Friday, April 4, 2014

D'oh! I Didn't Know He Said That!

You know that sinking feeling you have when you go to a friend's wedding and you and someone else there are wearing the same dress and shoes?  I don't, but friends of mine say it is pretty awful.  When there's an effort for clever forethought and pizzazz, it is heartbreaking to realize is is unoriginal.

My heart sank like a Malaysian jetliner the other day, on Norman Borlaug's birthday.  I was reading about him and reading his most inspiring quotations.  "Don’t tell me what can’t be done. Tell me what needs to be done – and let me do it."

Certainly inspirational, and defining well the attitude of a midwestern farmer, scientist and humanitarian. 

With all respect, I apologize to Dr. B for inadvertently stealing his concept... 
But I can explain! 

Now imagine the pukey sensation in the guts of a scientist that claims Borlaug as a hero, who has on his own signature line his (?) quotation, "Don't tell me it can't be done, tell me how you are going to help me do it!"

Yes, I said that, and it has been on my signature line for many years. It happened sporadically and organically, and when I said it, I loved it so much I wrote it down so I would not forget it. Seriously.

Okay, don't believe me?  Here's how it happened. 

I was on the phone trying desperately to find an industry match for the first USDA SCRI grant competition.  All proposals required equal matches from other sources.  Despite what anti-GM and others will tell you, it is next to impossible to get any corporate sponsorship, even for the best ideas. 

I was on the phone with a major horticultural crop company, a company known for breeding and marketing small fruits.  This is a billion-plus dollar corporation, and our work fit well with their objectives.  I was asking for 1/3 of a graduate student cost per year, for three years.  That's $11,000 per year, probably what they spend on their Purell budget.

All I got was resistance.  The amount would not even fully fund a four-year degree, but I was willing to take that chance.  They declined.  I offered for them to help shape the project.  They declined.  I offered for them to serve on committees.  They declined.   

It was not just that they told me "no".  Every proposal came back with some insane and backwards justification that made me madder and madder.  Here was an opportunity I needed to jump on and the companies that could benefit were standing in the way over literally a few big corporation bucks. 

It was literally 50 minutes into the call.  After hearing every stupid reason, excuse and deflection I said, "Don't tell me it can't be done, tell me how you are going to help me do it!"

The words flowed in a stream of crankiness from my lips.  It was pure gold.  I wrote it down.

And they didn't support our proposal. 

Now I feel like kind of a loser because my words in anger matched well with a quotation of one of my favorite scientists, and I put them on every email I've sent for the last five years. 

I must look like a complete weenie.  

It was complete coincidence, but coincidence maybe born out of my respect for the way that Dr. Borlaug got the job done.  Maybe it is that we share a similar motor and both don't like lazy approaches to critical problems.  I hope that's it. 

But in a world where perception is king, I'm going to remove my version from now on and just put his in its place.  It basically said the same thing, but means a lot more coming from one of the world's all-time greatest scientists and humanitarians.