Apropos of nothing in particular, there’s a story in Theodore Rockwell’s book, The Rickover Effect, that I’ve been thinking about.
The setup for this is that Rockwell and another member of Rickover’s team have been aboard one of the nuclear subs, doing an inspection and quizzing the crew about what they know and remember from their training. In this particular case, the inspection wasn’t perfect; the chief they’re talking to in this excerpt spent several minutes trying to find the answer for a problem he could have solved with basic math and a slide rule in seconds.
I turned to walk away, but the chief called after me, hesitatingly. “Sir, I have to tell you something.”
“I want you to know something. I was in the Navy for nearly fifteen years before this program came along. I was a typical sailor like in the movies. You know the type. If the average human being uses 10 percent of his brain, I was using 1 percent. Everybody figured sailors were supposed to be stupid, and who were we to argue? Now I’m working my tail off, but I’m alive. Y’know, I’m actually a thinking human being. And I think about how I just threw away fifteen years of my life because nobody kicked my ass. You know what really woke me up? On my old ship we didn’t have toasters, ’cause sailors are too dumb to work toasters, right? So we had cold, hard, dry toast from the galley. Then one day we had toasters on the tables. And I asked around, How come? And you know what I found out? They said Captain Rickover had told the top Navy brass that if sailors were smart enough to run a nuclear power plant, they could damn well run a toaster. [Emphasis added - DB] And I said, There’s a guy I want to work for. And I – well, I wanted you to know that you’ve done that for a lot of guys, ’cause I wasn’t the only one. Thanks.”
He turned away, and I was really touched. But all I could say was, “Thanks, Chief. I really appreciate your telling me that. Good luck to you.”
What do I want you to take away from this? Well, here’s a question for you: those people you ask to work on equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands or even millions? Do you think they’re too stupid to run a toaster? Or do you trust that they can make their own toast?
(“Toaster” is not a metaphor here. Except to the extent that it is. But as I said, this is apropos of nothing in particular.)
Also: “I just threw away fifteen years of my life because nobody kicked my ass.” That’s worth thinking about, too; are you letting people throw away their lives, or are you kicking their asses and challenging them to be great? Even if it means they might be great someplace else?