“Hello, this is David Curtiss,” I said into the telephone receiver.
“David, this is Kristen from the office upstairs. We need someone to head to the airport to pick up board members over the next couple days. They’re coming to town for our Advisory Board meeting. Is there any chance you could go?”
It was a Thursday, just three weeks into my graduate school career, and I was sitting in the grad student bullpen in the Earth Sciences and Resources Institute at the University of South Carolina.
I wasn’t sure who these board members were, but my thoughts flashed to my blue-and-rust Chevy, the kind of car that grad students on a budget drive, which hardly seemed suitable transportation.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. We’ll rent a car for you.”
Hmm, this wasn’t how I’d expected to spend one of my first weekends in a new city, but I was available, didn’t have any real plans and wanted to be helpful, and that’s one way to get myself noticed, I thought. “I’ll do it.”
Over the course of that weekend, I chauffeured the head of global exploration for Phillips Petroleum, the chairman of British Gas, the president and COO of Kerr McGee, the retired chairman and CEO of Aminoil, the senior vice president of Pennzoil and several others to and from the airport.
This was my first introduction to the oil and gas business and some of the wonderful people in it. I began building relationships with some of them. It got me noticed by the institute’s leadership, and one of the gentlemen I ferried around Columbia, Jan van Sant, then at Pennzoil, has played a role – directly or indirectly – in every one of my career moves.
Were there other things I would have rather done that weekend? Yes, probably. Was there anything more consequential I could have done? Probably not.
My career began by answering a phone call and saying “yes.”
The Secret to Success
I frequently tell this story, especially talking to students looking for their path into our business. And I was reminded of it again recently while reading a blog.
Mark Ford, an entrepreneur and author whose work I follow, posted a story on his website last month about a conversation he had at a holiday party with Max Weinberg, a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and former bandleader for Conan O’Brien.
The conversation focused not on the fame and fortune of celebrity – the celebrities worth talking to, Ford observes, don’t want to talk about that stuff – but rather the amount of work it takes to perform at a world-class level.
Ford believes “that there is a nearly direct relationship between how much you get paid and how much effort you put into your job. That financial success – if not all success – is 99-percent hard work.”
Weinberg observed “that he views his skill as a drummer as being secondary to his success. Much more important: he was always on call for new opportunities, always willing to say “yes” more often than “no,” and always did whatever it took to not only keep his promises but exceed expectations.”
There are lots of aphorisms about the value of hard work. And in my experience, we’re fooling ourselves if we think they aren’t true.
The Price of Success
Earlier this week I was meeting with two leaders of our publications group, reviewing the underlying business, our expectations and projections, and discussing various options to improve financial performance.
The publishing business is under continuous pressure and scholarly publishing even more so. It’s a tough business and getting tougher.
Our team lead turned to me and apologized that the numbers weren’t better.
“It’s not your fault, I replied. This is a ‘wicked problem,’ with so many challenging issues that it is difficult or impossible to solve. There is no simple, neat solution.
“But our job is to keep working on it, looking for ideas, trying new things and being open to change. That’s what we’re doing right here in this meeting. And we have to fight the feeling of overwhelm whenever it creeps up on us.”
Early in my career I thought that as I climbed my career ladder things would get easier. And it’s true that the things I once found overwhelming no longer stressed me as time went on. These days I don’t spend a lot of time driving board members around, though I remain willing to do so, because I know how valuable it can be.
Today I spend my time working on wicked (and other) problems. One of the cruel ironies of career advancement is that you’re given bigger, tougher problems and must learn to manage yourself and others in these situations. Once you’ve dealt with those issues, yet thornier problems appear on the horizon.
As productivity guru David Allen puts it, “The better you get, the better you’d better get.” It’s no wonder we’re exhausted!
Yes, we must manage our physical and mental states to be able to effectively tackle these problems. But we shouldn’t fear the hard work, because it’s in the process of addressing and solving problems that we improve, that opportunities present themselves, and over time – like compound interest – success grows.
Let’s work individually and collectively to experience this reality in 2019.