In my last post I mused about my pattern of chronic overcommitment and speculated that a contributing factor might have been my father’s early death contributing to a sense of urgency to get something done before it’s too late. This is probably a bit simplistic as it neglects the motivation to do something significant in the first place. For that it’s probably more instructive to look at my other source of DNA: my mother.
Last weekend Katie and I ventured up to the Washington DC area to cheer Mom on as she took delivery of the Discovery space shuttle for the National Air & Space Museum‘s Udvar-Hazy Center. As a curator of human spaceflight, this is essentially the crowning accomplishment of her career. She has authored/edited books, produced exhibits, given talks at conferences, been interviewed by major media, etc. but the acquisition of Discovery is in an entirely different league. Discovery is the champion of the shuttle fleet, having flown more than any other spacecraft, including many notable missions. This $2.4B (in 80s dollars, mind you!) artifact is really, really significant.
Looking back, Mom has been a constant source of inspiration for me toward a life of significance. Coming from very modest beginnings in a small town, she has constantly striven to stretch her wings and test herself against greater and greater challenges – through Arkansas, Texas, California, Minnesota, New York, Alabama, and, finally, Washington DC. She received the Smithsonian’s job offer to work at one of the world’s most popular museums while we were still living in Huntsville, Alabama. To my 10-year-old self DC seemed like a big, scary place. Mom didn’t shy away from the opportunity, though; she was eager to test herself on a larger stage, one that would would impact millions of people each year.
During my childhood, Mom was always encouraging me to spread my own wings. Whether through family trips to foreign countries, or taking me to plays/concerts/cultural events, or reading with me, or visits to historical sites (and LOTS of museums, obviously), she always nudged me to expand my horizons. What impresses me most, though, are the things she helped me pursue that were way outside her comfort zone: Art Monk Football Camp, for example, or the annual Great Debate about the size and rate of expansion of the universe.
Throughout, she also tried to instill in me her values of doing the right thing, the honest thing, rather than just the thing of greatest benefit. Lord knows I didn’t always succeed in this area, but she was always there to, ahem, help me see where I had strayed – and correct course!
Add all that up and I think it’s easy to see how I would find myself dedicating my professional life to addressing the world’s energy challenges. As Nobel Laureate Dick Smalley often said (paraphrasing), if you take the top ten challenges to humanity over the next 50 years and solve energy (the top challenge, according to Smalley), you solve at least eight of the others (water, food, environment, poverty, etc.) incidentally.
I’m working hard on this most significant of industries not just because I believe my efforts will have a big impact, but also because I believe it is right. So many bright, capable, energetic people work in industries or for organizations where they really aren’t addressing the world’s challenges. Many of them don’t love that fact but they don’t know anything else. Some of them don’t really care. Most don’t really think about it.
Thank you, Mom, for inspiring me to live a life of significance. A life of meaning. I’m so proud of what you have accomplished and I’m working my tail off to live up to your example!