One of the best parts of my job is that I am always learning about a variety of industries, companies, places, and people. In order to connect with each audience, I must first develop an understanding about the group – what they do, their challenges, their mission, and their ultimate objectives. It is fun and rewarding work.
Sometimes I meet a person who is truly inspirational and forever changes the way I look at life. Last month I had the occasion to meet such a man. His name is Bill Barnette, and I wanted to introduce him to you. I think we can all learn a lot from his example.
My presentation was for the Gwinnett County School System in Georgia, where I live. The audience was comprised of more than one hundred “TSTs,” or Technology Services Technicians. Throughout the school system, TSTs handle a wide assortment of computer issues and technological challenges to keep the schools’ classrooms, laboratories, and networks running smoothly.
Most of the TSTs are men and women who specialize in this field. They are technology experts and in most cases studied computer sciences in colleges or trade schools. And most TSTs are in their 30s or 40s.
Bill Barnette, the TST for Duluth High School, is 80 years old. He approached me after the program, sharing positive comments and a brilliant smile. Bill told me my message resembled his personal philosophy for life. My question was probably the same as yours – how do you get to be a technology expert at 80 years old? The short answer: Never stop learning.
Bill attended a four-room high school with a “pot belly stove” and an outhouse. He joined the Navy in 1945 and, through his service and the GI Bill, was able to enroll in at Georgia Tech. When he first stepped on campus, he had never even seen a physics book or studied advanced mathematics, so his curriculum was quite overwhelming.
But by applying himself and setting goals, he not only learned those subjects but also went on to graduate with honors and earn a degree in electrical engineering. This gave him the credentials to begin a career with General Electric. When he was 60, Bill retired from a 36 year career with GE, where he had worked in the marketing department. He confessed that he had been grateful to end his career prior to the influx of personal computers, so that he didn’t have to endure that learning curve.
But retirement didn’t sit well with Bill. He is not very good at standing still, and quickly decided that he needed some other challenges in his life. He tried teaching for awhile. Then, in his late 60s, he decided it was time to learn about computers. He boldly walked into a neighborhood computer parts store and told the manager “I’m going to work for you whether you pay me or not. I want to learn everything I can about computers.”
He did. And Bill found the learning enjoyable, interesting, and ever expanding. It was a fun challenge for him. Before long he was building computers himself. The more he learned, the more he wanted to learn about technology solutions.
Bill has been a TST for eight years. Today he brings his passions for learning and for computers to Duluth High School. They count on him there for much more than maintaining computer workstations, re-imaging equipment, or servicing the “Active Directory” network. They count on Bill to share his life experience.
Bill spoke to the entire school faculty at the start of the year and extended an open invitation for teachers to call on him for any reason if he could be a helpful addition in the classroom. He has talked with students about what it was really like to live through the Great Depression, offering captivating stories and insights. When a history class discusses the Civil War, Bill can retell the stories he heard from his Great Grandfather, who served in Robert E. Lee’s Army and fought in every battle Lee led. He shares his marketing experience at General Electric, and even recently extended a challenge to the Algebra 1 class, announcing that he would take every test they did (without studying) and see if he could recall the answers. He wants to prove that math is something you use throughout your life.
Bill Barnette is also active in his church community, claiming “You are never too old to work in the youth department.” One favorite lesson: He teaches young men the proper way to deliver a firm, confident handshake. “I’ve got a wicked handshake,” Bill told me.
What can we learn from this man’s example? More importantly, what actions can we take to improve our own lives?
1. Never stop learning. When it comes to learning, you will never run out of “disk space.” You’ll never crack open a book and experience brain lock or encounter an error message announcing your hard drive is full. You have an infinite capacity to take in information and master new concepts. As Bill says, “I just love learning the new technology. It keeps my mind going, going, going.”
2. Share your experience. Your knowledge and life experience is extremely valuable to someone else. Share those lessons. When you do, your learning journey will continue in ways that may surprise you.
3. Always deliver a firm, confident handshake. You never know when you might meet someone truly special, like Bill Barnette. And you’ll want to make a good first impression.
Your partner in learning,
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