Carved in Stone

Mark Jones searches for advice that can never be proven wrong, plus the universal truth illuminated by 'Tiffany's Rule'
Industry Matters Newsletter
Carved stone
Image credit: Mark E. Jones

“Leap and the net will appear” was carved into a Maine river stone sitting in a Camden gift shop. I was unaware river rocks with carved advice are a thing, but apparently they are. “Leap and a net will appear” struck me as horrible advice, completely unworthy of being carved in stone. It got me to pondering what advice is worth carving into stone. It got me searching for advice that is never wrong. 

Some visitors of Industry Matters likely come here for advice, seeking bits of wisdom worthy of being carved into stone. It is appealing to think experience of others can be the missing piece to success, that someone else’s hard earned wisdom provides a shortcut. Trite as it seems, Tiffany’s Rule is one of the few pieces of advice that is likely never wrong. It might be worthy of being carved in stone.  More on that later. 

I was thrilled to be back before a live audience earlier this year, at Michigan State to give a department seminar. It was one of the first times since the pandemic started that it felt like things were back to normal. I gave my seminar in front of a real, live, attentive audience. I asked questions of the audience. I got reactions. We had a lively Q&A period. Questions were spoken, not typed. It was great. 

I got to interact with graduate students. Inevitably, they ask for advice. They are asking for universal truths, something to be carved in granite. The question goes something like “what advice do you have for being successful in an industrial career?” It gets asked and answered frequently in Industry Matters. Rarely are the answers universal truths. There are too many exceptions. Tiffany’s Rule, though it might not be particularly helpful for those seeking an industrial career or to those hoping to advance, does appear to be a universal truth. More on that later. 

Survivor bias refers to the focus on successful outcomes, ignoring failures. It is a natural instinct to believe we can learn from the successful, that emulating what they did will lead to success. It is also natural to think that asking those individuals what they think led to success will provide an accurate answer. Natural instincts are wrong in this case.  Individuals will like focus on just a few things when, in reality, it is a collection of many things and a dose of luck that really led to success. It is an unappealing answer unlikely to be carved in stone. It also lacks the utility of something like Tiffany’s Rule. More on that later. 

I’ve heard successful people say “if you have passion for what you are doing, you will be successful”. What a crock! I’ve known plenty of people with lots of passion that have gotten nowhere. I’m not even sure it is safe to warp it to “you won’t be successful without passion”. I’ve known cases where people who really couldn’t have cared less still stumbled into something really great. They had success even though they really didn’t care. Unlike Tiffany’s Rule, the passionate succeeding isn’t a universal truth. More on that later. 

“Always be prepared, put in the work.” is something I’ve heard said.  I pride myself at immersing myself in problems.  It is certainly a trait I think led to me being successful.  I’ve seen many people get so immersed that they were drowned by the problem.  They were unable to extract wisdom from the facts.  They failed miserably.  Unlike Tiffany’s Rule, the prepared succeeding isn’t a universal truth.  More on that later. 

I’ve heard successful people say “treating people honestly and with respect is the key to being successful”. That’s a crock too. Early in my career, there was a person who was a real sycophant. He sucked up to management and treated everyone else like crap. Several of us were venting, noting that karma would eventually catch up with him, that he’d get his. I remember one of the senior folks in the building, Howard, looked over his glasses and said “you got that wrong, chances are he’ll be your boss someday.” Howard proved wise.  Rapid advancement followed. To the best of my knowledge, he is still eluding karma. I’ve also known respectful, honest people that are, nevertheless, ineffective. Success eluded them in spite of being honest and respectful. Unlike Tiffany’s Rule, good people succeeding isn’t a universal truth.   

Tiffany was cutting my hair. At the end, she asked “Would you like me to trim your eyebrows?” “Do they need trimming?” I replied. At that point, she introduced Tiffany’s Rule. “If anyone asks whether you want your eyebrows trimmed, let them. They need trimming”. So simple. So true. Worthy of being carved in stone. 

I didn’t expect to learn something, if not profound, at least useful, while getting my hair cut, but I did. Tiffany’s Rule illuminates another universal truth and a reason for all to keep reading Industry Matters. I’ll slightly paraphrase Ben Zoma. “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone”. Observe and learn from all.   

 Mark E. Jones, PhD, Member, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee
Mark E. Jones, PhD, Member, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee

Mark Jones is a frequent speaker at a variety of industry events on industry related topics. He is a long-time supporter of ACS Industry Member Programs providing both written and webinar content, supporting the CTO Summits, and as a former member of Corporation Associates. He currently serves on the ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee. He is a member and former chair of the Chemical Sciences Roundtable, a standing roundtable of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Mark is the author of over a dozen U.S. patents and numerous publications.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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