Your Best Work Is Always Ahead


In the 1960s, Gene Wolfe worked as an industrial engineer at Procter & Gamble. One day, he was called into a team tasked with mass producing a new product: chips.

The process was divided into several stages, from dough-making, rolling, and pressing to cooking, salting, and packaging. Gene was in charge of the cooking stage. He had to build a machine that would fry an exact amount of chips for an exact amount of time.

Since this was a new kind of potato chip, a real innovation if you will, developing proper equipment was no easy feat.

The chips were wavy and shaped like a saddle. This way, they stacked neatly on top of one another, but it also meant they all had to look exactly the same — and not break. In order to protect each chip stack, P&G decided to sell them in a can rather than a bag, which led to more manufacturing challenges.

In fact, someone at P&G had invented the chip more than ten years ago, but so far, the company hadn’t been able to make all the puzzle pieces fit together. This was Gene’s time to shine.

I can’t tell you what exactly Gene did. I don’t know how long it took. But eventually, each engineer figured out their part, and, together, they brought Pringles to the world.

The next day, Gene went back to work.

. . .

In 1970, Gene Wolfe published his first book, Operation Ares. It was a dystopian sci-fi novel in which a human colony on Mars tries to rebel against a leftist, Luddite US government. The book flopped.

The next day, Gene went back to work. That same year, he wrote a short story called The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories.

. . .

In 1971, Gene Wolfe was invited to the Nebula Awards, a prestigious event in science fiction, for his story The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories. One of the presenters was Isaac Asimov. “And the winner is…Gene Wolfe!”

Unfortunately, Asimov had made a mistake. Wolfe hadn’t won the award after all. Another writer told Wolfe to take it with good humor: “You know, if you now write a story called The Death of Dr. Island, you’ll probably win on sympathy alone!”

Wolfe laughed, and the next day, he went back to work. He did write The Death of Dr. Island. In 1974, he won a Nebula award for the story.

. . .

Gene Wolfe died in 2019. He was 87 years old. Wolfe published more than 30 novels, over a dozen chapbooks, and another 30+ short stories. He also contributed to the gift called Pringles chips.

The simple lesson of Gene Wolfe’s life is this: Your best work is always ahead of you.

Never stop. Keep going. You haven’t topped out just yet. When you succeed, the next day, go back to work. And when you fail, the next day, go back to work.

When Pringles first hit the market, they were an instant hit. Today, they’re sold in over 140 countries, are one of the world’s 5 most recognized snacks, and bring in $1 billion each year. Those are easy laurels to rest on. Instead, Wolfe went back to work.

When his first book flopped, he didn’t quit. Instead, he went back to work and wrote a short story.

When he “lost” his award, he didn’t sue the committee. Instead, he went back to work and wrote another one.

Your best work always lies ahead. It may be years down the road or just around the next bend. You’ll never know when you’ll do it, but rest assured it’s nothing you’ve already done.

If you’re an accountant, somewhere, there are better accounts waiting. If you’re a painter, your next stroke might kick off your Starry Night. And if you’re an athlete, there’s a Hall of Fame for coaches, ready to be conquered.

Don’t quit before the curtain drops. Your best story has not been written, and as long as you’re breathing, it never quite will be.

This post was previously published on Personal Growth.


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