Ambassador Quinn and His Spinning Plates
There aren’t too many people who can say they’ve met one of the most important people of the past century. Getting to spend time with Dr. Norman Borlaug, who is said to have saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived, was an absolute highlight of the five years I spent working for the World Food Prize. It was especially gratifying to play a part in the push to get Dr. Borlaug presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, an effort that succeeded in 2007 and made him one of only seven people in all of history to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Sitting in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol as President George W. Bush recognized Dr. Borlaug’s achievements was a special moment that I won’t soon forget.
But as inspiring as Dr. Borlaug was to me, he was only an occasional presence in Des Moines as he continued his life’s work from his Texas home until his passing in 2009. The individual who had a much larger impact on my life, both personally and professionally, was Ambassador Kenneth Quinn.
Without Ambassador Quinn’s willingness to take a chance on me, I probably never would have returned to my hometown of Des Moines. I first reached out to him in the summer of 2005 when I was living in Denmark. We had a positive phone call that led to an invitation to interview in person for the Prize’s director of communications role. A few weeks later, I met with Ambassador Quinn in the Foundation’s former headquarters in the Ruan Center. He offered me the position on the spot, thus clearing the way for me to move back home for the first time since graduating high school, this time with my brand new Danish wife in tow. We would settle in Des Moines for the next five years and start a family.
Within my first few weeks at the Prize, Ambassador Quinn and I went to lunch and he told me something that I have carried with me ever since. Anyone who knows Ambassador Quinn knows that he is an excellent storyteller with no shortage of great tales from his life, but what he told me that day was not a recollection from his own experience but rather a story about Chinese acrobats. He compared his role at the Prize to plate spinning, the circus art of spinning plates on a number of poles without them falling off. The key, he said, was to know which plates needed extensive attention and which just needed an occasional touch to make sure they wouldn’t fall.
Over the course of the next five years, Ambassador Quinn developed a great working relationship, and I’d like to think that he viewed me as one of those plates that just needed an occasional spin. I too had to adopt his plate spinning philosophy, as the nature of being a communications director in such a small organization actually means that you are a one-person department with many plates spinning at once.
When I left the World Food Prize in 2010 to return to my wife’s home country, I carried that plate spinning idea with me and applied it to my next ventures: first as a newspaper editor and later when I launched my own online news site. I’m currently still spinning plates, now as a freelancer who has to make sure that all of my projects and clients get either intensive spinning or just the occasional touch to keep things going.
The plate spinning story may not have been as entertaining of some of the other amazing stories I heard from Ambassador Quinn, and the approach is just one of many things I learned from him over the course of five years, but it has served me well and I’m very grateful for the lesson and for the opportunity to have met two men as remarkable as Dr. Borlaug and Ambassador Quinn.