When I was a kid in high school, I appeared on television to explain a science fair project that involved petri dishes, bacteria cultures, and alkyl benzene sulfonate (ABS) detergents which have germicidal properties.
Such detergents were widely used for over a decade before their negative environmental impacts were realized. The ABS molecules could not be broken down by the microorganisms in sewage treatment plants. This resulted in suds and foam in waterways—effects that I knew at the time, but never really thought about. The non-biodegradability of these detergents made them a threat to contaminate the whole groundwater and drinking water supply, so their use was phased out—but no thanks to me.
I didn’t consider those things back then. Such issues were the furthest things from my mind. DDT, for example, was still ubiquitous. Silent Spring had just been published by Rachel Carson, and it was a decade later that its use was outlawed for agricultural use in the US.
I was more concerned with remembering what I would say and not embarrassing myself in front of everyone I knew.
I thought I’d got through the whole experience unscathed until my best friend Fritz delivered his critique. He said not a word about how I had overcome my nervousness and remembered all the points in my presentation. The only thing I remember is that he said I had dirty fingernails when the camera zoomed in on my hands as I showed the retardation of bacterial growth in the petri dishes. I felt like I’d been an utter failure.
To this day, fifty years later, I must clean my fingernails three or four times a day. But this “lesson learned” was, in a very real sense, beside the point. My great failure was that I failed to even consider that ABS was an environmental hazard. If there was one enduring lesson learned, it is that minor things often prevent us from considering the more important issues facing us.
Nearly 20 years after the dirty fingernails experience, a highly-effective salesman once told me why he always kept his shoes so highly polished. He did so, so he said, to remove any possibility of his customers becoming preoccupied by his shoes rather than the important benefits of his products.
Big doors swing on small hinges.
Groove of the Day