Three Sigma People

This afternoon I attended Thomas Zurbuchen’s “Take Off Reception” at the University of Michigan. In case you didn’t know, he was selected by NASA as their next Associate Administrator for Science, and starts at NASA HQ next Monday (October 3). This is a pretty big deal for space physics and I thought that readers of this blog should know about it. There is a nice write-up about it here.

zurbuchen_takeoff_reception

            I knew far less than half of the people in the room. Thomas made many friends across campus during his time as the Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and then as Associate Dean for Entrepreneurship of the College of Engineering. He inspired and ignited change for the better at Michigan, and, if today was any indication, I think that he will be missed by a lot of people.

Maybe 10 years ago, we were walking back from lunch one day and he asked me, “What is the most compelling question in your field right now?” I hadn’t thought about that topic very much, at least not recently, and I stumbled out some answer. The two inferences I made later that day still stick with me: know the big questions in your field and work towards answering one of them. There is a broader piece of “life advice” in there, too: have a plan for greatness and strive towards achieving it.

Some time after that, we were again walking back from lunch and he made a comment along these same lines that profoundly struck me. I don’t remember the exact words, except for these: three sigma people. The comment was this: be one. Again, I clearly recall the inference I made later: work towards being one of those people that sets the top end of the curve. In whatever endeavor you choose to undertake, make it count and make a difference.

On the Solar and Heliospheric Research Group poster board outside Thomas’ office, there was (is?) a Wanted poster for “Discontented People.” He didn’t want to work with people who were content. Content to slide by. Content and comfortable in their current level. Content in what they know. No, not for him. He wanted people who were yearning for something, had ambition, were energized and enthusiastic, and eager to take on a challenge; people who are working to make the world a better place.

He knows that he had fantastic teams around him in his various roles here at U-M and appreciates their commitment and effort. In his farewell remarks at the reception today, he mentioned it again: a diverse team leads to excellent solutions. There are some people that think that bringing together people from many backgrounds leads to destructive interference, but that’s wrong; very often diverse perspectives yields synergistic results. Thomas saw this happen many times. I agree wholeheartedly.

Have I told you that I love my job? I do, and a big reason is that I get to meet amazing people along my journey. People like Thomas Zurbuchen. I will miss seeing my friend in the hallways of the Space Research Building.

Good luck, Thomas, and may you continue to succeed in your next adventure.

 

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