Into the Wild – a point of no return

One of the books that made a big impression on me when I was a boy was “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean George.  I’m sure I was one of the many boys who read it and imagined myself living in the woods off the land, trapping game, eating nuts and berries.  It made running away to escape society seem so inviting.  It was only fiction, but I often wondered if a person could live as well as Sam did in that book.

A non-fiction “My Side of the Mountain” with a tragic ending is “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer.  The protagonist is Christopher McCandless, who graduated from Emory University in Atlanta in 1990.  He then, without telling his friends or family, donated the $25,000 balance of his saving account to charity and intentionally disappeared.  He journeyed west and wandered around vast swaths of the country for almost two years, living totally off the grid.  But he wandered with an ultimate destination in mind:  Alaska.  It’s one thing to want to escape the pressures of society for a while, but quite another to completely sacrifice one’s past, family ties and identity in pursuit of this ideal.

It is impossible to become acquainted with McCandless’ story without asking yourself why he did it.  Krakauer, who searches for the answer to this question in his book, said McCandless was “an extremely intense young man who possessed a streak of stubborn idealism that did not mesh readily with modern existence.”  This stubbornness would collide with a lack of preparedness and ignorance to produce fatal consequences.

In April 1992, McCandless was nearing his goal.  Hitchhiking four miles outside of Fairbanks, he was picked up by Jim Gallien, an accomplished hunter and woodsman.  During their ride together, McCandless revealed that he planned to hike into Denali National Park to live off the land for a few months.  Gallien was concerned by the young man’s lack of gear and supplies for this venture, and at first tried to dissuade him, and then offered to help him get better gear.  As Gallien raised concern after concern, McCandless seemed to have an answer to each one, finally concluding “I’m absolutely positive I won’t run into anything I can’t deal with on my own.”

Gallien dropped him off and McCandless hiked 20 miles into the wilderness, crossing the Teklanika River.  He took up residence in an abandoned bus placed there as a shelter by hunters.  Living off the land, he shot what game he could, but it was not enough to sustain him.  In early July, perhaps driven by hunger, he decided it was time to return to civilization.  When we returned to the banks of the Teklanika, he found it at flood stage and was unable to cross. Trapped, he returned to the bus.  He continued to shoot some game and collect what he thought were edible plants, but he was consuming fewer calories than he was burning.  By the end of July, his situation was grave and was compounded by a fatal mistake.

What’s clear is that McCandless starved to death.  What’s speculated is that he may have unwittingly hastened his death by consuming seedpods containing a poison called swainsonine.  It’s an insidious killer that inhibits the digestive process, making the body incapable of processing the nourishment from the food it consumes.  Whether this is true or not, McCandless eventually became too weak to attempt gathering food, crawled into his sleeping bag and succumbed to starvation on about August 18th.  His body was found two and a half weeks later.

Nature and the competitive arena of business are alike in that neither is a respecter of zeal.  You can have the most enthusiasm, the greatest passion or the strongest commitment to an ideal, but without knowing the risks and preparing for them, it can cost you dearly.  While it’s impossible to account and prepare for every risk, it’s foolish to believe your idealism is potent enough to mitigate any you don’t know about.  Perhaps McCandless was counting on luck, but luck is most easily found at the intersection of planning and preparation.

The lesson here is to balance idealism with pragmatism.  Don’t sacrifice the zeal with which you pursue a dream, but blend in enough pragmatism to keep the pursuit of it from becoming a nightmare.

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Measure of the Earth – a problem of chemistry

In the mid-eighteenth century, one of the great scientific debates concerned the shape of the earth.  It was well understood that the earth was round, or to be more precise, spherical.  But the leading scientists of the day understood that it wasn’t a perfect sphere.  René Descartes insisted the earth was elongated at the poles, shaped something like an egg.  Isaac Newton contended that it was flattened at the poles and bulged at the equator.  Each of these great scientists had reasons and theories to explain their position.  The scientific community was divided between ardent Cartesians and staunch Newtonians.  One thing on which they did agree: finding the answer and resolving the debate was imperative.

Determining the shape of the earth meant mounting an expedition to take precise measurements at the equator of the exact length of a degree of longitude.  Such measurement had already been made in Europe.  Taking these measurements at the equator would resolve the debate.  Depending on whether a degree of longitude was longer or shorter at the equator than it was in Europe would provide proof for one of the two theories.  Larrie D. Ferreiro tells the story of the Geodesic Expedition in his book, “Measure of the Earth:  The Enlightenment Expedition That Reshaped Our World”.

In this era of GPS navigation, we take for granted how easy it is to know where we are on the globe and navigate with precision to where we want to go.  We don’t give it a second thought.  But in the first half of the 18th century, a lot was at stake when it came to knowing the shape of the earth.  Ferreiro explains why it was so important for colonial powers, like England, France, Spain and Portugal: “As conquests stretched their power into far-flung realms, rulers relied on precise physical knowledge of their territories in order to exploit their holdings and on accurate, long-range navigation to dispatch military forces where needed, ensuring a steady flow of commerce.”

In May 1735, the French Academy of Science-sponsored expedition sailed from France for what is modern day Ecuador.  This location was one of the few which were ideal for the work of the expedition.  Most locations near the equator were unsuitable or inaccessible, due to hostile terrain or inhabitants.  The expedition had everything it needed, seemingly adequate funding, the best equipment, an ideal location and in a remarkable show of international trust and cooperation, the backing of the Spanish government.  What it lacked was chemistry.

One would think that for such an important undertaking, the greatest care would go into determining who would lead and participate in the expedition.  As is often the case, those selected to go were not always chosen on the basis of merit.  The composition of the expedition’s team was determined as much by politics and compromise as qualifications.  To be sure, some highly qualified scientists were part of the expedition, but almost from the very outset, the chemistry was wrong.

The appointed leader, a scientist named Godin, was selfish and arrogant.  Besides exhibiting a complete lack of leadership skills, he also showed no fiscal restraint.  He squandered much of the expedition’s funds on luxuries and a prostitute with whom he had grown enamored.  His dysfunctional leadership effectively split the party into two teams.  This animosity, an appalling lack of internal communication, disease, war and even the weather, which prevented the teams from taking sightings for weeks or months at a time, stretched what should have been a three to four year expedition into an almost decade-long debacle.

Amazingly, the expedition did manage to finish its work, thanks in large part to two young, Spanish naval officers who were assigned to chaperone the party.  They, along with some of the more dedicated members of the expedition, rose above the dysfunction and persevered in their task.

In the end, the expedition was judged a success.  The ordeal of this expedition shows just how many things are required for a venture to succeed, certainly persistence, funding and even luck are on the list of critical success factors.  I put chemistry on this list too.  Sure, the expedition got its work done, finally.  But how much earlier might it have finished and delivered the results to an anxious world if more thought had been given to how the team would function as a unit?  To believe that simply putting a group of qualified people together is enough to have a winning team overlooks the impact of chemistry, that intangible blend of leadership, respect and camaraderie.

Incidentally, given the tools of the day, the expedition was remarkably accurate.  It measured the length of a degree of longitude at the equator at 68.7 miles, within 50 yards of the true length.  And, if you didn’t already know this, Newton was right.

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To End All Wars – when bravery seemed useless

It is the 100th anniversary of “A Night to Remember”.  Before there was James Cameron, Walter Lord’s 1955 book chronicled the RMS Titanic disaster.  On its maiden voyage, the Titanic struck an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912 and sank early the next morning.

There are so many reasons the Titanic tragedy captivates us.  The tremendous number of souls lost; the myth of invincibility; the pride of wanting to set a transatlantic voyage record.  For me, the most tragic element is the arrogance of ignoring the iceberg warnings.  This tragedy was entirely preventable.  Perhaps this last reason is why, in the catalog of maritime disasters, that this one is etched more deeply into our conscience.

We could take heart if the Titanic was the only example of the consequences of ignoring known dangers.  When there is such loss of life there are inevitably cries of “never again!” But there is always a next time.  Another example comes from Adam Hochschild’s book, “To End All Wars” which tells the story of World War I from the perspective of the dissenters.  It was on April 22, 1915, that a terrible weapon of mass destruction made its first appearance: poisonous gas.  The Germans were the first to deploy it, and the Allies were enraged, but should not have been surprised.

The Allied leadership had the information needed to prepare for a gas attack, but apparently refused to imagine one was possible.  In their possession was an intercepted German requisition for 20,000 gas masks.  A week before the attack, a deserter with one of these gas masks told of gas canisters stacked near their trenches.  How could the Allied leadership ignore these warnings?  Hochschild reasons that it was a reluctance to acknowledge that warfare could take this radical new direction.  Man is not capable of imagining the full extent of the evil of which he is capable.

Why, in the midst of the brutal slaughter of trench warfare, did the use of gas provoke such rage? “For all of recorded history,” historian Trevor Wilson suggests, “soldiers had believed that victory went to the manly, the fearless, and the daring.  Now, with deadly gas brought to you not from the hand of an enemy you could see and slay, but by the very wind, all bravery seemed useless.”

So who is judged more harshly?  The leadership that is warned of danger and refuses to believe it, only to have the unimaginable become real?  Or the leadership that acts on a warning of danger, and then finds out it isn’t real?  Regarding the latter, would the civilized world and the media that caters to it have felt better had U.S. troops found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?  We who stand in judgment of such decisions are rather selective in our indignation.  Surely, Captain Smith of the Titanic would have been criticized for safely arriving in New York without setting a transatlantic crossing record.

So what is the answer?  Heeding the warnings we’re given comes to mind, but that is much easier said that done.  That is a function of judgment.  So who really is to blame when good judgment is not at the top of the list of characteristics we value when we cast ballots for our leaders?

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Truce in the Forest – seeing the bigger picture

It was Christmas Eve, 1944, and 12 year-old Fritz Vincken was with his mother in a hunting cottage in the Hurtgen Forest, near the German-Belgian border.  A charming cottage in the snowy woods seems like a wonderful setting for Christmas, but it was 1944 and the last German offensive of World War II – the Battle of the Bulge – was being waged all around them.   Fritz’s father sent his family to the cottage before the battle erupted, thinking it a safe place, away from the city where Allied bombs were falling.  The father was serving in the Civil Defense fire guard just four miles away, and the family hoped he might join them, if briefly, for the Christmas holiday.

There was a knock on the door, and when Fritz answered it, he found three lost, cold American GIs on the doorstep, one of them seriously wounded. Fritz’s mother took charge of the situation, letting them in, despite the risk it posed to the family for providing aid and comfort to the enemy.  She began preparing a meal, which included cooking the rooster they had been saving in hopes father would come home for the holiday.

With the pleasing aroma of chicken and potatoes wafting through the cottage, there came another knock on the door.  Expecting more lost American soldiers, Fritz answered and instead found four German soldiers seeking shelter for the night.  She invited them in for warmth and a meal, but first warned that there were other “guests” whom they would not consider friends.  They were immediately on alert.  Before they could respond, and as only a mother could, Frau Vincken ordered the soldiers to place their weapons on the woodpile and come inside before there was nothing left to eat.  “It is Christmas, and there’ll be no shooting here,” she stated.  After issuing the same decree to the American GIs, she collected their weapons as well.

The tensions of this uneasy truce began to ease as this unlikely group shared a meal.  The ranking German soldier had studied medicine before the war and began to tend to the wounded American.  Another German had a bottle of red wine that he shared with everyone.  At midnight, Frau Vincken ushered the group outside to look at the Star of Bethlehem.  There was no peace on earth, but there was peace in that little hunting cottage.

The next morning, the truce continued.  The Americans and Germans conferred with each other about the best way to return to their respective lines.  When the ranking American suggested he would lead his men to the nearby town of Monschau, his German counterpart dissuaded him by saying “we have retaken Monschau”.  A stretcher was improvised for the wounded soldier, and they shook hands before departing in opposite directions.  As they left, Frau Vincken got out the family Bible and read the story of the Wise Men, quoting Matthew 2:12: “…they departed into their own country another way”.

Even for armies, each believing they are fighting for the noblest of causes, there is a bigger picture.  The soldiers in this story weren’t guilty of treason or lacking in devotion to their cause.  They simply had the wisdom to recognize that at that moment, there was something bigger going on than the war. Extending the battle to that tiny hunting cottage was not going to change its outcome.

There is always a bigger picture. I know I’ve had times in my career, when I’ve been too eager to climb the corporate ladder or achieve some milestone, that I’ve lost perspective.  I’m not talking about being a workaholic, but of being too focused on the temporary.  The reality is that none of today’s great human institutions, corporations, the buildings that house them and the assets on their balance sheets will exist forever.  No one on their deathbed will wish they had spent more time at the office.

Fritz Vincken wondered what happened to those seven soldiers after the war ended.  Fifty years after their meeting in that little hunting cottage, this story was featured on an episode of the television show “Unsolved Mysteries” and Vincken learned about Ralph Blank, a veteran who served with the 121st Infantry, 8th Division.  The two met in January 1996 at the Northampton Manor Nursing Home in Frederick, Md., where Blank lived.  During the reunion, Blank told Vincken, “Your mother saved my life”. Vincken said that hearing those words was the high point of his life.  “Now, I can die in peace. My mother’s courage won’t be forgotten and it shows what good will will do.”

Fritz Vincken died on December 8, 2002, 16 days before the 57th anniversary of the night that “God came to dinner”.

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Riding with the Blue Moth – lightning strikes twice

It was a sad day in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where a community mourns the loss ofWe remember four members of the Oklahoma State University (OSU) family.  Kurt Budke, Miranda Serna, Olin and Paula Branstetter were killed in a plane crash while on a trip to visit a basketball recruit.  Budke was head coach of the OSU women’s basketball team; Serna an assistant coach and outstanding recruiter.  The Branstetters were alumni and donors who supported the program and piloted the aircraft.

When the news of this tragedy circulated, those who have followed OSU athletics probably had a similar reaction to mine:  not again.  Just a decade ago, January 2001, another plane crash took the lives of 10 people associated with the OSU men’s basketball program.  This community has learned how to grieve through experience.  The pain of that tragedy has diminished in 10 years; the memory of those lost has not. Now with great sadness we add four more to the list.  We are all asking, “how could this happen twice?”

Bill Hancock lost his son Will in the OSU plane crash a decade ago, and wrote about the pain of his loss in “Riding with the Blue Moth”.  I read his book just over a year ago, nine years removed from the event, but still I could not make it through the first 30 pages that recounted that tragedy without choking up. Reading Bill’s account helped me understand that I cannot really understand the depth of pain he and others felt at their loss.

People grieve differently.  Bill’s grief led him to embark upon a cross-country bike ride in an attempt to chase the “blue moth” – his metaphor for grief – away.  It was a journey of healing.  Now, the blue moth has returned to the OSU community.  Reason tells us it won’t stay.  But we feel it never should have returned.  While it is here, we would do well to take something from its unwelcome visit.

Perspective is what I gain from this time.  We are reminded, if briefly, of what really is important.  The trivial that bothered us yesterday doesn’t matter for the present.  We shed the yoke of the minutiae that normally enslaves us.  Those things that make our blood pressure rise don’t matter like they did yesterday.  This is a healthy, even needed perspective.  But what an awful way to get it, and for most of us, the cares of the world all too quickly find their way back to the center of our attention.

Something else I take from this event is that grieving is a team sport.  Certainly, we all need our private moments to grieve, but we aren’t meant to do it alone.  Today, standing in Gallagher-Iba Arena with thousands of mourners, it was quiet enough at one point to hear a pin drop.  It was a powerful, unscripted moment of unity.

I am saddened by this tragedy.  I am grateful for a university and its leadership that understands it is people who have souls, not organizations.  And we are all ready for the blue moth to flutter out of Stillwater and forget its way back.

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Ordeal by Hunger – a sad tale of whoa

Those who know a little about the ordeal of the Donner Party usually find the tale repulsive.  A group of pioneers struggling their way to California in 1846 became trapped by heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Truckee Lake, California.  Ill-prepared to survive a harsh winter, they ran out of supplies, many succumbed to starvation and the survivors eventually resorted to cannibalism.  George R. Stewart’s recounts this sad episode of American history in “Ordeal by Hunger”.

Most with whom I’ve discussed this story react the same way when the cannibalism comes up:  “I would never do that” they exclaim.  Perhaps not.  But understanding the plight of the Donner Party forces contemplation.  The scope of this tragedy wasn’t limited to the Donner family, but to several families who joined their fortunes together on the trail.  It was a group of almost 90 souls in over 60 wagons by the time they reached present-day Utah in August of 1846.

Their story is a cascading bad luck tale, the result of bad information and faulty assumptions.  Taking the word of Lansford W. Hastings about a route to California was the root cause of their troubles.  Hastings published a book describing a “better” route, but the Donner Party was the first to attempt it with wagons, literally blazing the trail.  Some of the terrain was too rugged for passage by wagons.  In places, trees were felled to cut a path through forested areas, slowing the group’s progress to a crawl.

Stress was high and tempers flared.  During a dispute, James Reed killed another member of the party.  Reed was his family’s patriarch and not popular among his fellow sojourners.  While unfortunate, the death was not a premeditated act.  Frontier justice was dispensed and Reed was banished from the party, leaving his family and wagon behind.  This seemingly dark moment may actually have been the salvation of the survivors.  Reed pressed forward on horseback, arriving in California well ahead of the group’s anticipated arrival date.

The group had been told that the mountain pass above Truckee Lake (near present-day Lake Tahoe) remained open through early November.  Delays along the trail left the group little margin for error when they reached the foot of the pass at the end of October.  As they arrived, it began to snow heavily.  An attempt was made to reach the top of the pass, where the journey was literally downhill from there.  But the snow was already so deep and the going so tough that they turned back to wait out the storm.  Camp was made on the shores of Truckee Lake among a group of cabins left by previous travelers.  I have no doubt the group was travel weary, but clearly they did not understand the consequences of stopping on the wrong side of the summit while waiting for the storm to pass.

Drawing of the Donner Party Camp, Truckee Lake, November 1846

They waited, consuming all their supplies in the process.  Eventually they slaughtered their draft animals and ate them, an act necessary for survival but one that eliminated a self-rescue option.  They started eating leather goods.  Then people began to die, and the unthinkable occurred – they began consuming the flesh of their dead comrades.  It is a mistake to view this as a barbaric act committed by unscrupulous people – it was a desperate act of survival.  And they did it with as much dignity as possible, implementing a system where no one would eat the flesh of a family member.

In the end, it was the banished James Reed who knew something was wrong.  When the long-overdue wagon train failed to arrive, Reed mounted a rescue attempt.  Rescuers reached the remnants of the party in late February 1847, and were shocked with what they found.  Two-thirds of the men in the party had perished, and one-third of the women.  The survivors did make it to California and went on to lead a normal existence, even thriving in many cases.

There is something here for us if we hope to metaphorically prevent history from repeating itself:

  • How much risk are you willing to take?  The Donner Party’s goal was to reach California, not to blaze a new trail.  They were at the tail-end of a string of wagon trains headed west and gripped with a sense of urgency to find a shortcut.  In today’s fiercely competitive business climate, I’m all for taking risks to gain an advantage.  But are you willing to risk the company and lose it all?  Risks are good.  Calculated risks.  Risks that are soberly assessed and into which all the constituents buy-in.  Enter into them, but not lightly.  Recognize that stress and pressure takes objectivity away when making decisions.
  • When circumstances are truly desperate, what will you do?  It’s easy to say that we would never resort to desperate measures, but then again, when was the last time you were trapped in the Sierra Nevada winter with nothing to eat?  Would you do what you had to in order to survive?  The only way to know what you can or will do when the going gets really rough is to live in difficult circumstances.  What you can do is be principles-driven, not circumstances-driven.  Establish principles about how you will live and work now and hope that you have the moral strength to hold them inviolate when circumstances don’t favor you.
  • Where will your strength come from?  Call it sexist, gender-bias or whatever you will, but most who are unfamiliar with this story wouldn’t guess that two-thirds of the Donner Party women survived, but only one-third of the men.  In a crisis, your strength may come from an unexpected source.  Liabilities often turn into assets and assets into liabilities under pressure.

Even though you’re tired and weary of the journey, you may never have a better chance of reaching your goal than when you’re struggling toward it with the summit in sight.  Saying “whoa” at that moment may lead to a long, cold and hungry winter.

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AWOL on the Appalachian Trail – being true to yourself

I’ve spent a few hours each week over the past four years in the university classroom teaching marketing to juniors and seniors.  Many of them are making steady progress toward earning a degree without really knowing what they want to do in life.  If this sounds like criticism, it’s not.  I remember what it was like to be just a semester away from graduation and wondering where I was headed afterwards.  These students are wrestling with big decisions that will determine their career and life trajectories.

My oldest daughter is on track to graduate from college in May of next year.  She has very clear picture of what she wants to do with her life.  It doesn’t involve getting an MBA and racing up the corporate ladder at breakneck speed.  Instead, it is all about pursuing something for which she has a lot of passion.  I’ve encouraged this, even though what she has chosen is not traditionally a lucrative employment field.  I’ve shared with her how important it is to do what you love and love what you do; how you can’t be great at something you don’t love.  And in doing so, I looked at my own life and saw hypocrisy.

I recently finished reading “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail” by David Miller and realized that he and I shared a career experience and feelings about it.  In his own words: “Upon leaving college I dove into the workforce, eager to have my own stuff and a job to pay for it.  Parents approved, bosses gave raises, and my friends could relate.  The approval, the comforts, the commitments wound themselves around me like invisible threads.  When my life stayed the course, I wouldn’t even feel them binding.  Then I would waver enough to sense the growing entrapment, the taming of my life in which I had been complicit.”  I could have written these words myself, but David captures the sentiment perfectly.

David’s coping mechanism was to quit his job and hike the Appalachian Trail.  His story about his hiking experience is excellent, but it was his motivation for doing it that captivated me.  He, like I, began to detest the statement “I am a…” where the sentence was completed with an occupational title.  He continues: “Our vision becomes so narrow that risk is trying a new brand of cereal, and adventure is watching a new sitcom.”  As he grappled with his professional existence, he elevated his opinion of nonconformity to an obligation and set out on the trail to loose the moorings of society.  Those who disdain nonconformists think hiking the Appalachian Trail is pointless, to which David responds, “Is it not pointless to work paycheck to paycheck just to conform?”

Over the past year or more, I too felt like I wasn’t where I belonged professionally, yet I was enslaved by the false security of a paycheck and the benefits that came with it.  Those closest to me saw it too.  I wanted to make a change, but I wanted to do it the “smart”, traditional way – find another job to leave to.  But after months of professional unhappiness, which was impossible for me to compartmentalize, I came to a realization:  I should make decisions about my career on a spiritual basis, not on an economic one.  The conviction that I should just leave the job I was in grew strong.  Even though I felt quitting was the right thing to do, it was a huge step of faith for me because I didn’t have another job to go to.  On September 23rd this year, I resigned.

From the moment I made my decision, which was with the support of my family, I knew I had done the right thing.  I believe that the byproduct of a good decision is the peace you have after making it.  The moment of truth came when I left the place I had been employed for over seven years for the last time.  I wondered if I might feel regret or if I would begin second-guessing my decision.  Instead, I felt tremendous freedom, affirming the decision I had made.  David Miller understands this freedom: “We are outraged when we are constrained by others, but willfully, unwittingly put limits on ourselves.”

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The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind – a winnovation story

Having spent much of my career in the technology sector, I have a bias about how innovations come.  You take a company, large or small, with a critical mass of intelligent, highly educated people and provide them with the right R&D infrastructure.  Add a compensation plan that rewards them when their genius produces commercializable innovations and you’re there!  Hand out bonuses and raises as the patents roll in and revenues go up.  In fact, it does work this way in some places, so I’ve been told.  It must, because a lot of companies seem to use this model to nurture innovation.

The story of William Kamkwamba tells a different story about the birth of innovation.  In his book “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind”, written with Bryan Mealer, we learn that William is from Malawi, a nation in southern Africa where much of the population practices sustenance farming as their way of life.  In western society, we would say that William and his family live in poverty, or if we’re more polite, hand-to-mouth.  His home did not have electricity, but his village and family were not void of technology: many people carried mobile phones and the radio was their connection to the world outside the village.  Malawians think their radios are like members of their family.

William was curious about the radio and what went on inside it.  His curiosity led him to take apart old radios to figure out how they worked.  He became adept at fixing radios and soon was the go-to-guy in the village for fixing broken radios.  William himself loved listening to music on the radio, but batteries to power it cost money.  Then William discovered what he called the bicycle dynamo – a small generator that attaches to the fork of a bike.  As the rider pedals, the bike wheel turns the wheel on the dynamo and generates enough electricity to power a headlight.

William managed to obtain a dynamo and hook it up to a radio.  As long as he or a friend pedaled the bike, it powered the radio.  But after a few minutes of pedaling his upside-down bike by hand, his arm got tired and the radio stopped.  William wondered what could do the pedaling for him?

In December 2000, Malawi entered a drought that caused its citizens terrible suffering.  The rains that normally watered the maize crop never came, and the food supply for the year shriveled up in the ground.  William and his family found themselves fighting for their lives.  A casualty of the famine and the economic hardship it produced was William’s education.  Unable to pay tuition to the school in which he had been accepted, William had to drop out.  His thirst for education led him to the local library, which was stocked with books donated by the American government.

There were books on English, history and science, and William began a rigorous course in independent study.  His English was poor, but he persisted, getting translation help from the librarian but largely learning by studying pictures and diagrams.  One book featured a hydroelectric plant, describing how the water turned the turbines to generate electricity.  More ideas germinated in William’s mind.  Then he encountered the book that changed his life: “Using Energy”.  The cover featured a row of windmills, and by reading further, he understood their application for generating electricity.  The potential energy of William’s idea was about to go kinetic.

So at the age of 14, William scrounged old machinery parts from a nearby scrapyard and cobbled together a windmill.

William's windmill

His family and friends in the village thought he was crazy, but he was undeterred.  His unlikely contraption worked and was soon powering lights in his home.  Villagers lined up to charge their mobile phones at the windmill.  William would eventually build a second windmill to turn a water pump that would help mitigate the always-present threat of drought.  This windmill changed his life, the life of his family and inspired the village, his nation and people around the world.

In terms of education, William was an unlikely source of innovation.  He didn’t even possess the equivalent of a high school diploma.  His success reinforces the view that a diploma is not an indicator of intellect, but of a knowledge set.  You can’t escape the conclusion from reading William’s story that he was very bright.  Formal education is a worthy pursuit, but not always a prerequisite for success.  Real genius, as in this case, finds a way to learn what is necessary to achieve a dream.  That may or may not occur within the walls of an academic institution.

This story reveals how important environment is to innovation.  Malawi is no Silicon Valley.  William didn’t secure venture capital and rent space in a technology park before doing his work.  A poor village devoid of resources and infrastructure seems an unlikely place to innovate.  Yet it was this harsh environment where need was most deeply felt that incubated his idea.

Finally, William possessed the right combination of resolve and resilience. The villagers didn’t understand what he was doing and thought him crazy.  Innovators are non-conformists, and nonconformity is an affront to the mainstream.  Successful innovation often requires the emotional strength to weather the criticism that will surely come.

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The Last Season – nature always wins

I get a sense of awe and respect when I’m around someone who has mastered a subject or profession as a result of experience.  To attain the status of “expert”, particularly when designated as such by one’s peers is a worthy aspiration.  Experts are often the most valuable employees in an organization as well as the most sought after.  They probably aren’t the most highly paid, but they are the most esteemed.

Randy Morgenson

And so it was with Randy Morgenson, a backcountry ranger at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park in the High Sierra of California.  He seemed born to the task, having grown up in neighboring Yosemite National Park.  In 1996, Randy was in his 28th year of backcountry rangering and was the go-to-guy when it came to search and rescue (SAR) operations in the park. His knowledge of the park’s terrain was so thorough, that with the knowledge of missing persons’ last locations, he could make amazingly accurate predictions about where to find them.  I read about Randy’s life in the Eric Blehm book, “The Last Season”.

Backcountry rangers are seasonal employees that work as medics, wilderness cops, SAR specialists and naturalists.  These dedicated rangers don’t take this job for the money – they will tell you they get paid in “sunsets” – they do it because they love the wilderness.  They are viewed as heroes for finding lost hikers, or jerks when they write citations for littering or other violations.  Their worst duty is when a SAR operation results in recovering a body.  Park administrators call these rangers the backbone of the park service.  Despite the lack of long-term job security, medical benefits for their families or a pension plan, many rangers serve year after year.  In 1996, more than half of the 14 rangers who reported for duty to watch over 1,350 square miles of the Sequoia & Kings Canyon backcountry had more than a decade of experience.  Randy was the most senior.

The morning of July 21, 1996, Randy left his station at Bench Lake to go on patrol.  When he failed to check in via radio at the designated time, other rangers began to look for him.  The concern was not initially for his safety, because no one was better equipped or had more experienced in the wilderness than Randy.  The concern was for his emotional and mental condition, because due to some marital issues, Randy seemed depressed when he started his assignment at the start of the 1996 season.  The search for Randy escalated and by July 27th, the operation had expanded to 55 people and would eventually involve almost 100.  There was conjecture that he had committed suicide or perhaps run away to start a new life.  Speculation about foul play was also considered, because even though Randy was a great ambassador for the park, he had made a few enemies during his career.

In addition to the ground search, helicopters and search dogs were brought in, but the main search area encompassed 80 square miles of high-altitude, rugged backcountry that was extremely difficult to traverse.  There are planes that have crashed in the High Sierra and were never found.  The SAR yielded no trace of Randy, and after several weeks, the operation was reluctantly called off, leaving everyone who knew Randy wondering what had happened to him.  He was presumed dead, but because there was no evidence of his demise, his wife was unable to claim a $100,000 survivors benefit paid when a public safety officer dies in the line of duty.

Five years later, the wilderness finally gave up some clues to Randy’s disappearance.  Hikers found his backpack near a waterfall, the belt still buckled indicating that he was wearing it when he disappeared.  His radio was found, as was one of his hiking boots that contained part of a leg bone.  A crime scene-type search of the area yielded Randy’s shirt, his park service badge still attached, which was wedged under the rocks of the waterfall.  A full understanding of what happened to Randy is not known, but the clues seem to indicate that he fell through a snowdrift while crossing a creek. It is likely that he drowned or succumbed to hypothermia as a result, and his remains were washed down the creek to the waterfall where they were hidden for five years.

Randy was the least likely person to get in trouble and need rescuing.  His expertise and experience made it almost unthinkable that he would have a problem in the wilderness he loved.  Author Eric Blehm says that one of the lessons of Randy’s story is that nature always wins.  The same is true for markets.  We admire companies and their experts who not only seem to have mastery over a market, but shape it and make it what it is.  But no company is bigger than the market, and the market’s rules always apply. Having an expert on staff with 30 years experience is comforting, but it does not grant immunity to an organization from the consequences of taking a wrong step.  There is still no substitute for experience with the realization that no one person or organization is bulletproof.  In business, the market always wins.

In May 2003, George Durkee, a fellow ranger and close friend of Randy, honored his friend with a public eulogy when Randy’s name was added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C.  He shared some lessons he took from Randy’s life and death, including this one:  “be careful out there.  If the best of us can fall in what struck us as easy terrain, that’s a clear warning to spend the time to look for an easier crossing; to study an area a little more closely before moving across it; to take longer naps.”

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Longitude – does anyone know what time it is?

Fewer people are wearing wristwatches now.  When my generation was younger, wearing a watch was a necessity.  Now, the watch is largely a fashion icon that seems destined for the technology scrap heap that contains VCRs, 8-track tape players and other things we once could not live without.  We’ve found other ways to get to work-school-the church on time.  But the greatest contribution of the watch was perhaps to let us know where we were, not how late we were.

Pre-eighteenth century explorers, never really knew exactly where they were when they sailed across the ocean.  They knew about where they were, but not with precision, because there was no known way to determine one’s longitude while at sea.  King Charles II of England founded the Royal Observatory in Greenwich – home of the Prime Meridian – specifically to find a solution to this problem.  In 1714, the British Parliament offered £20,000 to anyone who could find a solution that provided longitude accurate to within half-a-degree, or two minutes of time.

Determining longitude is actually quite simple.  For each 15 degrees that one travels east, local time moves one hour ahead – hence our time zones are approximately 15 degrees in width, with some modifications to accommodate local geography and political boundaries.  So, if you know the local times at two points on the earth, the difference between them is used to calculate how far apart those places are.  The navigational instruments of the day were quite adequate to determine local time.  But what time was it back in Greenwich (or any other known point on the globe)?  To know that would require a clock that could accurately keep Greenwich time aboard a sailing ship.  This bit of technology was the difficult part, so the longitude problem was actually a timekeeping accuracy problem.  Many people who lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries did not believe this problem was solvable.

Dava Sobel tells us about the hero of this story in “Longitude”.  John Harrison was the working class son of a carpenter who built his first clock entirely of wood in 1713 at the age of 20.  His pursuit of the longitude prize spanned over 30 years, during which he would display persistence and an ability to innovate.  The clock paradigm in Harrison’s day was a long clock, that is, one that used weights to power it and a pendulum to regulate it.  These clocks work well on land, but not so well on a rolling, pitching ship.  Harrison initially devised a clock that showed promise in a 1736 sea trial.  From 1737 to 1759, he labored to refine his invention, building a second and third generation clock, the latter the result of 19 years of effort that failed to achieve the accuracy needed to win the prize.  This failure became inspiration to pursue a different design.

The new design Harrison pursued in the mid-1750s was essentially a pocket watch, which the experts of the day did not consider a serious timekeeper.   But modified to Harrison’s specifications, this pocket watch marine timekeeper performed well enough in a 1762 trial to qualify for the prize.  The Board of Longitude remained skeptical and a second trial was arranged, which the timepiece also passed well within accuracy limits.  Despite the proof of multiple, successful trials, the Board remained unconvinced and began playing politics with the prize money, eventually awarding half of it to Harrison.  At the age of 79, Harrison appealed to King George III and then Parliament, finally securing the remaining prize money but most importantly, recognition that he had solved the longitude problem.

Many organizations want to believe that if they create a financial incentive, they will mobilize the energies of their people to solve big problems.  Money is a motivator, but it isn’t the most important one.  Harrison wasn’t driven to solve the longitude problem because it would make him richer.  He had a passion for it.  Daniel Pink, in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, speaks to the conditions that are a catalyst for achievement.  The first is autonomy: Harrison worked in his shop at his own pace, not in some lab under the eye of the Board of Longitude.  The second is mastery: Harrison was able to work at something in which he had expertise, and gained even more in the process of solving the problem.  The final motivator is purpose: the prize money may have been in the back of Harrison’s mind, but he was driven by the far-reaching implications of solving the problem – the ability to do something that made a difference.

If you look inside companies that are sustained innovators, of course you will find employees who are well paid, but it is not the money that keeps the innovations flowing.  It is the culture in which they work that gives them autonomy, allows them to gain mastery in their field and provides work with purpose.  My experience tells me that it is possible for a company to have some success if only two of these three attributes are present.  If only one or none of them exist, it threatens a company’s viability and it certainly can’t hope to retain its talent.

The famous British explorer, Captain James Cook, took one of Harrison’s marine chronometers on his second voyage of discovery (1772-1775), which spanned three years and ranged from the Tropics to the Antarctic.  The chronometer performed well, prompting Cook to refer to it as “…our faithful guide through all the vicissitudes of climates.”

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