12 Useful Lessons Learned the Hard Way

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When I was 13 years old, I had a job as a stock boy in a neighborhood food and liquor store. One of my chores was to uncrate cases of wine shipped in from Italy. Somewhere along the way the straw-filled crates would become home to hundreds of cockroaches. When I cracked the cases open the roaches would pour out in a black wave. Not pleasant. One day, while I was looking for something to swat a fat roach preening itself on the concrete block walls, the owner, a tough old German immigrant came hurrying by, saw what I was trying to do and without breaking stride reached up and squashed the roach with his thumb. “That’s what your thumb is for, boy,” he said over his shoulder.

Lesson Number One: Sometimes imagination is the enemy. A bug is just a bug—don’t exaggerate the problem.

Lesson Number Two: Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Lesson Number Three: Lead by example.

I learned the lead-by-example lesson again as a Navy helicopter crewman. The Sikorsky helicopters we flew were configured in such a way that the pilots sat high up above the main cabin where the crewman would monitor the sonar ball or operate the cable for lifting people out of the water. The helicopter had a wide opening in its side for accommodating rescue operations.

If the helicopter itself went down, it was important to allow the rotor blades to hit the water before bailing out. I remember asking a pilot how I would know exactly when to leave the helicopter. He said, “It’s simple. When you see me run past you, that’s the time.”

My experience as a helicopter crewman also provided a vivid example of the importance of well-designed job aids. The wet suits we wore were a dark olive-colored rubberized material. They were not very visible in the water. But the soles of the boots attached to the wet suits were a bright yellow.

I never thought much about why that was until one gray February day over a cold, choppy Atlantic Ocean as I was attempting to rescue a sailor. Just as he was reaching for the sling that would lift him to safety he drifted beneath the helicopter and out of my sight. I guided the pilot through the movement that it seemed to me would bring the man back into view but he was gone. He was nowhere to be found. After some frantic maneuvering I finally looked up and there, off in the distance, drifting quickly away, was a pair of yellow boot bottoms. It took just another minute or two to get a very cold and grateful sailor out of a very large ocean.

Lesson Number Four: Conditions change, and conditions affect actions.

Lesson Number Five: Good job aids are far more important than they get credit for being.

At another point in my misspent youth, a friend of mine and I ran a junk-collecting and -moving business, and, since our clientele was as poor as we were, the two businesses were often indistinguishable. Our truck was an old croaker that was on its last legs but somehow took all the abuse we threw at it. It was a bitterly cold winter day when we drove from Chicago up across the Wisconsin border to move the belongings of a family from a poor rural environment to an equally poor urban environment.

We were unloading a washer from the back of the truck in the alley behind our customer’s tenement. I was on the ground and my partner was lowering the washer down to me. Did I mention that it was January and that in Chicago in January human life is difficult to sustain outdoors? The front-loading washer door popped open and a full load of wet laundry in a slush of half-frozen water poured down on me. My sympathetic partner laughed so hard he lost his grip, and the whole thing fell on me.

Lesson Five Learned Again: Conditions affect actions.

Lesson Number Six: Murphy’s Law always applies. (Murphy’s Law is usually stated as “If anything can go wrong it will.” What he actually said was, “If there are two or more ways to do a thing and one of them will result in disaster, someone will do it.” His emphasis was not on the thing that happens itself, but on the inevitable human error.

Lesson Number Seven: Don’t overlook the obvious.

Lesson Number Eight: Co-workers are not a good source of sympathy for stupidity.

Sometimes the danger overlooked seems hard to believe. As a sales rep for a janitor supply company, one of my jobs was pest control for some of our customers. This was back in the days of DDT and other toxic chemicals that we applied both copiously and vigorously. I remember setting off my DDT bombs in the basement of an old saloon in a working class neighborhood in Chicago and then retreating upstairs to the bar to join the morning crowd of old-timers with their shots and beers. We all sat calmly sipping beer and watching the fog of DDT rise up through the floorboards and suffuse the barroom. No one complained or even commented. I have been immune to insect bites and biological weapons ever since.

Lesson Seven Learned Again: Look closely at those things that you usually overlook.

Lesson Number Nine: Whether it is pesticide or next quarter’s earnings, even the most imminent danger takes time to penetrate most people’s awareness.

Having a load of freezing wet wash dropped in your lap is not the only way to learn a lesson. Years later, I ran a convention for a client at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn. The show had achieved its objectives, but I kept thinking it lacked the happy spirit that pervades a really successful meeting. I was sitting in the opulent lobby of the Peabody brooding over this small matter when a crowd began to gather around the grand fountain in the middle of the lobby. Moments later the main elevator doors opened and a flock of ducks marched through the lobby, hopped into the fountain and began swimming about. The crowd clapped and laughed and cheered. Ducks, I thought. I should have thought of ducks.

Lesson Number 10: The Importance of Whimsy: An oxymoron but true—ducks in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis exemplify our attraction to absurdity and ritual, no matter how contrived, and the theatrical gesture.

But what happens when the theatrical gesture is well planned and integrated into the presentation and then doesn’t come off? I was the producer of one such presentation. A thousand office products dealers sat expectantly in the grand ballroom of an equally grand resort hotel waiting eagerly for the much-touted multimedia show to begin. The music rose. The lights dimmed. The lights dimmed further, then went out completely. And stayed out. Power failure. Without the whiz-bang behind him, the main speaker lost all confidence. Every point of his important speech was backed by some spectacular graphic effect and now, without them, he drooped like the Wizard of Oz into a frantic, confused and very small man.

Lesson Number 11: Always have a Plan B that is independent of any technology.

Lesson Number 12: Relax and go with the flow. If you know your stuff, your audience will forgive everything else that can, and someday will, go wrong. If you don’t, no effect, no matter how spectacular, can save you.

So that is my partial litany of failures and lessons learned as a result of them. There were, of course, many successes that offset these lapses in luck or preparation but somehow those stories are neither as interesting nor illustrative as the failures.

Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are happy alike, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” So it is with successes that are all successful alike and go their merry undifferentiated way out of our memory. But not our failures, these old friends stick around, each with its own distinct and wonderfully painful difference. Cold comfort perhaps, like an old soldier’s scarred-over wounds, but better stories and better lessons than all the victories combined. And funnier as well.

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