Editor’s Note: The catalyst for this post was a call received at 4:45am from my mom. As soon as I heard the ring and saw the name flash on the screen I already knew what to expect once I answered. The phone call lasted less than a minute. The lessons I learned from the man will live on through me to my sons as well as to all those others we will touch throughout our lives.
We’re only Immortal for a Limited Time. -N. Peart
To be good at what you do, be it a Database Administrator, Farmer, Teacher, or Chef, requires you to have the technical skill for the role. In the case of a DBA you need to understand the associated language of the platforms you support. You need to know how information is stored, retrieved, and presented. You need to understand networking, storage, processing in addition to all the minutiae of the actual database management system. If you’re a farmer or teacher you need to understand the processes for culling returns from raw resources: be they seeds and natural resources like soil nutrients or young minds. A chef must understand food chemistry and how ingredients work together to make something palatable.
However good you are with the technical skills it takes to do your job, you’re never going to excel at your job without those non-technical skills that set you apart from all the others that do what you do. The fundamentals of all the important non-technical competencies you need to be a success at whatever path you travel are not taught in a classroom, seminar, or book. These fundamentals are taught in the home, on the school yard, in the back seats of cars on long family trips. They are taught in fishing boats, on ski slopes, at campsites and the family dinner table by those that have come before us. They are taught by fathers, mothers, wives, kids, grandmothers… and grandfathers.
Even a Quiet and Humble Life Makes an Impact.
My Grandpa, Jim Conrad, was born in 1923. He came of age in Toledo, Ohio and the battlefields of France during World War II. After the War he settled in Western Michigan and raised two daughters with my Grandma Doris. He never had a son and my Dad died shortly after my third birthday in an industrial accident while trying to save the life of a coworker. Looking back on the years since then he was always the primary father figure for me and my role model for manhood despite the fact my mom eventually married again. My grandparents lived close to me growing up. I was at their house in less than five minutes by bike. Their home was two doors down from my Junior High School and I’d frequently stop by on my way home from school after storing my bike on the way there – it gave me a chance to stop in, say “Hi”, and steal a cookie. I only heard him yell once – in an argument I still recall to this day with my Grandma when I was perhaps seven years old. Nonetheless Jim Conrad was always an imposing figure until late in life.
Organize. Standardize. Educate. Trust.
I learned the value and appreciation for dedication and hard work from Grandpa Conrad. The entire time I knew him from the time of my awareness until his retirement he worked in various responsibilities at a paper mill. Whether working the machines or eventually running the garage I never recall him taking a day off due to illness or simply because he didn’t want to go to work. No matter what shift he would have to work he’d be there. He’d have his clothes laid out in a chair by his bed so he would be able to get up early, get ready, and get out the door without waking anyone. His thermos, towel, and a change of clothes by the back door. That’s not to say he didn’t understand the importance of relaxation and ordering your work life in such a fashion that you could step away for vacation and things would run smoothly in your absence – he never wasted his vacation time, yet the operations he was responsible for ran smoothly when he did take time away. He put systems in place that would allow him to go hunting in the wilds of Ontario in the days where there was no such thing as GPS, cell phones, or the Internet. When he was out-of-office he was WAY-out-of-office. He trained and shared with others so that he could step away from work and spend time with his friends and family. I am incapable of learning something new and not wanting to share it with those around me. I owe that to Grandpa.
My Grandpa was never late for anything yet I never saw him rush. He did this all without a planner, cell phone app, computer, or personal assistant. He did it all with a single department store watch he always wore with the face pointing down (a habit picked up in the War so the enemy wouldn’t catch a glint of watch face in the darkness.) There is no such thing as fashionably late. If you’ve made a commitment to be somewhere at 10:00am get there by 9:55am.
Cleanliness. Congeniality. Humor.
People are not going to want to be around you nor will they place their trust and support if you’re offensive, boorish, smell bad, or have bad breath. That’s not to say you need to be supermodel-sexy and smell like you took a bath if a cask of English Leather. Take general care of yourself; pride in your appearance. Keep you home and office tidy and organized. Treat those whom you associate with respect and courtesy. Don’t forget the value of humor in your life. Find the best in a bad situation. Laugh through the pain. After my Grandma passed in 2001 he always said when it was his time to go it better be at the hands of a jealous husband. Even facing death recently he stood by that.
Explore. Learn from Mistakes.
You can only learn so much in your own back yard. You need to step outside. You need to travel to places both similar to home and vastly different in order to see what others do to make things work in both places very much alike to where you come from – and greatly dis-similar. Whether it was in Northern Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Canada, Normandy, or Paris my Grandpa learned something and brought that knowledge back with him. Even if it was something as trivial as hot-dogging on motor cycle in France on a gravel road may result in that same gravel being surgically removed from your keister later in the day.
Have a Great Story to Tell.
George S. Patton was an asshole. A brilliant leader but an asshole none the less. Look up how he died. He stole the 1939 Cadillac Model 75 he was riding in when he died from my Grandpa. He ran the motor pool in his regiment and his staff ran across it one day abandoned without tires in the tall grass along the side of the road. He and his staff covertly returned it to the base and fixed it up to cherry. They would then sneak it off base and take local women for rides out to the country. Patton caught wind of this car one day and decided it was his.
Humility v. Pride.
Along with having a great story like the one above, be wise to avoid bravado. Jim Conrad loved to talk about the War. He never talked about the details surrounding his role in the D-Day invasion or any of the subsequent battles. If others brought up his accomplishments he’d simply acknowledge them and brush them aside and change the conversation. It’s not that he wasn’t proud of what he’d done, but at the same time you gain nothing in promoting yourself unnecessarily. If you take pride in your accomplishments they’ll speak for themselves. You’ll not have to utter a word.
You Don’t Need A Computer to Think.
The most advanced piece of computing equipment my Grandpa ever owned was the remote control for his television. He never owned a cell phone. The only gaming console ever in his home was the Pong game I remember as a child. He managed to live life without any of these things. Don’t let technology get in the way of living your life, doing your job, and being successful. They are tools and are not meant as a replacement for your brain, your heart, or your soul. This seems like an odd statement from someone who makes a living working in Information Technology, but if you rely too much on your tools and not enough of your skills and training then at some point you’re replaceable.
I can definitely say that word could never be used to describe Jim Conrad.