the neighborhood. They had to walk 10 blocks away to get to the nearest store that sells smokes. The curious janitor stopped one day to ask the men why not start their own cigarette business close by. “We don’t have the time,” they would reply.

Eventually the janitor decided to open a small cigarette store right beside the pub. He operated the store on his own during the evenings and weekends. It became very popular and he soon opened another location, and then another, and hired people to help his growing business. Then he quit his job as a janitor and continued to grow his cigarette company, which made him a ton of money. 🙂

When a large tobacco company offered to purchase his company he asked his accountant to read the offer letter to him. The accountant was unexpectedly surprised to learn that the successful entrepreneur didn’t know how to read. “You’ve already accomplished so much with your knowledge,” said the accountant. “Imagine where you would be right now if you were literate.” The ex-janitor chuckled and replied, “I’ll tell you exactly where I’d be. I would still be back at my old job sweeping floors.”

Random Useless Fact:

There’s a piece of land in the far Arctic named Hans Island. Since the 1930s, this nondescript island has been at the center of an ongoing battle between two countries.


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06/24/2016 5:13 am

Extolling the virtues of illiteracy, great story. Wtf, dude. I volunteer with a literacy organisation and there is NOTHING! valuable or inspiring about illiteracy.

How about a real life “parable”.

A man I knew (since deceased) was a janitor (with no higher education) in real life . His wife wanted a big family so he decided he had to become wealthy in order to support his growing family — they had 8 kids. He went to work as a car salesman and after a few years eventually bought the dealership from the retiring owner. A number of years later he sold the dealership for over $1 million. He took that million and bought stocks, lucky enough to get in at the start of the 20-year bull market (c. ~1980).

He made so much money, and so much dividend income, that he gifted each of his 8 children $10,000 a year…for tax purposes.

Imagine, once a janitor and now having to give away $80,000 a year just so you can pay less tax!

He was also literate.

06/24/2016 7:40 pm
Reply to  Anon

The story is “The Verger” by W. Somerset Maugham

In the original rendition, he is discriminated against because he is illiterate: he’s effectively fired from his position with the Church, even though he does his job well, because his illiteracy puts him on a lower rung of the class system.

JC @ Passive-Income-Pursuit
06/24/2016 11:11 am

I’d never heard this parable before but it’s a great story about the power of hard work and being able to recognize an opportunity when you see it.

06/25/2016 5:45 am

And a great story about selling cigarettes. No need for a parable, I’m sure you could find real life stories about uneducated entrepreneurs running their own cigarette “business” in Quebec.

Financial Canadian
06/25/2016 2:27 pm

This is a really interesting story, and if I had to sum it up in a statement it would be “ignorance is bliss.”

Sometimes the people who are most successful seem to be the ones who’ve never considered that they could fail.

This also makes me think of Floyd Mayweather, who is definitely extremely wealthy and also illiterate.

06/25/2016 10:11 pm

Mayweather is also a criminal who beats women.

So is there a greater correlation between illiteracy and wealth or illiteracy and crime/violence?

06/26/2016 5:21 pm

Extreme survivourship bias.
How many failed illiterate entrepreneurs are there?

The original tale was written during the Great Depression when it might have been possible to succeed financially whilst illiterate. In the modern world, not so much.

06/27/2016 3:49 pm

Yes, a small fraction of every new generation is smarter and more intellectually capable, the rest of the populace, however, stays as simple as ever. Just look out your window if you want proof (e.g. Brexit).