Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Wednesday Wisdom: Farnsworth's First Law of Life, Leadership, and Roughnecks

FARNSWORTH'S FIRST LAW OF LIFE, LEADERSHIP, AND ROUGHNECKS:  Everyone you meet on the road of life has something to teach you; slow down and listen.  


I'm still not sure how I survived the summer of 1974 on a "workover" or production oil rig (as distinguished from a drilling rig) in western Colorado. The work was back-breaking and conditions were dirty and dangerous. But it paid well, and I needed the money for college, so I stuck it out.  

I learned a lot from the colorful crew I worked with. Probably the most useful lesson those roughnecks taught me - a once-in-a-lifetime nugget from the most unlikely of sources - came on a blistering August day when I first experienced "pulling a wet string."

On the rig, no one had a name, only a nickname, a nom de guerre. At 22, I was the "Kid." If I had stuck around a little longer I might have earned a more substantial moniker, but everyone knew I was just summer help. I was definitely the odd man out in terms of lifestyle, being the only one who didn't smoke, drink, or chew. I'm pretty sure none of the others had ever set foot on a college campus or imagined going to law school.

"The Driller" or "Drill" was in charge of the crew. He wasn't much older than I but had been working on rigs since he was 14, and he was a crackerjack rig operator. He worked hard and he drank hard. On Monday mornings he liked to sing a ragged, raspy rendition of James Brown's "I Feel Good, Like I Knew That I Would." It was his way of convincing himself that his blood-shot eyes and hangover weren't all that bad. His goal was to move up to "tool pusher" - the guy who got to drive a company pickup from rig to rig and bark orders at crews like ours.   


"Grody" (named for his thick, dirty mustache that seemed to catch a piece of everything he ate or drank) was the other deck hand besides me. He was the old man of the crew, having been around the "oil patch" for nearly 20 years. He was quietly comfortable on the deck, but had no ambition to be in charge of the crew. He spent most of his weekly paychecks on weekend binges with his live-in girlfriend Teresa.

"Red" was the derrick hand. He had bright orange hair, ruddy complexion, and only one eye. He danced along a narrow perch 50 feet in the air, catching sections of tubing as they were winched up from the wellhead. He liked playing practical jokes like spitting Red Manchewing tobacco down on Grody and me from above. Grody would swear at him and threaten all forms of obscene bodily harm, but Red would just laugh. He knew Grody was afraid of heights and couldn't come after him up in the derrick.


Normally when we pulled the 2¼ miles of tubing (called the "string") up out of the well, the pipes were dry and empty because the pump at the bottom had been unseated and all the crude oil inside had run out into the well. On rare occasions, however, the pump would get stuck in the bottom of the string and the oil was trapped inside. That made that 2¼-mile-long string of pipe "wet": i.e., completely full of dark-green crude oil.    

"Pulling a wet string" was one of the vilest things that could happen on a workover rig like ours. As we started pulling the tubing full of oil up from the well and unscrewed the first 50-foot section at the derrick floor, several gallons of crude oil sprayed all over us and the deck. Then each time we pulled up and unscrewed another section, we were showered again.  

By the third or fourth time, our clothes were saturated and oil was dripping from our hair, off our hardhats, and onto our faces and necks. Our eyes were stinging and we wanted to wipe them but our gloves were heavy with oil too. Crude oil was already oozing inside our steel-toed boots and underwear. Everything we had on was ruined and would need to be burned at the end of the day.  

The deck and all the tools were slick and oily. Our brains were screaming to hurry up and get this over with, but the slimy conditions forced us to move slowly and carefully so no one would get hurt. It was like a slow-motion nightmare - trying desperately to flee but feeling like we were running through Jell-O.

After half a dozen nasty oil showers a terrible thought hit me: it wasn't even 9 a.m. yet, and there was still more than 2 miles of wet string to go. That meant enduring over 200 more sprays of oil until the last sections were finally pulled from the well. Without a doubt, I thought, this was going to be one of the nastiest, most wretched days of my life.

Around noon we stopped for lunch and were squatting in the shade, dripping oil and eating our sandwiches with greasy fingers. No one felt much like talking. The Driller finally broke the miserable silence.

"Pretty tough day, huh Kid?" he asked.

"The worst," I snorted. "If I had known this was going to happen, I would have quit yesterday."

Red chimed in sarcastically. "Hey, don't forget the extra fifty bucks wet string pay."

"Oh, really? We get an extra fifty bucks?" I asked.

"Yeah," Red explained. "They say it's to buy new clothes, but it's really just to keep the whole crew from twisting off." (That's oil patch lingo for walking off the job en masse.)

"Aw, this ain't nothin'," added Grody. "You should try doin' this in the middle of winter. Happened to me about three Januarys ago on a well over near Steamboat. Nothin' like frozen oil dripping off your nose all day. Kinda like oil icicles. Now THAT was a rough day."

"This is so disgusting. How can you stand doing this year after year? Why don't you get another job, do something different?" I queried.  

Driller scrunched up his face and almost rolled his eyes at me. "That's what you ain't figured out yet, Kid. It don't matter what you do or how much school you've got, every job's gonna have its share of wet string days.  

"Every now and again, even if you're some hot-shot attorney in a three-piece suit at a fancy law firm in downtown Denver, even then, s*** happens. It don't do no good to try and run from it. You just gotta learn to make the best of it."

"He's right," Grody echoed. "Every job's gonna have its share of wet string days. Take the good with the bad and deal with it."

* * *

"Wet String Days."  

Their words still ring in my ears. I can't say that I appreciated their wisdom that day, but it did stick with me.  

Over the years I've found their words to be true. Even the best of jobs, even the best of lives, have their share of "wet string days," days when the motor blows up, the wheels come off, and everything falls apart.

"Wet String Days."  

I've discovered that it helps to have a name for those kinds of situations. When something's labeled, it's easier to recognize it, talk about it, and find a place for it in the grand scheme of things.  

"Wet String Days."  

I've learned that life is not about avoiding "wet string days," because you can't. Life is about learning to handle them when they happen and not letting them sour you for the majority of days when the pump doesn't get stuck in bottom of the tubing and the pipes aren't full of oil and you don't have to burn all your clothes at the end of the shift.  

It's about finding joy in the journey. It's about learning some amazing lessons from the interesting people you meet along the way. Bless those roughnecks and the lessons they taught me 44 years ago this summer.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Wednesday Wisdom: Farnsworth's First Law of Life, Leadership, and Viking Ships

FARNSWORTH'S FIRST LAW OF LIFE, LEADERSHIP, AND VIKING SHIPS:  It's harder to keep the crew rowing if only the captain can see where the ship is going.  

If you don't know where you're headed, you might end up somewhere else.  
Yogi Berra  

The workers in many organizations are like crewmen on a Viking ship.  

They sit with their backs toward their intended destination and have no view of where they're headed. Only quick peeks over their shoulders or orders barked from a superior tell them if they're headed in the right direction. And yet they are expected to keep rowing, hour after hour, day after day.

Not surprisingly, many workers in a Viking-ship organization don't really deliver their best. They have to be prodded and cajoled. They come in late, stretch their breaks, surf the web on company time, and slip out as early as they can. They're there for the money and not much else.

Without a vision of the organization's big picture, many workers are dying a slow death of ignorance and apathy. They don't know where the organization is going and they don't care. They feel they can't change jobs so they end up chained to their oars like galley slaves.  

They row, but they're gritting their teeth the whole time.

This is a serious matter. Viking-ship conditions can be dangerous not only to crew members but also to the organization's success and survival.

The first casualty in a Viking-ship organization is customer service. It's hard to smile when your teeth are gritted. It's hard to go the extra mile when your heart is full of apathy. It's hard to appreciate the lifetime value of customer relationships when you can see only as far as the next payday.

The second casualty in a Viking-ship organization is creativity.  Why imagine a better way when all you can see is where you've been? Why invent when you have no purpose but to survive? Why innovate when it produces no reward for you?  

The third casualty in a Viking-ship organization is high-performance workers. Those with quality skills, self-drive, and strong resumes don't have to put up with such an environment and they find ways to jump ship. As they exit, the morale and productivity of those left behind nosedives.

With the loss of customer service, creativity, and high-performance workers, the Viking-ship organization goes into a death spiral. Like a ghost ship, it may continue to lurch forward for a time, but its long-term fate is sealed.

If you're a business owner or group leader, how can you avoid this Viking-ship phenomenon? Here are three suggestions.

Get clear about where you want your organization to go. If you don't know, there's no way the group can know. If you don't know, then finding out should be JOB ONE for you. Nothing else is more important. You need to take a retreat. Hire a coach. Have a heart-to-heart with your spouse. Cloister yourself with trusted lieutenants. Do whatever it takes to get clear on where you're going.

Share your ideas with your team. Tell them your "we've arrived story," the narrative you want others to be telling about your organization when you get to where you want to go. Tell it from your heart and your gut, rather than your head. Let them feel your passion and sense of purpose. Trust them with your vision.

Involve them in refining and implementing the vision.  Most people on a team want it to be successful and they've thought about how to make that happen. In my experience, when you empower your team to co-author the "we've arrived story," they make it their own and assume ongoing responsibility for figuring out the best way to make it come true.  

If you allow your team to join you in defining success and identifying the pathway to it, odds are they will respond by finding a better way than you had in mind. Then they will man the oars with surprising zeal and commitment.  

When you trust your team with your vision, they will honor that trust by charting the course, weighing anchor, and hoisting the sails. After that, it's full speed ahead. Your collective "we've arrived story" becomes a true narrative, almost as if by magic.

Aye, aye, captain.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Wednesday Wisdom: Farnsworth's First Law of Life, Leadership, and Road Maps - If You Don't Know Where You're Going, Any Map Will Do

If You Don't Know Where You're Going, Any
Map Will Do

If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster. Stephen R. Covey  


My two most recent Wednesday Wisdom articles have focused on the importance of getting going. But simply pressing forward is not enough. While it is good to be moving, it is better to be moving with energy and purpose toward a clearly defined destination.  

Do you remember the famous conversation between Alice in Wonderland and the Cheshire Cat?

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

"I don't much care where - " said Alice.

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.

" - so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.

"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

For Alice, whose only purpose was to get SOMEWHERE, it didn't matter which turn she took nor what map she used. If YOU don't know where YOU'RE going, any map will do.  

If you want make real progress in your life, you need to figure out where you want to be, design a plan to get there, and then implement your plan. One of the people who taught me this principle was professor and author Stephen R. Covey, who had a knack for teaching obvious but previously unstated truths in a clear and engaging way.  

I was a fan long before his Seven Habits books made him a household name. When I was a freshman at BYU, his classes were so popular that it was impossible to find a seat. I carried one of his earliest books, Spiritual Roots of Human Relations, with me to Brazil as a 19-year-old missionary. It strongly influenced my determination as a young man to strive to lead a purposeful and spiritual life and to try to eventually leave a meaningful legacy.

I celebrated when his Seven Habits of Highly Successful People went multi-platinum in 1989. It seemed as though he had finally achieved the world-wide acclaim he deserved. That book solidified his legacy as a catalyst for positive change in the world.


Habits One and Two of his Seven Habits were "Be proactive" and "Begin with the end in mind." In other words, the first step to living effectively is to recognize that you can decide your course in life; you can choose your own destination.

Second, once you know where you want to end up, the direction of your journey and your comportment along the way must be consistent with the final outcome you desire. When it comes to leaving a legacy, you must build your life-map based on your chosen destination.

Covey also taught that if you intend to leave a legacy of values and virtues, you must live your life in harmony with that desired legacy. This clever little poem by Benjamin Franklin speaks volumes about the inseparable connection between the way we live and the legacy we leave.

          If you would not be forgotten,
          As soon as you are dead and rotten,
          Either write things worth reading,
          Or do things worth the writing.


Living a life consistent with how you wish to be remembered is the ultimate definition of integrity and the perfect recipe for a meaningful legacy. To leave a large legacy, you must live large. To leave a smart legacy, you must live intelligently. To leave a loving legacy, you must live a life of caring, compassion, and service.

The life you lead will be the legacy you leave.