When I was ten years old, Dad had an old Volkswagen Rabbit, and it had rear drum brakes. The Rabbit was a super tiny hatchback, and Dad’s was dark grey. I don’t know if I rode in it any other time except the day Dad tried it out. He bought it from a local guy who sold used cars, Keith Walker. My Dad used it to drive back and forth from our house to whichever train yard he was called out to. During that time, he was most often making the trip to Covington yard, which at was an hour away in the tiny town of Covington, Va. Diesel was cheaper when he bought the car, and it got great mileage. Dad was always trying to find a way to stretch his dollar into more. His dad was an alcoholic, and his mom often had to do everything she could to raise 4 boys by herself. She had grown up during the depression, in the hills of southern West Virginia. Being poor and scraping by was all my family had known for generations.
My Dad fought hard for my mom to be able to stay home and raise the three of us – my older sister Chrissa and my younger brother Mike. Dad had worked as a mechanic for many years just out of high school, and he spent a number more years after that as a brick mason. When he bought our house, which he paid all of $15,000 for in 1983, it didn’t even have an indoor bathroom. My mom was pregnant at the time – and with me!
Dad did all of the maintenance and improvements on our home himself, with the exception of running the equipment to have a basement put under the house. He did set the beam the house still sits on. He added a third and a fourth bedroom, hvac, brick, windows and of couse…. An addition with a bathroom. He also maintained all 3 cars himself – a Chrysler minivan, his ’85 Chevy Silverado (which he bought new the year my brother was born – 8 years prior from this point), and this grey Rabbit he bought to save on gas mileage.
I remember helping my dad change the brakes on his Volkswagen Rabbit. The way the springs worked on the drum brakes fascinated my young mind. I remember him getting frustrated when I tried to do it myself, but I also remember being sure that I had it right. I didn’t, and Dad had to fix it. But I was proud of myself for trying. Dad was constantly pushing me to take on more and work harder.
Dad instilled in me a spirit of hard work. He constantly told me to always be on the lookout to serve, to offer help – especially while he was working. He taught me always to do everything I could to help out, and his can do ingenuity inspired me. Dad also taught me often that I should never say the words, “That’s not my job.”
When I started in Oil & Gas at 25 years old, I took that same work ethic and diligence to my work. I was working for a group of geologists at the time. One was a gruff geologist named Jim who didn’t seem to think much of anyone. The diligence my Dad taught me actually impressed him. I soon switched departments to a job closer to my discipline – working for the Reservoir Engineering team. My boss was more frugal than my dad, an attitude that I didn’t mind at first. I eventually realized that his frugality in his personal life carried into his work life. For me to get ahead, I often had to put him in the pinch of putting in my notice to find another job. I did this twice, and managed to use that to work my way up the salary scale – but I couldn’t get a title bump. I continued working under the engineers.
After we moved to Pittsburgh, my boss was placed under another level of management, and this boss…. Let’s just say I couldn’t gain his appreciation no matter what I did. The only interactions we had was rare glimpses of him showing his seagull style of management and leaving bad marks on my yearly reviews. If you don’t know what a seagull manager is – they are the type who come flying in, make a bunch of noise, crap all over the place, and leave.
While I was there, I felt if I just kept taking on more work – I could impress management and get ahead. I soon became proficient in databases and data analysis. I was writing programs, and was taking on the work of multiple of the engineers. And every year the only reward I got outside of a 4% raise was the gift of keeping my job and all of the extra work I had taken on. My boss retired, and a new boss took over. He seemed to at least appreciate my work verbally and gave me the opportunities to present my findings to the executive team, but I continued to have to cover everything that I had taken on to get rewarded.
That’s not my job had come back to bite me, hard.
In 2019 I read the book Boundaries by Henry Cloud. I began to understand that saying no didn’t make me lazy or bad, it was actually a good thing. Saying no to too much work meant that I had a firm boundary and good balance in my life. It also meant that I had to buck my Dad’s wisdom of saying “That’s not my job.” I tried this at work when I was told I was going to have to manage another database that was in SQL Server. I said No for the first time. It was liberating. My newfound freedom was short lived, as my boss told me I had no choice. He didn’t seem to realize the massive amount of hours that I was staying late when no one else was, or the massive amount of work I had undertaken. When I said I was tapped out and couldn’t take on anything else, he looked at me funny. I had done such a great job of handling everything with a good attitude, that he had no idea what all I was covering for them.
I did take on that project, and I created an ETL process for their new software. It still runs to this day, and those skillsets I used eventually helped me land a job for a software company.
I still struggle with the phrase “That’s not my job.” On the one hand, I would never have gained all of the skillsets and insights I have today in my career had I said “That’s not my job.” On the other hand, when I worked at that job – it changed me: My stress levels were constantly maxed out – I was too beat up to experience burn out – and I had to watch every other person get ahead only to constantly be told that I wasn’t good enough.
Had I worked for an employer that appreciated my skillsets and talent, maybe I would have still learned the same things? Or maybe the lack of stress would never have pushed me and I would have stayed mediocre the rest of my life?
I wish I had some pithy saying or great advice. I don’t have it. All I can say is that every day the pain drove me to my knees before God. Every morning, He heard my heart – and I worshipped him through my pain. He lead me to let go of the things I was clinging to, and He helped mold me into a better man, a better leader. Maybe someday I’ll share more insights from those times, but for now, I’ll just say goodnight. It’s amazing how the things your parents show you carry deep into adulthood, and how the difficulty of changing the drum brakes on a Volkswagen Rabbit can teach you about the deeper meanings of life.