What’s Their Secret?


By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

$20,000 in 1956 would be worth $175,000 today.  That’s the price point at which Norman Larsen – a self-educated chemist with only a high school diploma to his name – sold his newly invented water displacement formula.  That is quite a bargain considering the fact that the WD-40 company’s current yearly revenue is tagged at $371,540,000!  After just 40 years of existence WD-40 was found to be in 4 out of 5 American households, in use by 81% of professionals, and worldwide sales stood at 1,000,000 cans per week!  The WD-40 company proudly showcases an expansive list of more than 2,000 (!) usages of this wonder lubricant; many of which were innovated by enthusiastic patrons.  The range is phenomenal: from extracting a burglar trapped in a vent to removing crayon stains from walls, this oily concoction seems to be an almost magical fix-all for an endless host of problems.

The name of this product is as interesting as what it can do.  WD-40 stands for, “water displacement, 40th formula”.  Larsen was feverishly trying to come up with a solution for the balloon-like fuel tanks of the Atlas Rockets that were being developed in the early 50’s.  These tanks were very thin.  Rust and corrosion was a serious problem.  Larsen was charged with developing the water displacement formula that would protect them.  After 39 failed attempts, he finally succeeded.  Number forty was the big winner.

Forty attempts is quite tenacious, isn’t it?  How many tries do we put forth before giving up?  Three?  Four?  So what was Larsen’s secret?  Well, considering the fact that he taught himself the intricacies of chemistry and amassed a library of more than a thousand books on the topic, it would seem that he was quite passionate about it.  Larsen is described as someone who loved what he did.  Possessing real interest in one’s undertakings is – without a doubt – a strong catalyst for drive, determination, and persistence.

Some people are naturally enthusiastic, and often have stories told or written about them.  But how do we of the rank and file figure in here?  If you don’t find yourself instinctively excited about what you do, then what?

Well, we do have a choice.  To focus on components of our work (whatever that work may be) that provide us with satisfaction and pleasure.  Hundreds of people daily use my building’s parking lot as a shortcut which translates into a lot of inadvertent trash.  That in addition to trash dropped by children playing and trash blown in by the wind.  Lately, I decided that I can’t bear this any longer, and – together with a bunch of kids – cleaned it up.  Maintaining it, though, requires a few minutes of picking up trash, daily.  Every time I find myself bending over again and again I am faced with a challenge: am I going to grumble about other people’s trash, or am I going to focus on the pleasant feeling of having a clean lot and the satisfying feeling of a job well done?  For some reason, the default pilot seems to steer towards the former, so I have to be proactive – if I want to be happy about what I am doing – to cultivate the right thoughts.  Although indeed requiring some effort, the payoff makes it well worth it.  Proactively concentrating our attention on the positive aspects of our tasks – effectively cultivating an ayin tovah for ourselves – will help us capture the sense of verve and energy we’re looking for.

Of no less importance is what the Chovos Ha’Levavos[1] writes that one should choose an occupation that draws him and suits his personality and capabilities.  A successful plumber mentioned how he previously worked in high-tech and is much happier now, gaining enormous satisfaction from the crucial service he provides others.  This is not to say that someone who – because of circumstances out of his control – is not able to work in his preferred field, is doomed to unhappiness; but it does mean that one who feels unhappy can take a step back and consider other options.

A final thought to bear in mind is that Larsen died in 1970.  He never saw the explosive growth of his most famous brainchild.  He probably never dreamed that his product would one day become a basic household item all across America, and that the company he founded would evolve into a multi-million dollar enterprise.  It’s impossible for us to know what will eventually come of our efforts.  We do things in this world and the ripple effects reverberate throughout the Heavenly spheres[2].  In a sense, we are all planting seeds.  One never knows which seed will eventually go on to become a mighty cedar.

[1] 4:3

[2] Nefesh Ha’Chaim 1:3



  1. Comment: interesting. Just heard about group of women in england called rubbish friends. They pick up litter from public places. When asked what motivates them the answer was “we’re motivated by rage!”