Norm Larsen, a chemist at the Rocket Chemical Company, unsuccessfully tested thirty-nine compounds that would prevent corrosion and eliminate water from electrical circuitry. He finally got it right in 1953 and labeled the compound Water Displacement Formula 40.

Other workers snuck the stuff home and discovered that, in addition to preventing corrosion, it also stopped squeaks and unstuck locks. So the Rocket Chemical Company marketed if for home use. The product, now called WD-40, hit store shelves in 1958. Today more than a million cans are sold every week.

It is easy to pull the “don’t give up” lesson from this story. And sure, it is there. But I think there is another lesson as well. In fact, there are a lot of lessons. Here are a few. First, bad ideas and good ideas look a lot alike, except in retrospect. The 39 bad ideas looked good at the time. The mind cannot sort it out. So, you have to try stuff. Ernest Hemingway said, “The shortest answer is doing the thing.”

Second, there are things worth not giving up on. And of course, there are some things that should be given up on. The trick is to know which is which.

And finally, you have probably not heard of Norm Larsen, but he has most likely touched your life in a small but measurable way. This shows us how success and credit are not very securely attached.

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