Thursday, October 14th, 2010
“As soon as I turned 16, my weekends, nights, and summers were spent working at my family’s gas station in Washington State. My grandfather was the manager, my father was the head mechanic, and I did all kinds of work there. They had the place for 30 years and expected that I would take it over from them when they stopped working. The place was a real old school gas station that was focused on giving good service and knowing our customers. When someone would pull in and honk their horn, Grandpa would look at me, and I would run out there and fill the tank, check the oil and tires and wash the windows. Remember, this was the 1990′s, not the 1950′s.
“At the time, I was a very average student and didn’t really think much about the future. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to college, it just didn’t occur to me. My family was very supportive of me, but they did not talk about college or grades. Basically, I could do whatever I wanted in high school, as long as I showed up at the gas station on time. I was content in that I had everything I needed. I paid the bills and could occasionally take a camping trip. To me, that was life. It was what my family did, and I didn’t really consider much more than that.
“Things started to change as my friends went to college and I experienced this strange event convergence. Many people think that event convergence is negative, like when it rains, it pours, but I found that it can also be positive. That first year when everyone went to college, I spent my time trying to pursue a career as a professional beach volleyball player while working at the gas station. Looking back, it is so silly that I hesitate to mention it. I took it really seriously and brought a lot of ambition and intensity to my practice and games. I ended up hurting myself playing sports and it occurred to me that when I am hurt, I can’t work at the gas station. It was a strange lesson in mortality at 18.
“At the same time, I realized that my friends were starting to lap me. Their perspectives on life and education were broader than mine, and I felt like I wasn’t really growing at the gas station. I decided to enroll in a class in the local community college. One day, I was sitting on the curb of the gas station with my long hair and earrings reading Plato’s Republic. One of the customers drove in and said, ‘James, why would a guy like you, read a book like this?’ I looked at him and didn’t know what to do. At first, I was mad because I thought he was talking down to me, but I realized that he was just challenging me, which I wasn’t used to. I didn’t have an answer for him, and started asking myself why was I working at the gas station, and what my plans for the future were.
“These experiences lit a fire under me that got me into community college and then college and then graduate school. I took to academics like wild fire and hadn’t seen such good grades since elementary school. I brought the tenacity and work ethic learned at the gas station to my studies. I also met people who started to ask me what I was going to do with my life
“After I finished graduate school in Boston, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and was planning on returning to Washington State. I got a call from a University of Washington professor who said there was a job opportunity in Washington, D.C. At that time, I was 25 years old, had no real practical experience outside of the gas station, and had no money to my name. I grabbed some canned fruit from my roommate’s food pantry and came down to Washington, D.C. for the interview.
“I had never been to Washington DC in my life. Coming out of the Smithsonian Metro and seeing the Washington Monument was one of those decisive moments in life. I knew that I wanted a job here. I went to my interview at the Department of Energy and my future boss asked me, ‘Why should I hire you?’ I hadn’t done a ton of job interviews, but I knew that if I tried to answer the question like everyone before me and talk about my graduate work and my views on national security, I would not separate myself from my peers. I had the same resume as everyone else, except that I had had no practical experience.
“So, what did I do? I relied on the gas station. There I was, sitting in my interview, and I looked at my boss and said, to be honest, sir, I don’t know a lot about this job, but what I do know sounds fantastic. I spent my life working in a gas station, and I am just someone who will get things done for you. Whatever you ask, I will get done, and I will not go home until it is done. Looking back, it probably sounded a little hokey, but I got the job and now when my old boss introduces me to people, he tells that story.
“From my first job with the National Nuclear Security Administration to working in the National Security Division of the Office of Management and Budget to then coming back to Energy to my current work on the Appropriations Committee, I always think back to the gas station and marvel that a little bit of humility and a strong work ethic can go a long way in this town. Now, those basic life lessons that I learned there have proven to be some of the most valuable things I have in life.”