Life’s lessons are often hard won. Through a process of trial and error, we slowly learn those things that make us better people. If we are lucky and learn these lessons early enough, we can serve as an example to our children. If we are very lucky, we might even earn the pride of our own parents.
I’m creeping up on half a century of experience. Some things have been easy. Some I’ve had to learn that aren’t really in my nature but have served me well. I have a list here of things to talk about. So as to not get too lengthy, I’m going to post them five at a time in no particular order (yes, that means there will be more posts). Here we go:
Of all the items on this list, this was the single hardest one for me to acquire. As a young and very shy person, I would feed my curiosity not by asking questions, but by seeking out the answers on my own. I got my knowledge the hard way. If a teacher said something I didn’t fully understand, I would work on my own time to find the answer instead of simply raising my hand and asking for a clarification.
It wasn’t until towards the end of my undergraduate studies that I finally started raising my hand. I’d managed to get to the point where I’d realized that asking a question when you didn’t know was perhaps the smartest thing you could do.
But asking questions isn’t just about clarification. It’s also about gaining new knowledge. “Why is the sky blue?” “If there are so many stars in the universe, why is night black?” “Why do some people prefer red while others prefer blue?” Sometimes the answer to these sorts of questions can be found in a book or be provided by someone who just happens to know the answer. Sometimes, these are questions that haven’t been adequately answered yet. It’s an opportunity to find out new knowledge.
Questions are also important when you already have answers. Every answer needs to be questioned as to whether the answer is correct. I’ll use Wikipedia as an example. It’s a great first reference for finding answers to questions. While I think its accuracy has been attacked beyond all proportion to a few errors and abuses, it does highlight how important it is to not rely on one source of information. Question everything, but don’t become so cynical that you believe nothing.
One of the best skills to have is the ability to listen. By paying attention to others, you come to understand what others are saying. That seems obvious, but how often do you fail to remember what your friend or spouse or child said about thisandthat? When you pay attention, you also tend to learn more.
These days, we are confronted with a flood of information. If we listened to everything, the argument goes, we’d never have time for anything else. True, you do have to prioritize. The thing is, you have to learn how to know what to listen to and what not to.
It’s not as easy as you’d think. Consider the number of children who act out simply to get their parents’ attention. If the parents spent a little more time actually listening to their kids, they’d actually be more efficient because they wouldn’t have to deal with these outbursts later.
Me…I’ve always tried to listen. Back in school, teachers would talk to me outside of class because I would listen to them. I helped to give some worth to their words. I wasn’t just a bored student, I was someone who treated them as a person. Plus side? It didn’t hurt when grading came out, though that wasn’t my intent.
People who spend any time with me know that I’m a smart-ass. When you say something, I’ll be more than happy to play with your words. On the very few occasions where people have raised it as a possible issue, I simply countered that my playfulness proved that I was listening to every word they said. In every case, that realization held sway. Sure, I can be a little annoying at times, but I am listening.
Admit When You Are Wrong
This one is tough for a lot of people. They remember back to their childhood. Often, the aftermath of a mistake was some sort of perceived punishment. It doesn’t take long before the lesson is learned that if you do something wrong you should never admit to it. Many people never manage to grow out of this.
I’ll admit, sometimes it’s tough to say that some error is my fault. The fallout can be harsh, but its nothing compared to having someone find out you had the opportunity to admit your error and didn’t.
This is definitely one of those character-building lessons. It says that you take personal responsibility for the things that you do and the choices that you make.
I’m often confused during political campaigns when this candidate or that is accused of “flip-flopping” on some issue. Personally, unless the the change was for some political expediency, that politician’s worth grows in my eyes. It takes a lot to publicly admit when you think that a belief you held before was wrong so you changed your mind.
Many people as they get older seem to hold on tighter and tighter to their various beliefs. Again, I think this relates back to the reluctance to admit that you were wrong. It can be a big step. As for me, I encourage people to show me where I might be in error. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I was wrong. True, my admission may seem more like the turning of an ocean liner than the spin-in-place of a forklift, but if I can see that I’m in error I’ll want to correct it.
Give Due Credit
Most of us have worked under some boss or co-worker who will take your idea and present it as their own. Worse, some of you are students and simply copy passages out of some text and don’t cite your sources.
I understand how tough it can be when others praise you for a result when you weren’t the sole, or even primary, contributor. Having one’s ego stroked and rewarded can be very seductive. Very seductive. But it isn’t real.
I’ve been a manager. I know how it is when the suits start praising the work of your department. But…I was also a worker in that department before I managed it. I knew what it was like to be given the credit I was due for my contributions, or to not be given that credit. So, when it was my turn to have to face the suits, I’d give credit where credit was due. The result? I had a loyal team that I could depend on. I did right by them, so they did right by me.
Speak Up When You Have Something To Say
This one can be tough, maybe even tougher than asking questions. The thing is that not speaking up tends to lead to miscommunication. People are not mind readers. Others do not know what you are thinking. You actually do have to communicate to them what is on your mind. If you don’t, then you are at fault when they don’t magically have insight into your expectations.
The thing that we are keenly aware of is that speaking one’s mind can have serious consequences. Sometimes there is much to lose: friendships, marriages, jobs, and more. My experience has been that it’s usually better to say than not to say. Often, it’s how you say it, or when, that is important than the actual content of the message.
Of course the classic example of speaking up is the whistle-blower who tries to shed light on a company’s problem that has been kept under wraps. Despite laws to the contrary, all too often these gadflies are severely persecuted. And yet, some brave souls have the character to speak out when necessary. But not all speaking up is about corporate malfeasance and congressional hearings. More often it’s personal.
Think back to all those times when you were at the dining table thinking…hoping…that the person across from you would do something different. Maybe if you stare at them a certain way, or maybe if you talk about the dog, they’ll understand that you are really talking about that new chair they bought that you wished they hadn’t. Amazingly, they don’t pick up on your obvious clues. So you wallow and stew.
Or, perhaps you waited a little too long to say something. Here’s an example that has stuck with me for years from the Nobel-awarded physicist Richard Feyman about a task he was sent on during World War II to the Oak Ridge plant that was refining uranium for the first nuclear bombs:
So I went through the entire plant. I have a very bad memory, but when I work intensively I have a good short term memory, and so I could remember all kinds of crazy things like building 90-207, vat number so-and-so, and so forth.
I went to my room that night, and went through the whole thing, explained where all the dangers were, and what you would have to do to fix this. It’s rather easy. You put cadmium in solutions to absorb the neutrons in the water and you separate the boxes so they are not too dense, according to certain rules.
The next day there was going to be a big meeting. When I arrived, sure enough, the big shots in the company and the technical people that I wanted were there, and the generals and everyone who was interested in this very serious problem. That was good because the plant would have blown up if nobody had paid attention to this problem.
There was a Lieutenant Zumwalt who took care of me. He told me that the colonel said I shouldn’t tell them how the neutrons work and all the details because we want to keep things separate, so just tell them what to do to keep it safe.
I said, “In my opinion it is impossible for them to obey a bunch of rules unless they understand how it works. It’s my opinion that it’s only going to work if I tell them, and Los Alamos cannot accept the responsibility for the safety of the Oak Ridge plant unless they are fully informed as to how it works!”
The lieutenant takes me to the colonel and repeats my remark. The colonel says, “Just five minutes,” and then he goes to the window and he stops and thinks. That’s what they’re very good at — making decisions. I thought it was very remarkable how a problem of whether or not information as to how the bomb works should be in the Oak Ridge plant had to be decided and could be decided in five minutes. So I have a great deal of respect for these military guys, because I never can decide anything very important in any length of time at all.
In five minutes he said, “All right, Mr. Feynman, go ahead.”
I sat down and I told them all about neutrons, how they worked, da da, ta ta ta, there are too many neutrons together, you’ve got to keep the material apart, cadmium absorbs, and slow neutrons are more effective than fast neutrons, and yak yak — all of which was elementary stuff at Los Alamos, but they had never heard of any of it, so I appeared to be a tremendous genius to them.
The result was that they decided to set up little groups to make their own calculations to learn how to do it. They started to redesign plants, and the designers of the plants were there, the construction designers, and engineers, and chemical engineers for the new plant that was going to handle the separated material.
They told me to come back in a few months, so I came back when the engineers had finished the design of the plant. Now it was for me to look at the plant.
How do you look at a plant that isn’t built yet? I don’t know. Lieutenant Zumwalt, who was always coming around with me because I had to have an escort everywhere, takes me into this room where there are these two engineers and a loooooong table covered with a stack of blueprints representing the various floors of the proposed plant.
I took mechanical drawing when I was in school, but I am not good at reading blueprints. So they unroll the stack of blueprints and start to explain it to me, thinking I am a genius. Now, one of the things they had to avoid in the plant was accumulation. They had problems like when there’s an evaporator working, which is trying to accumulate the stuff, if the valve gets stuck or something like that and too much stuff accumulates, it’ll explode. So they explained to me that this plant is designed so that if any one valve gets stuck nothing will happen. It needs at least two valves everywhere.
Then they explain how it works. The carbon tetrachloride comes in here, the uranium nitrate from here comes in here, it goes up and down, it goes up through the floor, comes up through the pipes, coming up from the second floor, bluuuuurp going through the stack of blueprints, down up-down-up, talking very fast, explaining the very, very complicated chemical plant.
I’m completely dazed. Worse, I don’t know what the symbols on the blueprint mean! There is some kind of a thing that at first I think is a window. It’s a square with a little cross in the middle, all over the damn place. I think it’s a window, but no, it can’t be a window, because it isn’t always at the edge. I want to ask them what it is.
You must have been in a situation like this when you didn’t ask them right away. Right away it would have been OK. But now they’ve been talking a little bit too long. You hesitated too long. If you ask them now they’ll say, “What are you wasting my time all this time for?”
What am I going to do? I get an idea. Maybe it’s a valve. I take my finger and I put it down on one of the mysterious little crosses in the middle of one of the blueprints on page three, and I say, “What happens if this valve gets stuck?” — figuring they’re going to say, “That’s not a valve, sir, that’s a window.”
So one looks at the other and says, “Well, if that valve gets stuck –” and he goes up and down on the blueprint, up and down, the other guy goes up and down, back and forth, back and forth, and they both look at each other. They turn around to me and they open their mouths like astonished fish and say, “You’re absolutely right, sir.”
So they rolled up the blueprints and away they went and we walked out. And Mr. Zumwalt, who had been following me all the way through, said, “You’re a genius. I got the idea you were a genius when you went through the plant once and you could tell them about evaporator C-21 in building 90 207 the next morning,” he says, “but what you have just done is so fantastic I want to know how, how do you do that?”
I told him you try to find out whether it’s a valve or not.
— Richard Feynman,
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! ©1985
[The whole book is filled with anecdotes like this. I highly recommend not only buying it for your personal library but reading it with gusto. - CJ]
I think we can all relate to that story. But it also shows that even when you’ve waited just a little too long, it’s generally better to speak up and be a little embarrassed than to keep your mouth shut and hope the situation doesn’t go nuclear.
And like I said, I’m going to stop there. I’ve have many more items on the list which I’ll be posting soon enough.