Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Joy Found In Doing Something Well

Bill Simmons has a very enjoyable piece about LeBron going back to Cleveland, his place as one of the greatest basketball players ever, what makes him so great, and why the move makes sense in that light.  Here's a sample:
I have caught LeBron in person maybe 50 times. My favorite night happened in Game 4 of this year’s Eastern Conference finals against Indiana, right after Lance Stephenson stupidly challenged him. LeBron said he didn’t take Lance’s buffoonery personally, only we knew that he did. Unlike Jordan or Kobe before him, he didn’t respond by dropping 50.
Instead, he strolled onto the court, figured out exactly what the Heat needed, then gave them exactly that for three incredible quarters. There wasn’t a single moment, for two solid hours, when anyone thought Indiana had a chance. His numbers weren’t mind-blowing: just 29 points and nine rebounds through three quarters. But he dominated the proceedings in every conceivable way. You never forgot he was out there, not for a second. He made the correct basketball decision every time, even something as simple as “I should push the pace right here” or “I’m just gonna assume that Norris Cole is in the left corner even if I can’t see him, so I’m going to throw a 50-foot pass over my head to that spot and hope he catches it.” He didn’t waste an ounce of energy. Over everything else, his efficiency was positively eerie.
During the third quarter, I texted a friend that “this was an all-time non-signature signature game, he’s made like 13 incredible plays.” Almost on cue, the man made two more, including an insane full-court push that finished with a reverse dunk in traffic. Like Magic before him, LeBron loves playing at home — loves seeing the arena covered in white, loves looking out at the fans after big plays, loves stomping around and screaming and feeding off the noise. He’s been great at basketball for years and years, but now he’d figured out the sport itself. He reached that final level. This was art. This was genius plus performance.
In an underrated movie called Six Degrees of Separation, Will Smith plays a scam artist who infiltrates the lives of four different wealthy families in Manhattan. He insists on cooking dinner for one of those families and makes them an amazing meal. Later, when the wife (played by Stockard Channing) is trying to convince Smith’s character to give himself up to police, he remembers that dinner and says it was the greatest night of his life.
You guys let me use all the best parts of me, he tells her.
That’s how I felt about LeBron in Game 4 of that Indy series.
I went into work this morning, and read this while I was killing time.  Then I went out and took a walk around the shop to see if there were any problems or screw ups I might have to deal with before I left for the day.  As I was going back toward the office, I stopped and talked to one of the weld inspectors.  He is the guy who gets called out to do the important fixes when things are screwed up, whether it is cutting apart bad weld jobs and fixing them, or cutting holes for bearings when the pre-programmed holes don't work out.  But most of his day is spent keeping the other welders working, looking at drawings and helping get those guys' work set up, then inspecting their work to see if it meets our quality standards.  He told me that this morning he was actually in a booth welding.  When he first said it, I thought maybe he was making the point that it was somehow crazy that things were so disordered that he wasn't doing his job, but instead doing somebody else's work. That's because normally our conversations center around how insanely chaotic our workdays are. Then he made the comment that it was so nice being in there by himself, turning off the radio, and just welding.  I think he used the word peaceful to describe it.  I was immediately reminded of the above article.  Clearly, he really enjoyed just welding-being there by himself and doing what he does very well.  That made me think about what I would consider the skill which I do best (which obviously isn't writing).

[Warning: major nerd content and much inane bragging after the jump]

 That's kind of a loaded question, because I'm not sure that I do anything really well, or if I did do something well, I'm not really doing it now.  I'm an ok grain farmer, not-that-great at my livestock farming hobby and even worse in the blogging sub-hobby.  My previous career performing civil engineering design was probably what I did best, but now I'm doing three or four different stopgap jobs at a manufacturing plant, which includes solving manufacturing problems, applications engineering, environmental compliance and now starting to dabble in product design.  If the other tasks didn't require my assistance, and if somebody would take the time to give me a little bit in the way of instruction, I think I'd prefer to be working on product design. 

In the end, the thing I believe I probably do best is finding the simplest way to meet a specific objective, considering the limiting constraints.  We recently had a flooding issue at our plant, and I had completed a storm sewer design project nearby when I worked at my old job.  I emailed my former boss, and asked for a copy of those plans to review in order to consider possible solutions to our flooding issue.  I was amazed by how much pride I felt when I took a look at those plans and I noticed all the subtle design features that went into that little project.  What probably made it most notable among various projects I worked on at that job was that the focus of the job was to mitigate flooding at three intersections in that part of town.  A higher-dollar consultant had flushed out a maybe $300,000 storm sewer installation project in an overpriced report, which the city used as a basis to apply for a grant.  When they got the grant, they bid out the design work, and we got it.

We went out and surveyed the project corridor, and once we got the data in, it only took me a couple of hours of work to realize that the over-paid consultants had thrown together a bullshit report that wasn't worth the paper it was printed on.  The planned storm sewer was running way-too-far in the wrong direction, and would give the city the least desirable results for the $300,000 investment (hopefully, whoever worked on it was lacking some basic topographical data when they pulled that report together).  I was tasked with finding a better way to mitigate the flooding and to utilize the grant money. 

After a few days' deliberation, and some rough design, we presented a majorly modified concept to the city, which would provide new sewer to the original three intersections, and also provide a relief sewer to a major drainage tunnel nearby, which the previously mentioned over-paid consultant had previously studied at great city expense.  Our concept was more simple than the previous project outline, and yet more subtly complex, because we were relying on the relief sewer to provide a more general benefit to the regional drainage system and also provide better drainage to the small area that was the focus of the original plan. 

We laid in the general design, estimated the cost, then sized the relief sewer to be as large as we could make it and still be within budget. There were some complications, especially shallow bedrock and numerous utility lines, including city steam lines (the only time I encountered those on a project.  They ran from the city-owned power plant and provided steam heat to two schools and heat and process steam to several local businesses, including my current employer).  For such a small project, there were a number of potential hangups, on which I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make sure we addressed them.  In the end, I believe that our design came in under budget (although I was notorious for making up the hours I worked on projects), the construction came in under budget, and the only issue that surfaced which showed any deficiency in the design was an erosion issue at the relief sewer outlet to the river.  I think we could extend the sewer from that project and mitigate the potential flooding at our manufacturing facility.  I would like to think that the people who wrote the original report got a chance to look at the design we came up with and thought, "Wow, that is extremely good.  I wish I would have thought of that."  I'm almost positive they didn't, but at least myself, my boss and maybe a couple of people from the city engineer's office were satisfied and impressed with the final product.

I guess the point of this extremely long and boring post is that a man who is probably the best in his generation at playing a pointless game for the entertainment of the masses made a big career move yesterday.  One of the more entertaining writers of his generation, who specializes in writing about what people like the man playing his game do, and how that distracts  the writer and the rest of us from the drudgery of our own lives and makes us feel better, dissected the genius of the man playing his game. It is great writing.  Both men are extremely talented, and both make massive amounts of money for entertaining the rest of us.   In contrast, the weld inspector and I are working in jobs that aren't necessarily fulfilling, and don't really allow us to use our greatest talents all the time.  We've gone into jobs which don't utilize our foremost talents in order to make more money and/or help out the company we work for.  Even when we are able to do what we do best, it is only really appreciated by a small handful of people.  We are not well-compensated for our work when compared to the writer and the basketball player.  We each find relief from the frustration of doing jobs other than what we are best at by being entertained by people like the writer and the basketball player.  And yet, in our own little ways, we are able to do a job well in the same way that the two of them do. 

While the Sports Guy and LeBron give all of us a break from reality and provide us with years of entertainment, I would propose that there are millions of people trying reach a similar special plane, even though nobody but ourselves and a few of our co-workers might notice.  We'll never make millions of dollars to do it, but when we do get a chance to do what we do best, we are much like Bill Simmons and LeBron.  And that is why we appreciate what they do so much, even though it is no more significant overall than making a fine weld or designing a good storm sewer.

1 comment:

  1. I am sure I don't fully appreciate the elegance of your solution, but I really like hearing about the work that makes you happy. I hope you get to do more of it.