Nobody’s Going To Do It For You

October 24, 2010

My grandfather, Paul Ireland, grew up the son of a trolley conductor in (then) rural Orange County, California. He had a knack for numbers and used it to get a drafting job at Eastman in Rochester, New York. After a few years of reading public library math books in his spare time, he left his precious Depression-era job in Rochester, to visit the University of Chicago. Someone had told him that U of C was the place to study physics, which was mostly math. 

My grandfather, who had nobody to talk to about his private studies, honestly thought it was pronounced, “pa-hi-ziks”.

Arriving in Chicago flat broke, Paul had no place to stay and was not invited to U of C, so he lived in a tent in Jackson Park while he trudged around the campus, searching for a physics professor who would talk to him. Finally, a prof took pity on Paul and invited him to show his stuff on the blackboard. Young Paul quickly scribbled out a mathematical explanation of some of Einstein’s theories.

The professor, astonished, challenged the kid to show him something else, just in case he had memorized a theorem or two. Paul rolled out more math on the board. His understanding was real.

Soon thereafter, my grandfather was allowed to “test” through the University of Chicago undergraduate and masters physics and math curriculums earning him a place on Enrico Fermi’s team. A few years after that, Paul Ireland stood on Stagg Field with Fermi and helped split the first atom.

This is all true.

As a child, I never really understood the power of my grandfather’s story. University of Chicago was a place down the street from my Hyde Park home and Enrico Fermi was a guy nobody in my childhood circle knew about. Carlton Fisk was more important to us kids.

But as I have aged and struggled to be a productive member of society, my grandfather’s story has impressed upon me the importance of taking risks and of committing yourself to something important.

Nobody’s going to do it for you.

The question remains: What important things need doing?