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I was reading an editorial in Chemical and Engineering News (I am a chemist, sort of) written by the current president of the American Chemical Society, Allison Campbell. In it, she describes an incident that occurred in Washington, D.C., a while back. Shes an avid bicyclist and rides whenever and wherever she can. She points out that she has all of the safety gear, including helmet and gloves, and carries it with her when she travels. Not only that, she has years of experience riding.

On a day after rainfall, she prepared for a ride along one of the many trails in Washington. It was near the Jefferson Memorial that she rode into a puddle that turned out to be a large hole. She was thrown from the bike and suffered some bumps and bruises, but a visit to an emergency room determined that there was no serious injury.

I consider myself a good driver and pretty observant, but I managed to hit a pothole of my own recently. My wife and I were driving on a portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. The views were supposed to be spectacular, but on this particular day we were in and out of fog, so we were making frequent turnouts to see what we could see. Our plan was to head north from Ashville, North Carolina, and then cut over to I-77 to continue to Charlottesville, Virginia.

During one of our stops, I became disoriented and exited the wrong way out of a turnout! Never done that before. After a few minutes, my wife (the Zen master in our house) said that she thought wed already been at some of the stops. Long story short, we were backtracking and had to take a different route to our destination, which cost us several hours and a late night arrival.

Okay, so now youre wondering what this story is really all about. Its about what is called a beginners mind.

Back in the 1970s, a Zen monk by the name of Shunryu Suzuki observed that, as beginners in any practice, we are fully alert and humble as we learn how to do things. But as we become more proficient and achieve a higher level of expertise, we can become overconfident in our skills. Suzuki believes that we should always operate with a beginners mind in order to avoid puddles or wrong turns that can be personally or professionally dangerous.

Carrying that theme forward into our business, the beginners mind says that we should always read the owners manual in our vehicle to know what lubricants to use and when to change them. It tells us a lot about other systems that are vital to longevity and operational safety. On that same trip that took me on a wrong turn, we could never figure out what button to push that would give us inside lights in our rental car when the door was opened. (Our bed and breakfast in Charlottesville was out of the way and very dark at night.) It also took a great deal of experimenting to learn how to set the cruise control. That was important for us, since we were driving long distances on major highways a lot of the time.

The car rental agency did us no favors because there was no owners manual in the car. That would have made it possible to learn how to do these and other things that would have made the experience a lot better. Needless to say, the rental agency heard about it.

For many in the business, experience is a great help and offers the opportunity to identify potential problems and guide us in solving them. However, there is no substitute for instructions that help us troubleshoot the problems that often defy us.

For me, beginners mind is a way of doing your very best work. I am one of those who has to remind myself regularly that I shouldnt rely totally on my experience, but should go back to the basics. Lots of times, the reference materials lay around the house or in the cars glove compartment and hardly ever get opened up, let alone read.

Auto dealers dont make a big enough point of the value of the owners manual. It is the primary reference for your vehicle. Independent garages and fast oil change stores should consult those references or others to make sure they use the right oils in their customers vehicle. A good case of this is the widespread use of so-called universal transmission fluids. While there are applications where one transmission fluid can successfully service more than one brand of transmission, it is really dangerous to blindly add transmission fluid, even multipurpose products, if you dont know what the correct product should be.

Im in a storytelling mood, so Ill share one more anecdote that points out how not practicing a beginners mind can lead to a lot of frustration. I had a 1982 GM Pontiac with the then-new 2.3L V-6 engine. In many ways, it was a car I really liked even though it was too small for traveling with a family of five. About a year after we bought it, the starter locked up on the flywheel and knocked the timing completely off. It would run, but not well.

Im not a real motor head, so I took it to a local garage for repairs. After a short inspection, the mechanic assured me that the crankshaft was damaged and needed to be replaced. I wasnt at all sure of that analysis, so I told him Id have to think about it. I was working for Pennzoil at the time and asked one of the local Pennzoil salespeople if there was a reliable mechanic, preferably a Pennzoil customer, nearby. Fortunately there was, and I took the car to him.

After reviewing the problem (lots of questions about driving, etc.) he got into the engine and found that there was a hexagonal rod connecting the distributor to the starter that was twisted. If my super-sleuth mechanic hadnt practiced a beginners mind, we might never have found the twisted rod. That wasnt the end of the story, however.

We started to have problems with the starter itself. In short order, we burned out two standard starters and a heavy duty starter, all from locking up on the flywheel. At this point, my mechanic asked if he could keep the car for a few days to troubleshoot in detail. Since it was costing so much downtime and frustration, I agreed. A few days later, he called and told me that he had found the problem.

The bushing that supported the starter shaft had been damaged in the initial failure and was distorted enough that the starter wobbled as it was activated to turn the engine over. Most of the time the wobble wasnt a problem, but when the shaft was just so, it locked up and burned out the starter motor. After he replaced the bushing, we never had another problem.

This is a case where beginners mind wasnt practiced at first and cost a lot of time, money and annoyance. However, my mechanic made things almost perfectly right. When I picked up the car, I was prepared to pay a pretty hefty price. Instead, he said that since he wasnt sure how long he had test driven and worked on the car (and because I had stuck with him), he charged me for two hours of labor and that was it. From that day forward he was my mechanic, and I passed out a lot of his business cards to others.

Practice a beginners mind, and when someone wants to know what youre doing, you can smile mysteriously and say, Im following the wisdom of Zen Master Suzuki.

Industry consultant Steve Swedberg has over 40 years experience in lubricants, most notably with Pennzoil and Chevron Oronite. He is a longtime member of the American Chemical Society and SAE International, where he was chairman of Technical Committee 1 on automotive engine oils. He can be reached at

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