The Hero Lesson

Statue of HerculesWhen I first started my work life as a junior engineer for Digital Equipment Corp back in 1977, I was assigned to a senior engineer, let’s call him Bill. Bill had a photo on his desk of his beautiful wife and himself clinking umbrella drinks on some exotic vacation they enjoyed together. Bill was friendly, outgoing and ran laps during lunch. He was a rather smart guy, somewhere between brilliant and genius as I came to discover. I realized that Bill had accomplished a lot in his life and was reaping the benefits of his success.

Bill was my Hero

I would go into work and I would rush into Bill’s office to ask how I could help on our current project; we were working on a new memory board for a secret project for an unreleased new minicomputer code named: VAX. There were two teams assigned to this project and only one of those team’s project would be chosen as the winner to be included in the final release of the machine. I was so excited to go to work most days that I found it difficult to sleep. Yes, I was a nerd, for sure. Our team (Bill and I) were using an experimental technology called dynamic RAM chips while the other team was using static RAM, a proven technology. I stayed late every night debugging the prototypes to make sure they ran at maximum speed.

Like most cold winter mornings, I parked at the far end of the lot and walked nearly half a mile in the stinging, driving rain to make it to my desk before eight o’clock. This particular morning, I made it to the second floor and passed Bill’s office. The lights were still on from the night before and Bill was asleep at his desk. I smiled to myself, and thought about his dedication to the project and how he wanted this as badly as I did. Bill woke startled, flustered and disorganized when I entered his office. He announced I would be attending the design review which took place every other Friday in the large conference room.

It was here where seemingly friendly colleagues would turn into wild animals screaming and cursing as they took turns ripping the designs of their associates to pieces. No one left without feeling the sharp, ripping, condescending claws of our boss who thrived on the amount of emotional blood he could spill from those unprepared or unable to answer the most obtuse questions.

My Hero Fallen

Bill stood up in the design review and began to show the room how we had addressed a particular technical problem thereby improving the memory access speed, when the most unexpected thing in the world happened. As soon as he stood up, the jabs, comments, the criticism started just as before. Bill patiently addressed each issue and seemed to have everything under control when the very next question sent him into a flying rage.

His face turned red, his eyes bulged with hostility and he screamed at the top of his lungs, then stormed out leaving everyone shocked. I stood there, not sure what to do, but I followed him to his office and he started to cry behind closed doors. He must have sobbed for five minutes before I could calm him down long enough to find out what was wrong. Bill’s wife had been sleeping with another man, their marriage was over. His bank account was drained. Bill was a quivering, exhausted, emotional train wreck and just walked out, leaving me there alone in his office.

I was in shock, not knowing who to turn to. I went to his boss and asked for some advice. He told me that if Bill couldn’t finish, we would lose the competition and our memory board would not make it into the new VAX computer system. He also told me that Bill would likely lose his job and there was no one to reassign me to at the moment as well. This was an unacceptable solution. But I was not in a position to change what happened to Bill or the fate of this project, so I thought.

The Veneer had Shattered

How could this have happened? Bill was perfect in almost every way; he even had a vintage Corvette in his garage which he had since he was a teenager, restored to perfection.

I decided to seek the counsel of my very smart friend and colleague Charles, who helped me get this job fresh out of school. “Never compare someone else’s outside to your inside,” he said. “You made him your hero but you only saw the outside: the pretty wife, the fancy vacation, the brilliant engineering mind and the toys that go with success. Obviously, it was his insides, his actions behind closed doors that may have contributed to his current problems,” he explained with some authority as he sat across from me at a local watering hole after work that day. “You looked at the cover and judged the book.” This struck me hard, but I realized he was right.

Then he told me to step up and take responsibility, even if Bill could not, and get the project done. “What? Are you crazy? I am only 23 and I am not the primary engineer!” My wise friend Charles was right, I had to take responsibility or allow my own fate to be decided by Bills’. I didn’t see Bill as my hero anymore. Instead, I saw a shattered man who had practically abandoned his job and himself to wallow in his sorrow.

The Hero Lesson

We are all just people with ups and downs in our lives. We are all just trying to do the best we can. Bill was just a guy who, on the outside, looked like he had his shit together. Did he? Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he did. But to me the lesson was clear. I had to choose my heroes more carefully, and now it was time to draw on my own inner strength and stand up for myself.

So Here’s What I Did

I called Bill at home and we talked about next steps. He apologized several times and I reassured him that we were going to get this done. I told him that I would finish the design work and get the prototype perfected.  I also volunteered to attend the Design Review meetings and stand in for him. He probably shouldn’t have agreed, but he did. I showed up for the next meeting with my proposed changes and I presented to the group.

At first, they were going easy on me but before long the name calling started and then the cursing, the squabbling and finally the volume of our discussion increased substantially. I was called names, racially slurred, beat up pretty bad.  But in the end, I made it through. The next time, I was better prepared. I felt like my skin had toughened and my wits were honed. The next time, I wasn’t afraid to raise my voice and assert my viewpoint.

 And Here’s What Happened

I got some additional help and was able to speed up the memory board to be faster than my competitor’s entry. When this new VAX-11780 computer shipped, it did so with our memory board. Bill was able to pull himself together and seemed to grow stronger every day. I had overcome my fear of failure and found that I could play with the big boys. Eventually, I was accepted with respect, as a team member.

Years later upon recalling this story to a group of us who had lived through those years, I realized several key things about myself at that time:

  • I thought I needed a hero, someone to hold up above myself to aspire to, in order for me to succeed.
  • I wanted to pin my success to the tail of a running bull, I didn’t think I could succeed on my own.
  • I realized that pinning my fate to that of another doesn’t always work. It’s a dangerous strategy as I proved with Bill.
  • I knew I had a strong drive to win, to succeed and that was sometimes stronger than my courage.
  • I also saw how afraid I was of failing when it was actually the failure itself that, in this case, propelled me beyond my fears.
  • I found that I could draw upon the strength of another when I had to and provide that strength to others when it was required of me.

Maybe we all need a hero at some point in our lives to draw confidence from, to look up to and to seek counseling from time to time. Maybe that’s how we are wired: to combine our strength with those of others. Maybe it’s about borrowing strength when we need it most, lending it when someone else does. Maybe it’s just part of how we are.

This story for me is one I’ve revisited several times as I remember that I can’t compare myself to another, only to myself of a different time.

Maybe we make more progress when we have a mentor, a coach…. a hero.

Mitch Russo is the author of The #1 Amazon Best Seller “The Invisible Organization” and today helps people like Tony Robbins and others set up call centers and radio advertising programs to drive massive lead flow.  Mitch Also drive multiple streams of recurring revenue using Certification and building tribes, you can read more about that at www.MyPowerTribe.com.

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