If I could give young professionals, especially young sports coaches, one piece of advice, it’s to learn everything you can about your system or organization. Spend the time and energy to learn the entire gamut of what makes your system click and be the glue that hold it together.
In May of 1988, I left graduate pursuits at Emporia State University for a $12,000 a year job as a research assistant in the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Kansas State University. I went from flat-ass broke to barely-above-being-broke but it was something. The job market was bad. The research science job market was even worse. I actually had two job offers, the one at K-State and one at KU Medical Center.
The KU Med research assistant job paid a little better ($17,000/year) but it was going back to my hometown of Kansas City at a time when I wanted to set roots in a less densely populated region. Being able to see a clear and expansive night sky held great weight for me in 2008 (and still does in 2020!). So much to the chagrin of the KU Med Center professor who told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life, I took the job in Manhattan, KS.
So 32+ years later, I’m still at Kansas State. I’m still working in the 2020 version of the same department I started in and doing new scientific things on almost a daily basis. The professor at KU was wrong in 1988 and is still wrong as we close out 2020. K-State has been as good for me and my family as I hope I’ve been good to K-State. It’s been a great relationship!
When I try explaining to people how I can stay at one place for such a long time, I look back at that first appointment working for Dr. Bob Phillips as the tissue culture technician in diagnostic virology. I was not the first choice for the job. In fact, I quickly found out I was the third of three applicants because, even though ESU had exceptional academic science, we lacked the hands-on experience in the laboratory. The first person they hired left after two weeks because the job was “below” his skills and the second person flat turned them down. So it fell to me.
For those who don’t know me, I’m stubborn and hardheaded to a fault. I have always, however, scrapped and clawed and worked to make something from my underwhelming skills. The years at K-State have been marked with numerous setbacks and struggles but to this date, all successes can be attributed to hard work mixed with a healthy dose of stubbornness. Knowing I had something to prove, I set out to prove it by using those two attributes to my advantage.
What did I learn from working for Dr. Phillips? Everything! I think he saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. Impressed with the way I finished my work and then jumped in to help the rest of the diagnostic virology team doing whatever needed doing, from washing dishes to making media to setting up assays, he kept challenging me to learn and do more. He put me in situations to learn the gamut of the entire diagnostic section under his supervision.
I spent a few weeks learning the proper washing and sterilization techniques in the autoclave room. I spent time in the serology lab, the sample receiving lab, the electron microscopy lab, and in the diagnostic bacteriology lab. It was a crash course in what made our operation tick. I’m forever grateful to Dr. Phillips for pushing me down this training road. I didn’t know it at the time; I thought I was just helping out in these other labs because they were busy, but he saw something in me beyond just a technician performing an essential task. He was perhaps the first person to see the potential in me as a scientist.
This lesson to learn the gamut has served me well as a father, a scientist, a coach, a writer, and, most importantly, as a citizen. Not only does it make me a better spoke in the wheel but it helps make me a vital spoke as well by being an indispensable piece of a functional organization. It taught me to say “Yes” when asked to take on new challenges and then expand my knowledge and skillset to follow through completing those challenges.
And isn’t an important and vital member of a high-functioning team something we all want to be?
Learn the gamut.
Carry the load.