DISTINGUISHED ALUMNI/AE LECTURE SERIES, DEPARTMENT OF MECHANICAL ENGINEERING, MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
It is a pleasure and an honor to be here with you. It gives me a strange mixture of pride and humility. Pride in the accomplishments of the men and women who have earned for this institution the worldwide prestige it enjoys, and humility to have been permitted to be included amongst its alumni.
So, it is a special treat to speak with you today, although I admit to some mixed emotions. I enjoy talking “about engineering, about business, about philosophical concepts, and about social-issues. I also like to talk about ideas. And I have done that on many occasions. However, I have had less experience talking about myself which is what I will talk about as has been suggested.
I will, however, be candid with you. And I will share with you some thoughts that may have value for you, as they have for me.
One thing I learned early and have had proven to me again and again is that we must have goals if we are to move ahead, individually and as groups, as nations, and as humankind. But just as surely, we must be prepared to change those goals. We must be willing to set them aside for a time to strike at other more meaningful targets of opportunity. And when those moments come, we must be more than willing and prepared — we must be daring.
There is no sure way of predicting when opportunity may present itself. Even if you are alert and look for it, there is no predicting when it might come. I know, because an opportunity that changed my professional life came at a time and in a way I least expected it. It was only years later that I fully appreciated the lessons I learned, lessons that I have since used countless times.
I was still a student at MIT, in my senior year. I was fortunate to get a job at a nearby utility company and once I completed my degree, I continued working there. In many ways the utility was a nice environment to be in. Some might say it was ideal. Comfortable, stable, dependable, secure. In other words, for me the utility company was a dangerous place.
Dangerous, because it did not ask enough and did not spur the young engineer to demand more of himself. But that was my first real engineering job and I had as yet no frame of reference.
So there I was. Each day, I managed to get my work done in 2 to 3 hours. I spent some of my free time reading technical books. It seemed to me that for many of my co-workers somehow 2 to 3 hours of M.I.T. type of intense work was expanding to fill an 8 hour day.
For a while I drifted along like that. Then something totally unexpected happened. On a day, while walking along a Boston sidewalk, I bumped into George, a friend from M.I.T., whom I had not seen for a while. George was bubbling over with excitement. He told me he was starting a new company. He had plans to get into something called energy conversion, something I knew very little about. We talked for a while and I marveled at his enthusiasm for this dream of his. But it wasn’t just a dream – he had specific goals and schedules and plans.
Then he did something that startled me. He offered me a job. I couldn’t believe he was serious, I had no advance degree at the time. I knew next to nothing about energy conversion. I had a very comfortable, undemanding position at the utility company. Now, by conventional standards, there was no decision to make. It was, as they say, a “no-brainer.” So what do you suppose I decided to do? Right. I took the job.
What I hadn’t realized back then in 1958, was that when I left the cozy utility company job and went into this fledgling energy conversion company, I did more than one change, one job, one paycheck, for another. I had stepped out of one era and into another. In a small setting and in a small way, perhaps, I was in on the dawn of the space age. More than that: I was privileged to have a role in the growth of a business from the moment the seed of the idea was planted until it blossomed into a vital, successful enterprise. And perhaps most important of all, I was learning lessons that I would apply again and again years later as I dealt with small or struggling companies.
Enjoyment and Experience
After my impetuous acceptance of George’s unexpected job offer, I spent 11 years in space-related activities. What did I get out of those years?
First, Enjoyment. Never under-estimate the importance of enjoying what you do. This new job was everything my previous situation had not been: Uncertain and insecure, perhaps even a bit scary. Challenging. Stimulating. Demanding. Exhausting. And invigorating. In other words, a terrific job, a priceless experience.
Second. Management experience. I learned how to hire and train people. There was no choice. George, another engineer, and I started with three of us and a secretary. I learned how to build teams, how to work with them.
Third. A crash course in how to get results. We had to perform. We had to produce. There was no alternative – if we were to stay in business.
Inevitably the time came, after 11 years, that I felt I had learned all that I could in that environment. I knew that I needed something and it wasn’t more years of just the same. It wasn’t more capability or experience in the technical domains. I needed to get into an environment that was more demanding from a business management standpoint.
So I did something that I believe one must be prepared to do when necessary: I made a mid-course correction. I took a position at Allis-Chalmers because it seemed it would afford just the kind of environment I needed to shore up what I saw was a weakness in my personal portfolio. And that’s what happened. Again I was thrust into a new environment and was forced to deal with concepts that were strange to me. It seemed that the more I learned, the more there was to learn.
Life Long Learning
Since then, I have come to understand something that I’m sure many of you may already suspect and your professors can attest to: education isn’t something you do with a fraction of your life, then be done with while you get on with other things. It is ongoing. It is lifelong. I have not yet lived the day that I haven’t learned something. I don’t expect that I ever will. I got infected with learning at an early age and am pleased to note that the condition is incurable.
Resetting Goals and the Challenge of Change
At this point, after I have admitted to two totally unplanned major decisions, you might well ask, what’s the purpose of setting goals and making plans if you don’t then stick steadfastly to them? There is an answer. The answer is that you don’t march through life toward your goals with blinders on. You don’t focus so intently on your dead-ahead goals that you are oblivious to what’s going on around you. You don’t ignore the environment. You can plan and plan and plan. And you should. But you do not control the environment. And you cannot plan (guarantee) the future. So, what to do:
Start by accepting and then using to your advantage the fact that we live in an era of constant change – that what is different about change in our era is not its presence but its pace. One simple illustration: it took almost 14 centuries to progress from the invention of paper to the Gutenberg printing press. Then four centuries from Gutenberg’s hand-carved, hand-set type to the linotype machine. In a half a century we went from digital computers to powerful, fast, inexpensive computers at home and work. And then in a few short years to notepad computers and CD-ROMs and interactive capabilities unimaginable a generation ago.
Some people find such rapid change uncomfortable and even threatening. It may be. But it is also reality. And change is here to stay.
I suggest that the future will belong to those who view change as an opportunity rather than a threat. Those who succeed tomorrow will be those who develop the new skills and abilities and attitudes driven by change. For those who want security, it can be found in the ability to anticipate the directions and forms that change will take and to obtain the training and mental preparation needed to perform in that new environment.
Viewed this way, far from being a threat, change is the ally of the quick, the resourceful, the dedicated performer. Those who succeed will be those who are already on the move, heading forward toward their own goals but with a sharp eye to the world about them. Those who succeed will be those who are well prepared, but most of all those who are prepared to also dare.
I have said that you should be open for unexpected opportunity. I have said that you should stretch yourself to find your limits. I have said that you should be daring. That is not to say that you should be cavalier about your career. Nor that you should make decisions capriciously.
Along the way, you will find some common touchstones. But there is no one template that fits us all. I am convinced that there are some truths that are as constant for you as they were for me. Yes, goals are important. Yes, one should have a sense of destination. But the route that one takes is less critical than the fact of moving, preferably moving forward, and toward a defined and specific vision. And along the way as you proceed, you should accumulate the experiences and the knowledge and the interpersonal skills you will need in virtually any situation. And there is something else you might do well to develop. An attitude. A positive, winning kind of attitude. You can have everything else and still not make a go of it if you don’t have an attitude that lets you work harmoniously with others, that allows you to live at ease with yourself.
Be good at what you are doing and career change
Another thing you will need, I suggest, is to start laying down a solid foundation. By that I mean, give yourself a chance to be good at one field before you venture into less familiar territories.
The confidence you gain by performing well in your specialty is very important. With that as your foundation, you can be more daring in pursuing opportunities in tangential fields. In my case, I practiced engineering for a while before I ventured out.
There is a process that I have gone through when I have approached a career decision. It has served me fairly well. Here it is: I have tried to step back – look into and analyze the situation dispassionately. I have looked at what my strengths and weaknesses are, at where I need to improve, at what experience I need in order to equip myself to attain my goals and eventually my dreams. Sometimes that has not been easy. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
In my case, I have applied this approach not only by looking at myself and my own career, but also to companies that I am interested in. When I started JP Industries in 1979, I believed that there were manufacturing concerns that were capable of better performance than their current managers realized. My reasoning was that new management could look at the strengths and weaknesses of a company objectively, without the burden of being tied to the history of that organization. Many of these companies we acquired were long established under-performing manufacturing firms in the Midwest.
Some observers considered our formula to be revolutionary and brilliant. I thought it was simple and rather obvious. During the evaluation of a company, my management team and I would wander around the shop floor and talk to the people themselves. We listened. And we learned what worked and what didn’t. We considered these people on the shop floor to be experts at their jobs, to know what would make them even more productive. We instilled a philosophy that all could understand and live by, which is that a sense of fulfillment for the individual and success for the organization comes when each person betters his or her performance by setting challenging goals and constantly striving to achieve them.
Our organizations became better places to work. Quality improved, productivity increased, and our financial reports made for much better reading. One journalist said JP Industries had discovered how to mine gold in the rust belt.
Well, apparently what JP Industries did for the next ten years worked. It worked well enough that we achieved a long-term dream I had set and, that frankly, not many believed we could achieve. But ten years after I founded JP Industries, we made the Fortune 500.
The importance of Team work
Early on, I realized that most things require the cooperation of many people. Over the years, I thought about this a great deal. I developed a line of thinking that went like this: Certain esoteric fields of science can involve a single scientist working virtually in isolation. But most occupations, including engineering require working with other people. A well-coordinated team can generate better results than one less well coordinated. The best teams are those that have teams of people who are not only good team members but who also retain their own individuality. The best performing teams are composed of free thinking, inventive, and imaginative individuals.
So, at certain points in my career I sought out situations that afforded me the opportunity to work with teams and learn how to direct group efforts to achieve maximum effectiveness. One such experience came long before I was an engineer, even before I was a college student.
As a teen, I was captain of my high school volleyball team on\he island of Crete, which, from your study of geography and classical Greek, I’m sure you know is prominent among the Greek Isles. We won the championship of Crete and moved on to the competition for a national championship of Greece, We played the powerful Athens team — and we lost – badly!
I spent a lot of time analyzing what happened. Why did we lose? What were the specific reasons? Undoubtedly, they were a better team. But why? What made them better? I saw that by comparison as a team, our Crete squad had several weaknesses. When I stepped back and analyzed the situation I realized that there were other players in Crete who were stronger precisely where we had been weak. Another thing I saw was that all of the strong players in Crete were Boy Scouts. Perhaps, it was conditioning, discipline, whatever — all the best players were Boy Scouts.
Looked at in terms of dreams and goals, it was obvious. The dream: to form a team to beat Athens. The short-term goal: find a way to put together such a team. Armed with our insights, we formed a new team for Crete – a Boy Scout, team. Without our knowing it or calling it that, we had formed a “Dream Team”. And for once, a dream came true and we did meet Athens and yes, we did beat them the next year.
I have suggested that as you work toward your short-term goals and perhaps even progress toward realizing your long-term dreams, you should be watchful for that unexpected opportunity. However, I have two pieces of bad news: One: opportunities typically have a short half-life. They can be bright and shiny and tantalizing one moment, gone in a flash the next. Two: opportunities are often shy. They seldom advertise themselves boldly. I had no idea that my chance meeting with George would open a door that gained entry to a new room that in turn had a door that would open onto another room and on and on.
Now for the good news: even though you might not recognize an opportunity for what it is or, once recognizing it, take advantage of it and, in time — there is a positive side. It might not make a bit of difference. Oh, it’s true that particular opportunity, once spurned, may never come along again. But another will, surely. That’s one thing about opportunities for the alert, for the daring — they’re just like buses. Wait a while – another one will come along. If it does, next time be ready to climb on board.
Responsibility, priorities, and mentors
Whichever direction the engineer takes, he carries with him forever a burden of responsibility. That is an inescapable part of being an engineer. To be a practicing engineer is to be involved in issues that directly affect life and well-being. You can and should have your own personal dreams. You can and should have your own individual goals. But, with the training you have had and the significance that carries for society, you will also have the duty, the responsibility, and the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to teams, organizations, communities and society.
I have had many satisfactions in my blended careers of engineer,
entrepreneur, businessman and founder of two manufacturing concern. None have been more fulfilling that the opportunity to share what I have learned with others. This is one of the reasons that, after I sold JP Industries, I started a new company, JP Enterprises.
Throughout, one thing that will help you keep your priorities in focus is a sense of perspective. Look at yourself in the light of other lives that have influenced you. Here’s a suggestion for how to do that. As you go through life, make a collage of the special people whose lives or works have brought something of value into your own life.
You don’t have to actually commit the images to canvas or paper. Although some day you may do that, or have it done by an artist, as I did. You can do it in your head. There will be individuals who made a great impression on you in your earlier days and who exerted an influence you will carry with you throughout life. Others will be added along the way.
Some of the people in my collage would be very familiar to you; Albert Einstein – Aristotle – Archimedes — Harry Truman — Alexander the Great — Victor Hugo — are just a few. But the reasons for their significance to me may surprise you, and some in my collage you would not know.
Some people may gain entry into your collage because of their entire body of work. Or it could be for a single trait or characteristic. It may not even be a characteristic that you particularly want to emulate. But, it is something that has affected you profoundly, indelibly. If you enjoy thinking about such things, putting aside the immediate concerns and problems and issues of life and quietly reflecting on such things, you may find that your choices, once given thoughtful consideration, are actually very easy. It may be that some or even all of the people in your collage would not appear in anyone else’s. And that’s fine. All that matters is that something they did or said or thought or stood for meant something special to you.
I hope that one day you will be able to step back and look at what you have done with the lights you have been given. Perhaps you will look at an occasion when you were presented with a sensible and safe and entirely logical choice. It might have been the prudent way to achieve a short-term goal. But there was an alternative choice, an unexpected opportunity you never could have planned for. Somehow you dared to take the road less traveled. And if that road stopped abruptly at a dead end, you knew you had the courage and confidence and the strength to try again on a new road. And that is how one day you may become a centerpiece in someone’s collage. If not someone else’s, then perhaps your own. Not a bad long-term dream, I should think.
About the author
Dr. John Psarouthakis is: Professor, Postma Chair for Entrepreneurship
Nyenrode Business University, The Netherlands. Publisher, The Business Thinker, llc.
(www.BusinessThinker.com). Founder, JP-Management Center, llc
(www.jp-mc.com). Founder and former CEO, JP Industries, Inc., and JPE., Inc.
Ann Arbor, Michigan