Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Tale of Two Picket Fences

Wallace Carothers, American chemist and inventor extraordinaire, had a brief teaching and research appointment at Harvard before leaving to make history at DuPont.  I wrote about him here.  Carothers' mentor at Harvard was Professor E. P. Kohler, a veteran teacher by the time Carothers got there in 1926.  A contemporary of Carothers remembers Kohler:
But after I met him [Kohler]..we sat around listening, waiting for the words of wisdom. He was a bachelor, and he had an old New England house down in some town south of Boston. He had a picket fence around his house, and he talked at great length about what a great thing it was to paint a picket fence. He got enormous joy and satisfaction out of this, and I thought it was awfully stupid. Finally he said, 'The reason this is so wonderful: it's the only thing that I do that has a beginning, has an end, and at anytime I know exactly where I stand.' Twenty years later it finally dawned on me that I'd heard some words of wisdom.' Kohler, now 62, was in his sixteenth year at Harvard when James Conant and Roger Adams presented to Kohler--'the King' he was called--the convincing case for Wallace Carothers as a new Harvard instructor. 
Enough for One Lifetime by Matthew E. Hermes.
Carothers lasted just three semesters before leaving Harvard for DuPont in 1927.  The rest is history. I bring up the story because Professor Kohler's peculiar (and real-life) attitude about fence painting contrasts so starkly with that of the fictional Tom Sawyer, forever captured by Mark Twain:
Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden. Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.
Of course the guileful Tom goes on to convince his friends to paint the fence for him, and that of course is part of his charm.

What sort of character do we reward in workers and leaders today?  Which traits do we admire in ourselves when faced with such a task?

1 comment:

  1. Tom Sawyer is forever just ten years old! Why would he want to spend a Saturday painting his aunt's fence, when it was a punishment to keep him from playing with his friends?

    What Tom does ... when one friend comes along and passes him, laughing ... is to show such exuberance at painting the fence ... Standing back and admiring his work, too ... That he's able to convince others that it really is swell ... to do a few strokes ... And, then to stand back and admire.

    Tom ends up with lots of stuff for his pockets. From friends that have to part with their treasures ... just to get a chance to lob some paint up on the fence ...

    Until Tom can go in and tell his aunt Polly that he did it all. And, could he go and play, now? His aunt doesn't believe him! But is stunned to find the fence has 3 good coats of paint!

    You know, all of us just got scammed by a professional con artist! I am calling Boehner a PROFESSIONAL CON ARTIST!

    How did this happen?

    Okay. Boehner uses seniority to waltz into the speaker's office! He's the one who has voted for TARP. Voted for LEAVE NO CHILD BEHIND. He's got a steaming record of always being lazy. And, handing out big checks (and legislation goodies) to his friens at Big Tobacco. And, big Pharma.

    So, that's how we got taken.

    But inside da' House? Ain't no Aunt Polly! Just some newcomers who are terrified of not being able to make a dent on the pork barrel system!

    The debt ceiling going up? Money out of everyone's pocket. You want to say obama is a con artist, too? Yes. I'll agree.

    But only one winnah walks away from the table.

    And, the stupid party is gonna pay for da' paint. We can't win because we don't set the rules.

    Boehner? He wins. He's like Pelosi. She comes from a safe district in San Francisco. And, Boehner comes from a safe district in Ohio.

    They'll always be there.

    No matter how we change things at the polls.

    But what if obama wins?

    Not much of a difference if you're gonna get clobbered paying these bills.