Milton Lauenstein was a finalist in the 1943 Westinghouse Science Talent Search. Despite competing in the STS and receiving a degree in chemical engineering from Purdue, Milt’s interests lay elsewhere- in sales, management, and even painting. Since retiring from the corporate world, he has been focused on preventing violence around the world.
I wasn’t focused specifically on science when I was young. I took chemistry and physics in high school because I was good at math and liked my chemistry teacher. Also, I grew up during the Great Depression and my parents were very focused on me being able to make a living. The STS was an interesting and exciting experience for me, enhanced by a temporary romantic interest with one of the female finalists.
I ended up majoring in chemical engineering at Purdue, but it was really a mis-match in terms of my interests and I never ended up working in that capacity. After college, I was in the Navy, where I was stationed in the Pacific and became an executive officer of a very small ship. Then I used the GI Bill to study economics for a year at Tufts and study painting in Europe. I once was instructed by a recruiter to remove my courses in painting off my resume, but I didn’t listen and I still paint today.
My first job after that was in manufacturing, and despite my misgivings my chemical engineering degree was the ticket to getting it. I listed research and production as my interests, although I didn’t know what I was talking about because I never liked working in labs. Thankfully, the company was more interested in using me in the marketing sector. After that, I went to work at GE as a salesman for chemical products, which I loved! Eventually, I became interested in management, got my MBA from the University of Chicago, and spent about 40 years in top management positions, including being a CEO and Chairman of several companies and serving on multiple boards. I also wrote a book on business strategy.
After I retired, I decided I wanted to work on reducing organized violence around the world. When I was younger I read a book about the Peloponnesian War, and was struck by the similarities between political leaders then and now, and how they used violence as a means of gaining power. I thought humanity could do better than that. I’ve attempted to address this issue in several ways, and am currently working with the Purdue Peace Project. The focus of this project is on encouraging and assisting local civil society leaders in fragile states in doing what they believe will most effectively prevent threatened violence from erupting, using the theory that efforts to prevent violence often misfire because the sponsors don’t understand the situations in which they are active. We have had some success in Ghana and other West African countries and I am optimistic that will continue.
My advice for young students is borrowed from Joseph Campbell, a philosopher, who said to “follow your bliss.” Do what you are interested in and you will make more of an impact on the world than trying to fit into other people’s ideas of you and what you should do.