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  • Bill Holmes

The Science of the Trashcan Fire


People in charge need to know how the world works!

“He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

Saint Francis of Assisi


“If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar. If any man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool.” Abraham Lincoln


My mother and father were forged in hard times. My father lived through the Great Depression and joined the US Army when he was just 16 years old. He was a big guy, and no one questioned his age. He fought with distinction in WWII in North Africa and went on to serve in nearly every US conflict until he retired in 1970 as a Sergeant Major.


My mother was a young teenage girl living in Germany in the closing days of WWII. She was just 14 years old when the German military handed her a rifle and sent her to fight, with no training, on the Russian front. She was captured by the Russians and placed in a prisoner camp until liberated by the allies. She carried the tattoo with her prisoner number until she died.


These experiences profoundly shaped them. They knew how to do things! I can recall my mom carefully cutting pieces of cloth from larger rolls and carefully sewing them together until she had a beautiful outfit. She would proudly wear her "new" outfit to church. She would take me to local farmers to pick fresh produce, then my father and I would help her preserve them in big mason jars. I can still recall melting wax on the top of the jar, then carefully placing them in the pressure cooker to ensure that they would be safe to eat later.


My father could do almost anything! He had a workshop in our backyard where he would meticulously convert raw wood into beautiful furniture. He completed our basement and it was equipped with a fully functional bar, built in cabinetry and a beautiful den. He did all of it himself! When I became interested in cars, he taught me how to take care of routine maintenance, and later how to modify vehicles for higher performance.


I still carry those experiences with me. Physically fixing something gives you a profound appreciation of how the world really works, as opposed to how it should work.


A while ago, I was in a meeting with some very smart people. They wanted me to start a new project, but the underlying principle was flawed. I built a very compelling case for why the assumptions were flawed and explained that the expected business benefits would NOT be realized. I used data grounded in experience, and the logic was unassailable. The more obvious it became that their idea was flawed, the more insistent they were I do the project.


Even though they were highly educated people, they didn't understand how the world works. I did the project as requested (you have to get paid!) and it was highly successful by traditional project metrics. Were the business benefits realized? Nope. But they declared success anyway. In a world where reality is subjective and success is defined by who is in charge, that mindset works. In the real world it doesn't.


Soon after that I found myself at an outdoor facility in a rural area. To keep us warm in winter months, they had the very low-tech solution of positioning trash cans with burning wood around the area. On this particular afternoon, I noticed that the heat coming from the trashcan fire was dramatically greater than usual. I mentioned that, and a friend told me that he had taken all the trashcans home and improved them. He then gave me a detailed explanation about how the trashcans had been modified for combustion efficiency. He saw a problem, he understood how the world worked and he fixed it.


Imagine if we replaced highly educated and credentialed "leaders" with people who actually understand how the world works and know how to fix things. My hypothesis is that we would all be amazed at how quickly everything improved!


Coda


I decided to stop the series on financial advice for young people. I got great feedback and my website clicks were up, but I decided that best advice had already been shared. And who wants to talk about taxes anyway? My hypothesis that many large organizations are often run by people do don’t really understand how things work is something I have been thinking a lot about lately. How could I not? Turn on the news! Finally, sorry for the delays in my posts. A combination of business opportunities, the holidays and a round with COVID-19 slowed me down.


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