Before he was even out of college, Darren Hammell was en route to entrepreneurial stardom. During his senior year at Princeton, Hammell and several buddies worked on an idea for a company in their dorm rooms, and they tested the idea in Ed Zschau’s high tech entrepreneurship class. The day after their graduation serial entrepreneur Greg Olsen made an investment by writing a term sheet on a yellow post-it note at Starbucks on Nassau Street.
In 2001, the year he graduated from Princeton University with a bachelor’s in computer science, he took first place in the school’s annual business plan contest. That plan outlined what would that same year become Princeton Power Systems. Based at 201 Washington Road, PPS develops patented electric power conversion technology for variable speed motor control, power quality, and renewable and distributed generation applications.
Hammell served as president and CEO from the founding until March, 2009, when he became executive vice resident of business development.
Hammell, barely past age 30, now helps oversee more than 40 employees in 6,000 square feet of space rented from Sarnoff. It is a lot of work — 100-plus-hour weeks are not uncommon for him — but the work is paying off, particularly in the company’s work in solar and wind energy. Earlier this month PPS received funds (amount unspecified) for a project to develop an advanced hydro and ocean power electronic conversion system that makes the power they generate more compatible with the electric grid, as part of a $188 million federal DOE grant.
Throughout traditional schooling, we learn the importance of being right. Being right gets you better grades, free hall passes, teachers’ respect, and a healthy college application. We are told to learn from our mistakes, but most of the mistakes I made just got me bad report cards. Success in school has a formula that is pretty obvious to most people — it is not always easy to achieve for any number of reasons, but there are not too many secrets.
In my post-school life, which began after I graduated from Princeton University nine years ago, things have been different. First, I found there was no easy and universal measure of success. Different experts tell us it can be measured by money, security, health, family, happiness, or other criteria, and I will admit that for at least some amount of time over the past nine years each one of those seemed to be the most important.
But what was the “right” thing to focus on? And even if I figured it out, how would I know?
It would take some time to understand myself better and what I really wanted out of a career. I had to make some interesting decisions in order to realize what was important to me. I wish I had started that thinking earlier, and dropped the prescribed notions about what should be important. I might have figured out faster what was important to me.
I also think there are some guidelines about how to put things in perspective that I know now but did not back then. Doing well on a math or history test has a formula, and with some variations and disagreement on methods, it is pretty straightforward. Pay attention in class, ask questions, study hard, do homework, and you will probably do fine.
Succeeding at a career is much different. Sometimes we are supposed to do what we are told, other times we are supposed to have creative solutions, and there is often nobody to guide us towards the “right” solution.
Unlike the history test, you cannot study for a career and know an answer will be right. In a career, we spend much more time focusing on one issue than we ever spent in school, and we are asked to find new and better ways of doing things, not just to remember the old ways. We will not come up with better solutions without trying out a couple miserable failures, and that makes it important to be wrong — quickly.
Being wrong means we are trying new things, which can be tough when faced with a work world that may seem like there is already a way to do everything. But breaking those existing ways and trying something that is not routine is often where our biggest successes come from. The ability to do this can to some degree be taught, because it is really a way of thinking about our careers and our lives.
Once we have gotten good at being wrong, we find that some of those “wrongs” are actually the “rights” that nobody thought of before — and we certainly did not learn them in school.
#b#Princeton Power Systems Inc#/b#., 201 Washington Road, Building 2, Princeton Junction 08550; 609-955-5390; fax, 609-751-9225. Marshall Cohen, CEO. www.princetonpower.com.