“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” Calvin Coolidge.
I was working as an associate engineer for a very large, very reputable aerospace company when they assigned me to work for an older gentleman; I will call him Mr. Johnson.
He was the only living expert on test equipment key to the company’s success. He had a reputation as a hard-drinking, loud-laughing, prank-playing, red-headed womanizer. He must have been about eighty years old.
Since he was over the retirement age, the company wanted to transfer his knowledge to someone else. Mr. Johnson was resistant to the company’s efforts. His boss tried getting people who were his equals, as well as other very technical people, to work with him. One problem was that he did not have an engineering degree and didn’t like people who did.
The company then tried assigning recent college graduates to him, but those people didn’t work out either. Within a month, young graduates would request a transfer out of the department, just like the more experienced people before them.
The company tried to partner him with people from another large aerospace company, but he would not cooperate. Within thirty days, they would request a transfer.
Even without an engineering degree, this man remains the best technical engineer I have ever met. He was a natural mechanical wizard. I’ve only ever met one engineer who I believe matched him. I married that guy.
Mr. Johnson was key to the development of this equipment. He helped design it and knew how to repair it. Once, he was on vacation, and the equipment broke down. No one knew what to do. By the time he returned, the company had lost a lot of money.
When they assigned me to Mr. Johnson, I didn’t realize that he was a problem. I didn’t know any better. I grew up poor. My salary was the most money I had ever made in my lifetime. I had a husband and two children that had sacrificed so I could go to school.
Mr. Johnson began testing me to see if he could chase me away.
He sat in an air-conditioned office built for him in the basement of the plant, far away from everyone else — my desk was put next to his office, in the non-airconditioned portion of the plant.
He would send me off to perform ridiculous technical experiments on the equipment. I would run those experiments exactly as requested.
I would record the data fastidiously and compile it in a report. One day, I arrived at work to find one of my reports sitting on my desk. The darn thing was twenty pages long. It had taken me about four, maybe five, weeks to run the experiments, collect and analyze the data, and write the report. Mr. Johnson had marked through every single line on that report with a red pen. He told me to rewrite the report. This was long before desk-top computers, there was no word processor to edit the report. I had to retype the report on a typewriter.
I wrote the report again. After I gave the report back to him, he marked it up again, and I wrote a third version of the report.
That time, he was satisfied. “Now, that’s the report I want,” he said. “I want this level of excellence and nothing less.”
He would call random late-night meetings with random late-night assignments. He was “jerking my chain,” choking me with assignments to see if I would last. After I had worked for him for ninety days, he took me out for a nice lunch. He said that I was too stupid to quit or transfer. Since I was determined to stay, he would teach me what he knew. We had a good laugh and went back to work.
In the next eight months, I got two promotions because of my work with Johnson. He showed me exactly what it took to diagnose, understand, rework, and calibrate the equipment that no one else understood. Once I knew how the equipment worked, I became more valuable to the company.
It turned out that once you got to know Johnson (and he accepted you), the real work began. His efforts to get rid of me were nothing compared to his efforts to teach me. The teaching was much worse. It was like drinking from a fire hose.
The moment I understood how the equipment worked, he allowed me to train others.
There are three lessons to take away from this story.
The first is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Johnson was very good at what he did but his excellence was not obvious in his appearance.
The second lesson is that perseverance counts. I was persistent. I focused on the work. The report is a great example of this, as the final product was excellent. I was promoted was that, because of Mr. Johnson’s demanding nature, I grew from being average to technically excellent.
The third lesson is that if you can land a position working for someone smarter than you, do so. Working for an expert in your industry can and will make a huge difference to your success.
Working for the expert may mean that you deal with more stress than others, but it pays off in the long run.