Nothing ventured

I had lunch yesterday with an old friend from my days on the road. He moved to town about a year and a half ago, and we re-kindled our friendship which had lain dormant for years. But life has a funny way of getting in the way of things, and in the year and a half since he’s lived in town we’ve only seen each other 3 times. Such is the life of a parent.

He lost his job as a VP of Marketing for a local industrial corporation during last spring’s bloodletting, and had been looking for work the last time we spoke. I caught up to him a few weeks back and found out that he had taken a job in India, and was in the process of re-locating his family there. While he’s going “home” to a place he hasn’t lived in 20+ years, for his wife and daughters this will be their first time in India.

So we met for lunch yesterday to say goodbye, and stand once more looking out across the gulf of 20 years. My God, it is hard to believe that it has been that long. When I met Rajesh he had just finished his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M, and had inexplicably taken a job as a field service engineer. He arrived in the Denver district about 3 months after I did, and being a veteran of one year’s experience, I was assigned to train him.

While Rajesh had been in the U.S. for a year already, he was still pretty green on U.S. ways and customs, and being assigned to the far west did not make his life any easier. The world of rural coal plants and paper mills is a world of pickup trucks, and hunting rifles, and nobody expected this tall, bookish, asthmatic Indian to last 6 months on the job. We hit it off immediately. After a year of living like a hermit, devouring books, and writing in my journal, I loved having someone to hold deep and far ranging conversations with. From his side, I think I was the first “civilized” person he had met during his year and a half in the United States. (He did attend A&M after all where “books are fer sissies”)

I have to say, I didn’t give Raj much chance of making it either. He was so overeducated to be crawling through boilers and sucking flyash, and yet he had so much to learn. It wasn’t the only the hands on technical side of the job, which required more mechanical aptitude than mechanical engineering, it was the cultural side. Everywhere he went he was met with intolerance, and misunderstanding. I wouldn’t have lasted a week in his shoes.

I definitely underestimated his determination. He approached each experience like an open book, willing to be the fool. I took a lot more courage than I would have been capable of, but he learned from each experience. I can remember teaching him about what was considered appropriate personal space, after he sat too close to a boilermaker in the unit one day, and almost got his head taken off.

I learned a lot from him as well. He was the person who introduced me to Espresso (it was 1991 after all, and Starbucks were not yet as ubiquitous as McDonalds). He had an amazing way of discovering the underground intelligentsia in every town he visited. He found coffee shops, jazz clubs, and Thai restaurants in the most unlikely places. He taught me that there was more to food than red meat and French fries.

We worked together on and off for three years. Eventually he ended up taking a transfer to the deep south, which he found fascinating. We used  to talk on the phone, and he would entertain me with his stories. Like the one about the plant operator who stared at him for 3 days before mustering the courage to ask “what are you?” Rajesh didn’t understand the question, but eventually figured out that this guy from rural Mississippi had never seen someone from India before. So Raj explained he was “an Indian”. For the next week the operator called him “Chief” which amused Rajesh endlessly.

I left ABB in 1994 but Rajesh hung on for another couple of years. In the end he succeeded in becoming one of the best field engineers in the company. He was requested back by customers, and took on a big international assignment in Indonesia. He left the company not long after and was accepted at Kellogg for his MBA. He met his future wife there, and began a long series of moves up the consulting rungs, relocating 7 times in 10 years, until he had achieved his current “Veep”ness.

Thinking back to that first time we met, and went out for dinner at “The Greek Streak” in Price, Utah I could never have imagined it. I’ve met fewer people in life more willing to risk exposing their ignorance in their quest for knowledge. That is something that I have never been able to do. In this age of cynicism, and skepticism of opportunity, he is living proof that determination and will power can still get you places.

It’s funny, but he’s not the only ex-field engineer that I know that has ended up as a VP or higher in Corporate America. I can’t help but to look at him and wonder what I might have achieved if I’d been as willing as him to risk failure, and in some cases even embrace it, in the effort to learn. Yes I have gone farther than I ever thought I would, but if I am honest with myself I know that I am capable of so much more. Why I have not chosen to follow that path has less to do with any loathing of my Dark Corporate Overlords, than it does with my longing and desire for peace and comfort. Sometimes I wonder, is that a good thing?

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