It is a measure of how ridiculously busy my life has been that I have not posted a single blog entry for almost two months. It has been a missing part of my weekly intellectual stimulation and I have missed it (I said my stimulation, not necessarily your stimulation). But sometimes the events of life suddenly hit you, and give you pause to stop and reflect. In an instant, the issues and concerns that consumed your attention when you woke up that morning seem no longer important. To be human is to acknowledge that, no matter how we might wish it, we have only fragile control over life and to think otherwise is simply hubris.
This short post is about two things – friendship and the power of mentoring.
I’ll start with the friendship, because these past few days I have been thinking about it a lot. Mark Mackojc was a dear friend of mine. Not “dear” in the sense of we loitered around at the pub together once a week, or even once a month. Indeed long periods of time went by when we didn’t see each other – but when we did it was like picking up from a conversation yesterday. The same inside jokes that make you laugh and wince at the same time, the mutual friends (“have you spoken to… lately?”) and the things that interest you … well, they never really change.
Mark was a deeply private man. Friendly and gregarious on the outside but with a lot of complexity within. In the months before his death (I saw him just before Christmas) I know he was worried about his wife’s breast cancer. I know he was proud of his son’s academic progress at university. Fabrice – “Fab” – (especially to him) was one of his great joys, as was his daughter Colette. I know he was excited about going to Bhutan to take photographs – despite being an “IT” guy he was the most incredible photographer and I wish that he had ditched his day job for his passion, I am sure he could have been Great – with a capital “G”. A gallery of some of his pictures are at the end of this post.
But … also still the same old guy I have known for about 21 years. Even before he was really a family man. Even before he was starting to get a bit fed up with life. The same old Mark. In recent years we only saw each other a handful of times, both consumed by our lives and careers, but every time I saw him it was a joy and it made me realize that the the people you love in life, no matter how distant or infrequent they may be, are always there. You can – and should – always reconnect and continue on where you left off.
Until, of course, you can’t.
I met Mark in late 1993 or early 1994 when I was a trainee engineer at BHP Petroleum – and he was my first “Boss”. My personal life was in the toilet and I had just failed another year at university (bored out of my skull). In fact the only reason I got that work experience at all was because of nepotism. My relationship with my parents was awful and my self-esteem was zero. I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do with my life and, truth be told, I didn’t care. I was pretty much in a downward spiral of self-destructive behavior.
Until I met Mark.
Mark didn’t care about what I had done, he cared about what I was going to do. He didn’t tell me how much of a screw-up I was (like my Father did, every day) he gave me incredible challenges that completely – perhaps even recklessly – ignored the fact that I was a total disaster. For example, on one occasion, the cooling systems failed in the office overnight. We had a room filled with high-performance computing equipment (basically a cluster of SUN workstations) that needed temperature/humidity control and although 6/8 CPUs had shut down automatically, two had not and the motherboard/CPUs had fried from condensation. Mark was overseas, the other (proper) IT guy was on a training course in Houston and we had an entire geophysics department that needed to crunch well bore and seismic data from a drilling exercise that was costing $1m / day – a lot of pissed off engineers.
I spoke to Mark on the phone, in total panic. He calmly says to me – “Chris, you’re a smart guy, get the spare parts out of storage, re-build the motherboards and re-install all the systems.” I’ll call you later.
Wow. Scary but wow.
Over the years my career went forward and Mark was a big part of helping me out of my rut and seeing a way out. His style of mentoring and his “hands off” approach made a big impact on me and – in time – we became friends. To this day, I tell my team “you are allowed to make mistakes once, but not twice.” This was pure Mark – I cannot take credit for the philosophy. Though I should note that his version was a bit more colorful, “Don’t f*ck it up, but if you do f*ck it up, we’ll sit down together and unf*ck it so that you don’t f*ck it up next time.” With a twinkle in his eye (Mark didn’t swear much but is always entertaining when he did, with a lot of shrugging his shoulders, hitching of his belt and tweaking his nose in disgust – accompanied by that Polish-Aussie twang – pure comedy).
Mark’s friendship was the best kind of friendship. It was given unconditionally, without expectation – and it found me a time in my life when I needed it most. There is nothing more powerful than friendship and I can truly say that I would not be where I am today in my life if it were not for this man.
I’ll miss you … Buddy.