I had an interesting week, highlighted by two speeches. On Tuesday, I had the privilege of listening to Doug Oberhelman, CEO of Caterpillar address the Economic Club of Indiana. His topic: competitiveness. On Thursday, I attended the long anticipated performance of one of my favorite comedians, Mike Birbiglia at Clowes Memorial Hall. His topic: Thank God for jokes. Not seeing the parallels? It is so obvious.
I listen differently than I used to. Two speeches in two days might have been a little much for the Contrarian to absorb. I will try to discuss a couple of highlights.
I was not necessarily looking forward to Oberhelman’s speech. I know a little about what Caterpillar manufactures, the size and scope of the company, and also some of their residual markets. It is an important company locally, and globally. Its status alone is reason enough to pay attention to what its leader has to say. And while he didn’t generate as many laughs as Birbiglia would, Mr. Oberhelman said some pretty interesting stuff.
The main thing that caught my ear was his comment that a company is only as good “as the intelligence of its people.” I think that statement is an accurate reflection of the American perspective toward the business world. Here, smart people win and those that lack intelligence lose, right? But Mr. Oberhelman expands on that thought a touch. He explains that over half of all job applicants for jobs at Caterpillar are not hired because of their deficiencies in the “basics.” These are American high school graduates that are not qualified to have the diploma that they have. He compares this lack of qualified talent to his company’s manufacturing process by describing it as a “supply deficiency.”
While he didn’t make this conclusion, I interpreted it this way: we are failing to train our people well enough for them to be trainable. Now some might say I see the glass as half empty on this one. However, the profound description that Oberhelman gives is no joke or cliche.
Which leads me to Birbiglia. His father is a doctor and his mother is a nurse, and neither of them were excited that their son wanted to be a comedian. He doesn’t help sick people (technically), he just tells jokes. Long jokes. Hilarious jokes. Most of his jokes are really just stories about unimportant life experiences that turn out to be the cheapest supply of comedic material anyone in his business could find. He talks about how common it is for new acquaintances to ask him after they have met why he isn’t being funny right now. Of course he always thinks to himself in those situations that this new acquaintance is “going to be the joke later.”
Think about that a little. How often do you see or hear something that is secretly and mildly amusing to you, but when you describe it later becomes the funniest story ever? It happens all the time, even in the lives of notoriously unfunny people. Just this morning, my son told me a story about a group of his friends receiving typical school discipline (forced to make a public apology) for typical teenage stupidity (“egging” a teacher’s house). This time, the kids in trouble weren’t mine. I never laughed so hard at that story. There are some that don’t think any of that was funny at all. Go figure.
So what’s the connection between these two talks, other than I was one of a few that attended both presentations? Birbiglia tells a story about a rather significant professional choice he made last year. You might not be surprised that he told an embarrassing story about a colleague and the story was not well received. Don’t get me wrong, it was so funny that I only heard half of it because I was laughing all the way through it with 1500 other people. It was not well received in that it did, predictably so, make the person who was the subject of the joke notably angry. Birbiglia knew he was going to piss off an influential person in his business with this one. He knew there would be consequences. He hoped for the best, and while the laughs were epic, he had to try and recover with the story’s lead character. After an awkward attempt at apologizing to his newest ex-friend and ex-colleague, he found himself facing his own wife. He knew his little joke was going to cost him, and therefore both of them, future opportunities. She asks him, “how’s it going?” And he replies in his most timid, beat down voice:
“It’s a long story….and it isn’t over yet.”
Clowes Hall was roaring.
Oberhelman, while talking about the “supply deficiency” earlier in the week, could have ended his talk the same way. His story wasn’t funny at all, mainly because our entire culture is the unhappy topic of it. With the right tenor, and in front of a crowd in parts of Europe or Australia for example, where the education system is meeting or exceeding expectations, his story might actually be funny. For those of us here though, it is really just starting to feel like we are the ones that are “going to be the joke later.”
The best advice I ever got, and I got it repeatedly from my mentor, was simply to listen. We really need to listen to what Mr. Oberhelman pessimistically said about our education system. It took a long time for it to become what it is today. Though it is a long story, it also clearly isn’t over yet. I am on another college visit with my younger son as I write this. It’s another very impressive school we are visiting this weekend. His opportunities far exceed the ones I had 30 years ago. We are optimistic about them. So when we say the long story isn’t over yet, we feel lucky that there are good endings still within reach around here.