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How I Made My Dreams Come True

by Captain Bob Webb

Public schools are supposed to remove barriers so people can succeed. For some, the system does remove barriers and provide a solid base for achievement. For others, the system replaces one set of barriers with another. For example, creativity is killed by pressuring students to accept the status quo, by establishing a fear to be different and a fear of failure. Independent thinking is replaced by dependency. In some cases, pressure to excel in academics kills the love to learn — a skill needed for success in the real world. People, who have a vision that motivates, will maintain a love to learn and overcome all barriers.[Bob prepairing for dive in the Panama Canal 1968.]

My Story

My story begins in Summit, NJ, at the age of sixteen, where I am sitting in a classroom starring out the window. Out of the first window I could see myself exploring the jungles of South America searching for gold, I could see myself drifting down the Amazon River on a raft, I could see monkeys swinging through the trees, I could see myself as Tarzan swinging on a vine. Through the next window I could see the bow of my sailboat plowing through the towering waves heading toward the South Pacific. I could see myself on a white sand beach chasing girls.

Then BANG! The teacher's yardstick hitting my desk brought me back to the real world where subjects did not relate to my interest and dreamers are related to dummies. In a loud voice the teacher said, "You are a failure! If you don't pay attention you will continue to be a failure!"

When the bell rang, instead of going to the next class I walked out of school never to return. I was tired of being called a failure. Right or wrong I took charge of my future. When I left school I carried the single most important element for success... A DREAM. During the next twenty years every one of my teenage dreams came true.

You may be asking, "How does one make their dreams come true?" There are three elements:

In my early teens I read the book Kon-Tiki. This is a story about six Norwegians sailing a raft across the Pacific Ocean.  Their adventure inspired my dream of duplicating their raft voyage. As a teenager with normal parents, a dream like this was considered ridiculous. Not only did friends and family not support my dream, they told me to get serious. But the Kon-Tiki dream turned me on. I wanted to know more about the ocean world and how it could be challenged. I went to the public library looking for more books and found plenty.

During the next few years I joined the seas scouts, read boating magazines, studied nautical books, and went to boat shows. To help understand seamanship techniques I made model charts, buoys, and boats. With models, comprehension was easy. Unknowingly, I was learning the art of learning how-to-learn —  self-education —  a technique that would follow me the rest of my life, a technique that would bring me success and make my wildest dreams come true.

At the age of nineteen, during the Korean War, I was in the Marine Corps and in Japan. On my first day of duty an officer told me, "You are a machinist and will be in charge of the machine shop." As he gave me the shop keys he pointed to a trailer. In the Marine Corps everything is on wheels. When I opened the doors I had my first look ever at a machine shop. In the shop was one short instruction manual titled "How to Run a Lathe." When a job came in I followed the manual's instructions. I was surprised at my ability to complete assigned tasks. The Marine Corps experience launched my machinist career. It also made me realize that learning how-to-learn is a powerful tool. For example, every manmade object around us is the result of someone's dream and failures. Consider the light bulb. Thomas Edison believed something could burn white-hot and not burn up. A wild unrealistic dream? Everyone knows everything burns up in a short time. A thousand failures later, Thomas Edison burned a steel wire white hot that burned for hours. Continuous white heat creates light.

Opportunity is attracted to people with a dream. They are the first to be hired, first to be offered opportunity, and first to be promoted. Bigger the dream the faster doors open. People without a dream are last to be hired, last to be promoted and first to be laid-off in a force reduction. For non-dreamers, doors remain closed. WHY? People with a dream act differently than non-dreamers. Dreamers develop an attitude that radiates energy; they have a sense of purpose and meaning to their lives. Radiant energy is an attitude that bosses like and to which they offer opportunity. This is how the impossible becomes possible.

When I was discharged from the Marine Corps I decided people were right, my wild teenage dream was ridicules. Real people do not drift across oceans on rafts. I am now an adult, I should think and act like one. The raft dream was dead. For the next five years my life went nowhere, my ambition, hope, dreams were gone. Something else was also gone — opportunity that came fast during my earlier years also dried up.

One day I dusted off the Kon-Tiki book. My dream jumped off the pages and came to life. I said to myself, "I must find a way!" Two years later I was in Hawaii and learned how the Polynesian people populated the Pacific Islands in dugout canoes 1,000 years ago. My dream was changed from a raft to a dugout canoe. At this time opportunity came back and fast.

I helped crew a 36-foot sailboat from Hawaii to California. This provided my ocean sailing experience. Next, I was hired by the Panama Canal Company, Panama. Soon, my supervisor asked me to attend hard-hat diver school at company expense. With this skill money was no longer a problem.

A short time later I was living on a beach in Tahiti building a 40-foot Polynesian double-hull boat named Liki Tiki. The hulls were built by Choco Indians in the Darien Providence of Panama and shipped to Tahiti. I built the boat according to popular theory and information supplied by the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Three days at sea convinced me the double-hull theory was wrong. The two hulls worked against each other and would soon breakup.

Back in Panama I took the problem to the Indians in the Darien Jungle. They said, "Outriggers is what works." I then succeed in sailing a 36-foot dugout canoe with outriggers named Liki Tiki Too, from Panama, 5,000 miles, to Hawaii.

Opportunity never stopped. For the Navy Undersea Center Hawaii I help develop a two-man Plexiglas submarine. Moving back to the Panama Canal Zone, I learned five computer languages and became supervisor of the computer department, I became Captain of the Canal Zone's training schooner Chief Aptakisic on which we took a group of teenagers to New York. My wife and I spent three years sailing the South Pacific Ocean in our own 50-foot sail boat, Hunky-Dory, which I designed and self-built. Opportunity came my way because I could educate myself, was motivated, and did not let a wild teenage dream die.

Notes on Self-education

Some History

Man has always been able to educate himself without instructors. In third world countries there are limited education opportunities —  self-education is the only way to acquire skills. Up until about 1960, a job applicant with self-education skills was desirable. Chuck Yeager was the first man to fly faster than sound, yet his formal education was limited to high school. His skills helped us learn how to put man in space. When the first astronauts were chosen, Chuck Yeager, the man who showed us how, was disqualified because he did not have a college education. From this time on self-educated people were not recognized on employment application forms. In the last 40 years, self-education has become a lost art. It is still active, but is not recognized by society.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal Commission has always adapted advancing technology as soon as it was available. This may be tradition from the construction days. Because of the demand for skilled employees in advancing technology and lack of formal training opportunity, the Commission has to rely on the self-educated. This was especially true during the construction days when most of the workers came from Jamaica with almost no formal education.

Mr. John F. Stevens, the chief engineer, did not have a grade school education. He understood self-education concepts and implemented a leadership style that took full advantage of man's ability to educate himself. There is a saying:

"If employers treat their employees like engineers, they will think and act like engineers. If they treat them like helpers, they will think and act as helpers."

The Panama Canal Commission treats blue-collar craftsmen like engineers. As a result, they make decisions equal to that of college-educated engineers in the United States. In most parts of the US, blue-collar craftsmen are treated as helpers.

My experience

In 1980, the Panama Canal Commission installed timesharing computers in all offices. (Timesharing was a typewriter controlled by a computer at a central location. There was no monitor, input and output was typed on rolled paper). I was working as a machinist when assigned to the office to operate the computer. My only experience was reading about them in Popular Science magazines.

My assignment was to write programs that would be useful in the office. There was no instructor available; the only source of help was a small manual that came with the computer. There was no software, so the first assignment was to learn BASIC computer language, then design programs that would be useful in the office. A year later, IBM-PCs were installed. The same policy, no outside help and write your own software. It really wasn't policy, there was no one available to help and there was no useful software on the market that met our needs. I retired 8 years later as supervisor of the computer department.

I had a similar experience in 1954 when I was 19 years old, in the Marine Corps, during the Korean War. I was sent to Japan. First day off the troop ship, an officer told me, "you are a machinist. You are also in charge of the machine shop." Using a small manual I taught myself to be a machinist, which became my primary occupation.

During extended combat, there is no time for years of training. Teenagers are able to learn skills in weeks, if not days, when under combat pressure. They are learning with hands-on in real word environments. It takes years to learn the same skills in classrooms.

My ability to educate myself is the secret that open the doors of opportunity. Number of years in the classroom may determine the ease of getting a job, but self-education skill determines the ability to advance.

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