5 People Who Saved the Day By Sucking at Their Jobs

5 People Who Saved the Day By Sucking at Their Jobs

Usually, if you want to have your name etched in the annals of history, it’s going to take some spectacular talent, know-how or aptitude. Because the people who get the unique honor of having a role in the direction of our world usually get there through being the very best at what they do. To be honest though, if that was true, it would also go against all of human nature. Pretending that everything went exactly according to plan is the opposite of how humans actually operate.

That means that, mixed in with the great victories, there are a couple massively important fuck-ups. Some of these, obviously, didn’t turn out great for the person in charge, but occasionally, there would be those glorious missteps that, looking back, might have been the best possible outcome. It turns out, to be part of one of the most important moments in your chosen field, sometimes all you have to do is absolutely blow it in an extremely fortunate way.

Here are five people who saved the day by being terrible at their job…

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Werner Heisenberg

YudDy Yu

A reminder to carry the zero.

Thankfully for everyone alive today, the Nazis of World War II are done and dusted. Sort of. At the very least, the ones who wore the full costume and the Big Bad himself Adolf are no more. That loss could greatly be attributed to a single weapon that the Allied Forces managed to produce before the Axis could get their hands on it: the atomic bomb.

The Nazi nuclear program was already fighting an uphill battle, being that they chose a belief system that required them to ignore all but the purest-blooded scientists. This included basically dismissing all of Einstein’s discoveries, now pretty much accepted as really really good ones, as “Jewish science.” But the death blow to their plans came from some miscalculations and misunderstandings made by the head of Nazi atomic research, Werner Heisenberg — most notably, his estimation that thousands of pounds of the hyper-rare uranium-235 would be needed to create an atom bomb. 

With this number in mind, he reported back to the Nazis that production of a nuclear bomb with uranium-235 was impractical. As the residents of Hiroshima would tragically discover, the real number was much smaller than that, closer to an extremely attainable 100 pounds. There’s still argument among historians today as to whether this was a calculated bit of sabotage by a hero forced to help the Nazis, or a genuine bit of botched math by a Nazi sympathizer. Either way, every major Allied city should be thankful he was in charge.

Citroen During World War II


A Citroen car, in the Non-Nazi Europe they helped establish.

Speaking of sabotaging the Nazis, we do have an all but confirmed case that comes from a French carmaker. Manufacturer Citroen was forced into conscription to produce vehicles for the Nazi regime during their occupation of France, something that probably required an immediate order of an incredible amount of glossy black automobile paint. The president of Citroen, Pierre Jules-Boulanger, didn’t have much recourse to say no and remain alive, but he wasn’t going to just happily make goods for the evil Nazi regime. Who did they think he was, Hugo Boss?

Instead, Jules-Boulanger turned on his French charm and flashed a crocodile smile at the goose-steppers and responded that he would happily make beaucoup cars for the cause. Before he did, though, he gave one very small, important instruction to his factories: to move the markings indicating correct oil levels on their dipsticks down a bit. As far as the Nazis knew, the vehicles they received looked perfectly fine in every facet, but in reality, Citroen was purposely pumping out scores of intentionally defective cars. Even better, this specific defect was one that was pretty much impossible to notice until the vehicles were already long deployed.

Alexander Fleming

Public Domain

Yeah, thats not the bow tie of a detail-oriented man.

Some of us are blessed with the type-A mental coding that encourages us to keep a spotless, perfectly organized workspace. Others, like myself, end up with a desk that looks like something Waldo is hidden amongst. Of course, for a job like “questionably humorous internet writer,” it’s unlikely to have disastrous effects. Scientists, however, especially ones that work in a lab environment, are held to higher standards. Especially as the public imagines it, labs should be perfectly spotless symbols of sterility, lest we end up with some sort of all-consuming amoeba.

Sir Alexander Fleming was not that. He was famously messy, teasing his lab partners about their tidiness, with one recounting he “kept his cultures of disease-producing organisms … for two or three weeks until his bench was overcrowded with 40 or 50 cultures.” In a stroke of luck that any similarly organization-averse person should have on hand for critics, this led to one of the greatest medical discoveries of all time: penicillin. 

Fleming walked in one day to what was surely a “smell crazy in there” situation and noticed a new mold growing on one of his many haphazardly stored cultures. That mold was penicillium notatum, which would years later be successfully used to produce isolated penicillin and use it to treat bacterial infections. Fleming, ever the shrugging icon, said about his discovery, “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”

The BTK Killer

Kansas Department of Corrections

His last words were probably, “What the hell is metadata?”

Dennis Rader, known as the BTK Killer, standing for “Bind, Torture, Kill,” is among the more horrific serial killers in history. He’s been, questionably, immortalized in media like the excellent (and unfairly canceled) Mindhunter as well as countless true-crime podcasts and documentaries. He was active for almost two decades, from the years of 1974 to 1991, with 10 victims in all.

But unfortunately, serial killer wasn’t the job that Rader was bad at. As far as the forensic capabilities of that time went, he managed to evade capture while taunting police at every turn. What would finally put him away was his second job, one that’s immensely more relatable: a father who struggled to understand technology. Apparently looking to make his police correspondence a little more modern, he asked the police if they would be able to trace a floppy disk, asking them, no joke, “Be honest.” 

When they replied that they couldn’t trace it, he made two mistakes: 1) sending a floppy disk from the church where he worked; and 2) trusting the police. His arrest was made shortly afterward, directly thanks to metadata on that floppy.

All the Big Game Teddy Roosevelt Hunted

Public Domain

Dogs much, buddy?

This one’s less of an occupation, and more of a natural purpose and predator drive, but nonetheless. Teddy Roosevelt is an oversized figure in American history, one with huge influence over the country’s development. He was also a well-known big game hunter. While on safari, he took on all comers, famously including a charging lion in 1909. Had that lion been a little quicker or evasive, I don’t like Teddy’s odds of remaining not in meaty ribbons. Given that only a couple years later, Roosevelt would run for president again as the candidate of the Bull Moose Party, and, while not winning, would steal enough votes from William Howard Taft to gift Woodrow Wilson victory, the failure of that single savannah predator, or any other similarly dangerous trophies, could have had massive historical implications.

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