It can be argued that the best kind of literature is one that offers a glimpse into the human condition—the “slice of life”, if you will. At Fairbanks Morse, we know our lives are full of events, emotions, actions, and expectations that do not always turn out as expected. As unpleasant as it may seem, failure is an undeniable fact of life. What we often fail to see, however, are the opportunities presented in those moments. We can learn those lessons through literature.
Take the Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, a novel by John McPhee, for example. Discussing the Books@Work program with members of the Fairbanks Morse Research and Development team—Jim, Joe, Mike, and Brian—the novel was mentioned because it “is about engineering and it’s very relatable,” said Brian, “it was about trying and failing.” Failing how? While success is often considered to be obtaining a desired outcome, we tend to concoct endless flavors of failure.
That is, in part, why the Books@Work program was introduced to Fairbanks Morse. Perhaps it is by coincidence—but more likely by design—that the selected pieces continue to raise the issue of failure. The casual observer may be inclined to think that authors of literature are largely skeptical of our ability to succeed or that conflict within a story must originate or end in failure. Closer examination and consideration, however, reveals that not only do we learn from our own errors but by the errors of others as well; making it a universal human condition.
Thus, emphasizing a habit that literature seeks to root out of our tendencies. We are prone to associate ‘failure’ with a serious personal error or flaw. For example, we may not get a desired outcome, or we may fail to do the right thing at times. There’s a panoply of instances we associate with failure. But, if there is one thing that literature teaches us, it is that failures can come in much more subtle and innocuous forms; it is not always about missing deadlines or lapses in judgment or character.
The purpose of the Books@Work program is to dispassionately observe the behaviors and reactions of others—characters in a story—to reflect on our own behaviors, motivations, and inclinations. That is how books provide us with that “slice of life” and it is one of the most important aspects of literature. Participants in the Books@Work program have followed characters who have failed to control their emotions, witnessed real people realize a fault in their perception of others, and read stories that have failed to meet expectations.
Take, for example, The Talented Mr. Ripley, a novel by Patricia Highsmith. While reading the book, Jim was “waiting to have an ‘aha!’ moment, but the book was ultimately anti-climactic.” It’s an example of how we do things that may fail to live up to our expectations. In such times, we may ask ourselves if our expectations are too high. We may “find things enjoyable but, in the end, they leave us wanting more,” Jim says. Literature, like life, is notorious for such endings.
The opposite may be true as well—we may have such low expectations that we fail to participate. “When Books@Work started, I was cautious,” admits Joe. “Most people wondered why a business would do this,” he says, but when they realized what the program was about, they “gravitated to it quickly.” For others, like Mike, it was about realizing that “there is a lot more going on in a book than you think.” It’s about “building characters and details,” says Mike, “some authors put a lot of detail in it and some don’t.”
Many times, we may fail to do the things that we know can help put us ahead of the crowd—like reading. In a previous article, our interviewee simply stated: “leaders are readers.” Of the R&D group, Jim is admittedly “not normally a reader of the Books@Work selections.” While his preference for literature has more to do with taste, he notes that the program has “opened up my reading genre significantly.”
Joe had a similar experience, “the program exposes you to things you normally would not read,” he says. It is not only the act of reading, however, that helps put readers ahead. With each group being facilitated by a literature professor, it is the explicit and implicit content that they can help to illuminate. “The facilitator brings knowledge, cultural references, and mentions historical events that happened during the time the story was written to provide more perspective,” says Joe. That thorough understanding of context is similar to how we interact with each other.
As social creatures, we innately desire community and personal connections with others. Unfortunately, we may fail to connect with colleagues at times, despite our best intentions. While discussing the Books@Work program with Brian, he noted that the program provides “a shared experience that you don’t often get at work.” While our goals are often the same in the workplace, our experiences in achieving those goals are different. For Brian, sharing an experience with colleagues makes the difference, “everyone goes their own way at the end of the day,” he says, “but the book gives them all a shared experience.” For Mike, the program has been “helpful to open conversations with people that you might not normally talk to and to get to know people better in the group, especially new people.”
Finally, at times, we may fail to seize an opportunity to try something new. “Just try Books@Work,” says Jim, “it’s hard to have a bad experience.” Not only is the program great for established Fairbanks Morse employees, it’s “great for new people to get to know people” at Fairbanks Morse. “You get to see how people that you spend a lot of time with perceive and understand things,” he says. For others, like Joe, the opportunity is “knowing that other people are enjoying it and people can step aside from work stress.”
At Fairbanks Morse, we overcome obstacles every day to produce the best products on the market. We have a tremendous group of talented and knowledgeable team members that work in collaboration to power the world forward. Despite our best efforts, we sometimes encounter obstacles that seem insurmountable. What we have found is that by sticking together and by working as a team, we can overcome anything.
We can learn so much from literature. The stories are as limitless as the human imagination. We learn important life lessons and messages. Perhaps the most important message to come away with is that while we are inclined to view failure as a very negative concept, it is perhaps the most character building experiences we may encounter. The biggest failure we encounter, however, is failing to try.
Take a chance. Try something new. Get to know your colleagues on a different level. Embrace reading. If you would like to get involved with the Books@Work program, we support you.