Here's the Secret to Success in Water and Wastewater

In any profession, it’s not pure talent that makes people great. It’s seizing that talent and getting the most from it. That starts with genuinely loving one’s chosen line of work.

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"Now some people say that you shouldn’t tempt fate, and for them, I cannot disagree.

But I never learned nothin’ from playin’ it safe. I say fate should not tempt me.”

Mary Chapin Carpenter

I just got back from a short vacation that included a concert by Mary Chapin Carpenter, a favorite of mine. Watching the show and remembering her CDs that I own, I said to myself, “What talent — to write such powerful songs and to sing and play them with such feeling.”

But then — being old enough to know better — I remembered what really makes her great. Where greatness is concerned, talent is just the admission ticket. In any field, succeeding greatly is all about the striving, the endless hours of practice, the failures, the persistence. Or, to paraphrase a quote attributed to various people: The harder we work, the more talented we get.

It’s about love

Any profession — music, art, drama, engineering, water and wastewater treatment — is full of people given bushels of talent who never truly excel. I’m convinced that most often people who stand apart in some endeavor also happen to love it. Where else would the drive come from to put forth all the effort real success requires?

The headline for this column comes from a carved wooden sign I saw posted in a high school orchestra rehearsal room. This was the instructor’s daily reminder that the kids who go furthest are the ones who really wanna.

I look at my daughter, now age 35. In grade school and high school, she played the cello so well after a few years that she moved the bow with her entire body, her music so beautiful it could almost make her old man weep. She had the talent but not the love; halfway through high school, she gave it up.

She turned to develop her real love, cooking, at which she’s a virtuoso. She grew up in the kitchen, helping her mom knead bread from about age three, later working with me to prepare and perfect my homemade honey-crust pizza. Today she’s a chef at a private restaurant club and draws raves from customers and co-workers. Her creations keep getting better; I predict, with no trace of bias, that when she opens her own place (and one day she will), people will line up around the block for her soups, salads, pizzas, sandwiches, dinner entrees and desserts.

The driving force? She has the wanna. Her husband and two boys eat as well as her restaurant patrons. When her family comes to visit us, she cooks our meals, though I tell her over and over that we don’t expect it — her visits should not be busman’s holidays. Regardless, we get lunches and dinners worthy of a four-star restaurant. Cooking is not just what she does; it’s who she is.

Finding the passion

I look back at my own career. I started college majoring in the sciences — first physics (with some chemistry and math thrown in) and then biology. Along the way, I discovered something: although I did well academically, I would never be a scientist because I did not love (in fact, hated) working in a lab.

What I did love was writing. So, I built a career around writing about scientific and technical subjects. I’ll leave aside any claims to being great, but I know I’ve gone a lot further as a writer than I ever would have as a scientist. It certainly helps that I like getting up in the morning and coming to work.

The water industry seems to bring people around to their passion through a back door. Few grow up wanting to be water or wastewater operators. Many enter the industry simply because they need a job. Soon, they grow to love it and find a calling. Part of that, I’m sure, comes with the realization that cleaning wastewater is part and parcel of creating fishable, swimmable lakes and streams, and that treating drinking water is fundamental to healthy communities.

Love for the career without a doubt drives the dedication that has brought and continues to bring so much progress toward clean and healthy waterways. I leave you with another quotation:

“My mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk, you’ll end up as the pope.’ Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.”

Pablo Picasso

May each of us wind up as our own kind of Picasso.


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