Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Tale Of The Wrecked Fire Engine

There is a lesson that I was taught many years ago that I think everybody who contributes to Open Source projects should learn. Back when I was a volunteer firefighter, I had a rather interesting conversation with one of our ex-chiefs. Let's teleport back to when I was 21 years old.

The Tale

We had just gotten back from an uninteresting call. Well, the call itself was uninteresting. But what was interesting was that our driver nearly got into an accident on the way back. And one that should have been prevented in the first place. Basically, he nearly wrecked a truck because of a mistake that he made.

A few of us were sitting around the station making fun of the driver (who had already left). We said things like "he shouldn't ever drive" and "man, think of the damage he could have caused". And with our youthful narrow-minded vision, we said things like "what is he even doing here". "We'd be better off without him". Youthful stupidity.

One of the ex-chiefs, a man with 30+ years of experience as a volunteer firefighter, overheard this banter. So he came over to us and told us a story. He told us about how back when he was chief, one of the engines was involved in an accident. The driver of the engine was clearly at fault. This is his story:

When {name} crashed the engine, he beat himself up pretty hard over it. And so did the department.

But I went over to him and shook his hand, and said "Thank You".

He got upset and told me not to mock him for screwing up.

I said "I wasn't mocking. Seriously, thank you for crashing the truck."

"You volunteered your time, which is infinitely more important than any piece of equipment. You made a mistake. It happens to everyone. That's not important. What's important is that you were there to make that mistake. And that's far more than most people ever do in their lives."

"So thank you for crashing the truck."

At the time, it seemed like a silly story. Thanking someone for making your life difficult. Pfff. But as time went on, the lesson set in. And I saw the wisdom in that story.

The Lesson

The next time a volunteer makes a mistake, say "thank you".

The next time a volunteer does something you don't like, say "thank you".

The next time a volunteer makes your life more difficult, say "thank you".

Mistakes can be fixed. Wrongs can be righted.

The important part is that they showed up. It's more than most people will ever do. That's more important and more powerful than anything else.

After all, as a Polish proverb says: Ten siÄ™ nie myli, kto nic nie robi., or in other words:

It's only those who do nothing that make no mistakes