safe worker at substation

The Case for Mastery

Feb. 16, 2017
If you must, quit the job to remain safe.

Dear lineman, operator, relay technician, engineer and substation electrician. You are responsible for your health and safety or for the health and safety of others. If you must, quit the job to remain safe. It is better than being maimed forever or having your family grieve forever.

Of course, for nearly all of us, our peers, supervisors, managers, safety specialists and many others are all trying as hard as possible to keep us injury free. But, in the end, it is usually only ourselves who will regret an inadvertent decision. We often think, “if I could just have the last five seconds back.” Many accidents are caused by a final, fateful step. One that is regretted immediately. That regret and other challenges can usually be mitigated through the achievement of personal mastery, including technically, physically, organizationally and psychologically.

I think of this dynamic according the “rule of fives.” What I have done in the last five seconds is the result of the cumulative effort of what I have done in the last five days and in the last five months and in the last five years. The five-year notation is not simply a convenient, round number. Rather, it is roughly the amount of time it takes to work 10,000 hours = 2,080 work hours per year X 5 years = 10,400, the same length of time it roughly takes to achieve true mastery (See also Malcolm Gladwell’s work on 10,000 hours required to be a master from Outliers). Of course, not all work hours are equally valuable from a learning perspective.

This begs the questions, how much deliberate practice does it take to work successfully in highly hazardous positions like lineman or electrician? What length of time does it take for an engineer to achieve mastery? Of course, it depends on many factors, but mostly the willingness to engage in “deliberate practice,” which includes a single-minded focus on one area at a time, regular and accurate performance feedback and the ability to routinely penetrate performance plateaus.

A typical apprenticeship is three or four years long. I’ll call this the nominal apprenticeship, not the true apprenticeship. Most of us will concede that despite a journeyman or PE status we still have much to learn to achieve true mastery. I’ll call that the true apprenticeship – the time it takes to achieve full mastery. Full mastery leads to improved safety and high personal performance.

I will never forget Bart, an underground foreman. He studied and worked exceptionally hard to master the underground network in the City of Long Beach, CA. He was the consummate professional and tackled the toughest jobs. Along the way he taught an entire crew of system operators about underground switching. He had also mastered the art of working with others, which for him and in his role, was a long list. We all know someone like Bart, who was above all, safe.

However, the most important distinction about mastery is that you can only acquire it on your own. This is because mastery is personal. True masters only come “one each.” Achieving mastery is a full, personal transformation of beliefs, behaviors, knowledge and skills. The company can’t download this transformation through classes and tests and the university can't run a mastery scan when you graduate.

For many others, mastery is an option. Not so for those involved in highly hazardous work, including those of us in the utility industry. There is where the first gut check kicks in. Do I have the interest, drive and sheer determination to master my craft or not? If not, I’ll restate my earlier guidance to find a new line of work. Without some form of calling or commitment to your profession, you are liable to be a danger to yourself and to others. If we’re engaged and driven, we can learn even the most difficult aspect of our jobs. If we’re bored, disinterested and just in it for the money, we’ll lack the motivation required to work toward mastery. In the end, desire, persistence and focus matter more than high test scores or college GPA.

I have observed that many, if not most, folks working in T&D love what they do. The mission is clear, the work challenging and the profession noble in the eyes of others. Thank Goodness. Our work is complex and dangerous. Our best effort is required and there have never been more tools or resources available to us to perfect our craft, whether that is engineering, designing, building, maintaining or operating the system.

True masters wouldn’t get caught dead climbing without fall protection, signing switching orders without scrupulous review, checking switchyard switching from the control room, changing relay settings on a new relay when you ‘think’ you know how, and other critical, but laborious tasks that are easy to take for granted. Mastery reduces the odds of injury, death, operating errors and inadvertent dropped load to nearly zero. Fortunately, personal safety is not the only advantage of achieving mastery of your current position, it also leads to a more enjoyable and satisfying work life. Attentively confident, respected by others, example to all. Mastery focuses concentration, creates connections between multiple domains and allows bold thinking about new approaches. It enables a considered review of current policies and practices, as well as the capacity to knowingly suggest appropriate changes. It is a shift from following policy to setting policy.

How do you know if have achieved mastery? That will be addressed in the next column. Until then, please think of the benefits of positional mastery as you prepare for the effort required. Please know that once the effort required to become masterful becomes habituated, it is easier and even appreciated, despite the burden. True power – not reactive power – is required to accomplish work. Analogously, true study – not clocked time served – is necessary to achieve full mastery.

I’ll close with a quote from General Mattis, recently named as the new Secretary of Defense – “Thanks to my reading (one vehicle for achieving mastery), I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all of the answers but lights what is often a dark path ahead.” We should hope that this could be the case for us each day we go to work.

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