Where there's a Will, there's a way

According to his high school football coach, my son Will, a senior wide receiver, has ‘made himself into a football player.’ And that didn’t happen overnight, in a vacuum or in a random manner. Achieving hard-earned goals never do.

 Eric Schlene for the Journal & Courier

Eric Schlene for the Journal & Courier

Starting as a youth football player, Will’s commitment to the sport has been obvious, relentless, and fervent.

And during game three of his high school senior season, my son’s dogged determination to not just achieve, but surpass his training and game-day goals were realized.

Will threw for a 41-yard touchdown pass, rare for a wide receiver, and then a few plays later scored on a 61-yard touchdown run contributing to his team’s 45-21 victory. The stadium announcer said, “What’s he going to do next, kick a field goal?”

Conditioning, training, off-season workouts and just plain hard work, both individually and with the team, were his not-so-secret ingredients to transforming himself into a seemingly overnight senior offensive sensation.

When you believe in yourself, anything is possible.

In sport as it is in life, consistent and persistent effort toward the goal of making yourself the best you can be equals success. For anything worth doing, there is no substitute for hard work, practice, and preparation.

Your toughest competitor is almost always going to be you. In your singular quest to achieve your highest potential, believing you can is half the battle.

The beautiful music called life

Many have compared life to an orchestra where everyone’s contribution is essential. To make beautiful music together, it’s important to find out what instrument you are best suited for, play it to the best of your ability, and don’t try play a musical instrument you simply are not good at.

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Be true to yourself. If you’re an oboe player, be an oboe player, but be the best one you can be. Don’t try to be a saxophone player as there are others who are better suited for it. Find out what instrument you are and play it – only it. We all were created to play a part and to play only our part.

For me, my contribution to the orchestra of life is to be an engineer, something I’ve known for a very long time.

When I was in junior high school, I loved to build plastic model kit cars. My grandmother recognized my bent for all things mechanical and encouraged my hobby by letting me keep the model cars at her house. My 20-plus model car collection resided safely on display in one of grandmother’s spare bedrooms. Had they been in my own bedroom across town, my older brother probably would have smashed them all with a hammer.

My grandmother saw something within me that I hadn’t yet recognized and she nurtured it. She knew I was not necessarily bound for a different career, but one as an engineer or in a related technical field. Perhaps I reminded her of her late husband, my grandfather, who was a mechanical engineer.

So, a lesson here is that even small acts of kindness, caring, generosity and encouragement can make a tremendous impact in a young person’s life. Fifty years later, I still remember hanging out with my model cars at grandma’s house and the significant impact her mentoring had on me.

Grandma knew I was not born to be an oboe player, but would be a darn good saxophone player, and eventually, an engineer.

Sometimes little things can help us to figure out what instrument we are in the orchestra of life, and it may and probably will take others to help us recognize this.

Once you find our niche - your instrument - resist those who say, you can’t do that, it will never work, or we tried that once before and it didn’t work.  People kill ideas if we let them. Don’t let anyone kill your dreams and ideas, and don’t be a dream or idea killer yourself.

Don’t break someone’s spirit, whether that person is an employee, a child, or anyone else. Everyone is an expert at something and you are good at something. Don’t put people in a box and put artificial limits on them.

So, find your part in the symphony orchestra of life. Find your instrument, what you are best suited for, learn to perform it to the best of your abilities and encourage this in others. Accept what your instrument is and don’t despair that you would rather it be something else. Embrace it whatever it is and know everyone’s contribution to the beautiful music of life is needed. This is what you were created for.

When opportunity knocks, take notice

Most people know Bobby Rahal as the Indianapolis 500 race winner from 1986. Do you remember who finished in second place?

It was Kevin Cogan who today lives in relative obscurity in a suburb of Los Angeles. 

Rahal went from winning the greatest spectacle in racing to become an Indy car team owner winning in 2004 with Buddy Rice driving across the yard of bricks, to a successful career in business and owner of 16 auto dealerships in Pennsylvania.

In the 1986 race, fellow Indy car driver Arie Luyendyk crashed on lap 195 out of 200 and Rahal passed Cogan on the restart with two laps between he and the checkered flag.  He took the lead, won the race and earned his rightful place in racing history.

In an Indy Star article profiling Rahal’s career, Rahal talked about that very day, race, and moment when he saw the opportunity to not settle for second place.  That day, Rahal and Cogan’s lives were changed forever. 

There are periods in a person’s life when you either go through the door or you never get to knock on it again.
— Bobbie Rahal

I often wonder how many people never go through that door called opportunity. Perhaps some never even see the door and miss an opening to go in a new direction, to take a step toward achieving their goals.

Events in life sometimes present us with opportunities; doors so to speak, and we can either decide to go through them or leave them closed and forever forgo that choice and opportunity; perhaps never getting that chance again. And we can’t always control this (see, Andretti; Mario. He and Rahal each won the same number of Indy 500 races: 1). Sometimes it is simply luck and fortune, although it is often said that people make their own luck.

Rahal said that in a lot of races (and in life), something happened to put someone in position to win.

The lesson that Rahal teaches us is that when a high percentage opportunity is offered, take it and go through that door. You may have but a brief moment to consider your choices and the potential consequences. The opportunity to choose may not come again.

Be bold. Take the action and take the (slight) risk. That is how great things are achieved and how great and successful people act.

Has opportunity ever knocked on your door, but you failed to open it? Did you miss that one chance in life and it never came around again?  Or, like Rahal, did the decision you made that one day change your life forever?

Advice I Would Give To My 15 Year Old Self

Consider the life of this younger Rick. As a teenager, I loved cars – really loved cars. I owned my first car at age 15 before I even had a driver’s license. I enjoyed anything that moved under its own power and especially if it went fast, hence, the go-cart.  I can still remember the thrill of having some g-forces against my back while driving my go-cart with the wind in my face and a feeling of utter freedom without a care in the world.

As much as I admired a good ride in its totality, I also enjoyed taking things apart and rebuilding them. One day I decided my go-cart needed to go faster, so I purloined the engine from my father’s lawn mower. The next time my dad went to mow the lawn, I heard “Hey, where’s my lawn mower engine?”

I had three siblings - two brothers and a sister, but he knew the answer to this mystery lied with me. I told him I needed it for something more important and re-purposed it, as we would say today. At the promise of returning said engine to my dad’s lawnmower, which I did, my co-cart and I rode fast that day while the grass grew a bit taller.   

* * *

So my advice to my 15 year old self would be as follows.

Your possibilities in life are endless and limited only by you and your imagination. Be flexible. Be true to yourself and your values and don’t compromise them.

Stay optimistic; don’t get discouraged. Be patient.

Life does not move in a straight line. Be prepared for the unexpected because it will happen often if not daily. Learn to embrace and be comfortable with change because change will be a constant in your life.

Set personal and professional goals and you will achieve them. Do know it may take more time than you thought and not be achieved in the exact way that you thought.

Be prepared to take notice and advantage of opportunities as they arise. Always believe in yourself and know that you are capable of much more than you think. Seek out opportunities that stretch you and where you can learn from others. Never stop learning and growing.

Just like when you were a teen, never stop being curious.

All of us have been given gifts and talents; things that we uniquely can do well. Use these gifts to the best of your ability. Don’t dissipate them or let them go to waste. As for a job, do what you love and are passionate about.

Have some fun in life and be funny. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Set up the processes, work habits and practices, work ethic and environment where success can flourish. Develop and keep a long term time perspective and timeline. Do not fall for the trap of instant gratification. Some choices in jobs and in life can pay off in the short term but not be best in the long run.

When I graduated from Purdue University in the recession year of 1975, I had two job offers; one from a large, multinational corporation, and one from a small 100-employee gear company. Upon my father’s advice and recommendation, and with much personal reflection, I took the job at the small gear company that paid a salary that was 23 percent less than the other offer. While working at the multinational company may have appeared best in the short term, and certainly paid more, the job I chose with the gear company was by far best in the long term. It formed the basis for what I am today and led to my current path.

Be a person of honesty and integrity and have “do the right thing” as your main philosophy.

Find a mentor and listen to and learn from him/her. Much of what you learn will be outside of your job, and many times outside of your chosen profession. Pay attention to these things as they will truly set you up for success. Then, pay it forward when you can by mentoring someone else.

* * *

Both of my grandfathers were mechanical engineers. One grandfather started a gear company in 1934 called Schafer Gear Works/Schafer Industries that is still in business today and is successful, and the other was Chief Engineer for the Stromberg carburetor/Bendix Fuel Control division of Bendix Corporation with responsibilities for hundreds of people.

Early in my career, I set goals for myself that were a combination of both of my grandfathers - to be successful in the gear industry, to rise to Chief Engineer, to be an inventor who obtains patents, and to  continue their legacy by excelling in a career in which they could be proud of me. As it happened, all of this came to fruition but neither grandfather lived to see it. 

Never in my young man’s dreams did I think my 3 HP teenager’s go-cart would be replaced by a 620 HP supercharged Corvette convertible as my favorite mode of transportation. 
 

I was of course aware of my grandfathers at age 15, but had only a vague sense of their powerful legacy, the examples they set and the depth and breadth of their professional achievements. Even so, the influence and impact that they would ultimately have on me was significant. As the grandson of two great engineers, what I wouldn’t give to be able to talk to either one of them today.

Did I know as a car-loving and go-cart driving 15 year old that I would carry on my grandfathers’ legacy? No, but I do know the engineering profession chose me as it did my grandfathers and for that, I’m thankful.    

Rick Miller is president / sole owner of Innovative Drive Solution LLC, an engineering consulting firm specializing in gears and power transmission devices.

My mentor and me

My mentor and I never discussed entering into a mentoring relationship. I never asked and he never offered. But years ago he saw something in me that he deemed valuable, that I was teachable and worthy of his efforts to impart in me lessons of immense value.

He believed in me and showed it by giving me increasingly difficult design projects. He knew how and when to stretch me.  

From his lead-by-example tutelage of me and by me doing the work, I grew personally and as a professional engineer. I anticipated that my mentor would teach me the technical side of the business and help me to be a better engineer which he did.  What I didn’t know then was how valuable the technical and non-technical intangible lessons learned would be and how often I would use them in the years that followed.  

These are the things I learned from my mentor.

  • Create things that are as simple as possible. Anyone can design a complicated device, but it takes skill to reduce a concept to its most simplified and acceptable form.
  • Develop an ability to explain complicated technical concepts in a clear and concise manner. This is the mark of an intelligent person who thinks and communicates clearly verbally and in writing.
  • Less bureaucracy and red tape is better than more bureaucracy. Excessive bureaucracy enables and encourages incompetence and poor performance. 
  • Stretch yourself. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Avoid doing things automatically the same way that they have always been done.  Don’t copy or have “me-too” designs.
  • Be creative; be original. 
  • Don’t limit yourself. Ultimately, you hold the keys to your own performance and success.
  • Find your niche in your organization. People become uniquely valuable, and in a supportive environment, shape their own jobs. 
  • Look for and find ways to do things better, faster, more efficiently and less expensively.
  • The primary rule is “Do the right thing.” Don’t worry about lines of authority, even if it’s not your area of responsibility.  In the end, very few additional rules are necessary.
  • Never say “That’s not my job.” If someone asks you for help, help them if you can. If you aren’t able to help them, find someone who can.
  • Always put the interest of the company first. 
  • Act with honesty and integrity. 
  • Try to achieve work/life balance. 
  • Effort does not equal success; quality and effectiveness does. There are lots of busy failures in life. Don’t be one of them. 
  • Don’t worry about organizational titles. Instead, pay attention to the informal lines of authority and getting results. Work with and value the people who best enable you to achieve your objectives, not those who are insincere or full of themselves. 
  • Be reliable. Be a doer, not a talker. Be a person who gets things done and surround yourself with go-to people who also get results. 
  • Never forget your employer’s ultimate purpose, the goals of the organization you are serving, and who your end customers are. 

Have you had a mentor or been a mentor?  If so, what lessons did you learn?  What advice did you offer?  

Rick Miller is president / sole owner of Innovative Drive Solution LLC, an engineering consulting firm specializing in gears and power transmission devices.