Friday, January 6, 2012


Robert was beginning a new life. As the director of a weapons laboratory that would integrate the diverse efforts of the far-flung sites of the Manhattan Project and mold them quickly into a usable atomic weapon, he would have to conjure up skills he did not yet have, deal with problems he had never imagined, develop work habits entirely at odds with his previous lifestyle, and adjust to attitudes and modes of behavior (such as security considerations) that were emotionally awkward and alien to his experience. It is not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that in order to succeed, at age thirty-nine, Robert Oppenheimer would have to remake a significant part of his personality if not his intellect, and he was going to have to do all this in short order. Every aspect of his new job was on a fast-track schedule. Very few things - including Oppenheimer's transformation - could meet that impossible schedule; yet it is a measure of his commitment and willpower that he came very close.

Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus, (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 205.
There were few things that changed & impacted life in the 1940s more than the work designed and developed in the so-called Manhattan Project. Not only was the impact felt in the enormous cost and amount of man-hours poured into the development of the atomic bomb, but in the obliteration of the two Japanese cities and the ushering in of the nuclear weapons era. For Robert Oppenheimer, it was the opportunity of a lifetime - one that would dramatically increase his social stature while simultaneously leaving an imprint upon his soul. However, before he reached the point of his personal battle in his contributions to a legacy of death, he faced a the challenge of leading something he was fully incapable of leading outside of his superior intellect.

That he succeeded, there can be no doubt. The bomb(s) was built and the cities in Japan were destroyed. The situation elevated the power of the United States while exploding the tension that would brew the Cold War. His leadership helped bridge the gap on questions, talents and personalities that all needed to be figured out in order for success to be found. He discovered administrative skills and work abilities that prior to the 40s had been either dormant or non-existent within himself. And he did it all while having the military, FBI and US government consistently watching, observing and looking for ways to trap him in a mistake. The pressure he must have felt cannot be explained or even imagined. Yet it is in that moment that all of the potential & ability of Oppenheimer was on display for (soon) the world to see.

So where does that leave us? Many of us will never face a situation even remotely close to that of directing the activities of the Manhattan Project. However, I would argue that we have much to gain from what Oppenheimer put on display. The first is found in his commitment and willpower. I face challenges on a daily basis: upset parents, lazy students, high educational standards, a family that needs time/attention, personal desires, previous commitments, and a variety of other lesser pulls upon my time, energy and resources. When pushed to the breaking point, it is easy to see why quitting is such an attractive offer for so many people. These are the moments when willpower & commitment are severely tested. Seeing my way through - even halfway successfully - is determined by how much I am willing to fight for it. It requires training, control, and steadfast refusal to give up. In the end, it was the daily showing up that made Oppenheimer so successful. Perhaps, the same could be said for myself in all that I face.

Reinvention. Its a popular topic for self-help gurus and yet at its core is the challenge to be willing to become someone you either currently aren't or quite possibly never have been before. Its the replacement of poor habits, development of new skills, and adjusting to the unfamiliar and certainly uncomfortable. It certainly requires you to deal with stuff you never saw or thought about before. In other words, its becoming a new you. That is not to say that the old you is bad, broken or useless. But if we want to tackle the world - we have to become people able to handle the challenge. Oppenheimer was not born supervising construction of the atomic bomb. And his previous 38 years did not adequately prepare him for the new challenge. And yet he superbly managed the task by changing, adapting and creating a new self. Can I do the same in my own life in order to take on the challenges on my horizon? What is coming into view that I know I am not capable of currently doing - but that with positive changes & reinvention will become possible accomplishing tomorrow? The awkward feelings & fears of failure are real. They refuse to leave or quiet down. And yet without being able to adjust - I'll never meet the challenges or will simply fail them in the same familiar patterns of my past.

And finally we can see that Oppenheimer did all of it in short order. He was put on the "fast-track schedule" where delays not only put himself in jeopardy but potentially the entire U.S. military strategy. The time crunch, though, was not his enemy. The real adversary was the human condition to take it slow & easy. You and I do not have enough time. And although there is some good in taking a minute to simply enjoy things - the challenges we face and will face in the future are not going away. They don't shrink just because we dawdle in taking them on. Maybe the best thing for us would be the same pressure to perform at a high level in an unrealistic amount of time. Sure its stressful - but when you feel the heat of a moment it will either force you to rise to the top or show you the strength you need to develop for your next "opponent."

The success & challenge that faced Robert Oppenheimer awaits you and me. We either fight forward against the overwhelming odds and find some definition of success or we simply let the challenges defeat us and allow us to wallow in self-pity. We don't make names for ourselves by accomplishing the small. We leave legacies when no trial is too hard to take on.