In the city of Wuhu, nestled within China’s Anhui Province, the school year is less than a month old. The weather has turned from early fall to the crispness of an impending winter. Darkness settles in around 7 p.m. It is 1983 and Long Wu is in second grade.
A two-room apartment, occupied by Wu (an only child) and his parents, provides little in the way of privacy or quiet. The living room doubles as the family’s bedroom. The kitchen table becomes a desk. After dinner, when the remnants of a shared meal are swept away, it is time for school work. For the next three-plus hours, the 7-year-old boy will sit alone with his books and study.
His parents also read in silence, or, on occasion, when the boredom needs broken, they step outside to stretch their legs – all the while being aware to not interrupt their son’s concentration.
Wu referred to his time in the Chinese education system as a pyramid – a narrowing of talent until only the best remained on top. If this sounds pressure-packed, it was.
In China, advanced education is not easily obtained. This was a lesson Wu’s parents learned without ever getting the chance to prove themselves. From 1966-1978, China’s Communist Party closed every college and university – simply shuttered them all for 12 years. The government did not want its citizens to get corrupt, Wu said. Education was thought of as a way to make that happen. Instead of advancing their education, his parents were assigned jobs. His mother was given farm work; his father, sent to an electric power plant.
Despite this setback, Wu’s parents knew the importance of education. Once the universities were reopened, the focus was to put Wu on a path that would lead to a life his parents were not allowed to live.
His ascent through the educational ranks was swift and impressive.
By his own account, he would spend nearly 85% of his time with his studies, allowing himself Friday night and Saturday afternoon to watch TV or play with friends. At an early age the goal was to qualify for a prestigious middle school that took in only 90 students out of a city of more than 2 million people. The competition, Wu said, “was very, very intense.”
Success at the middle school would open doors for higher learning. “But,” Wu said, “only 5-10% of Chinese students were granted admission into universities until late 1990s.”
By the time he was in high school, his studying routinely kept him up until after midnight. “I would get about 5 hours of sleep,” he said matter-of-factly.
When Wu was accepted into Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) in pursuit of an engineering degree, it fulfilled promises and dreams. Wu’s father longed to go to SJTU and was now left to live vicariously through his son, telling family and friends of Wu’s achievement. At the foundation of it all were his parents’ guiding principles: When faced with adversity, remain diligent, and just work harder. Put in the hours. Stay competitive. Never give up.
“There was always great encouragement,” Wu said. “I never really felt anxiety, but I was always aware of the pressure, starting in second grade.”
The Path to Prominence
If you ask Wu if he considers himself “smart,” he will shy away from the label, looking uncomfortable in an effort to make it fit – despite his numerous accomplishments and game-changing innovations at John Deere. His response is true to his upbringing. “My parents just encouraged me to work harder than anyone else.”
He even admits he had low expectations.
“I didn’t think I would do very well. I was just a regular kid, and I hadn’t received any special training,” he said, choosing to ignore the hours of studying as a child. “My parents didn’t set high goals either. Their message was simple: ‘Just do your best.’”
Wu’s best ended up being exceptional – despite what he called an early “failure.”
At the highly-regarded middle school early assessment tests put him at the top of his class. In high school he had few peers. But, in his first semester at SJTU – one of China’s top engineering schools and referred to as “The MIT of the East” since the 1930s – he found adversity. Wu said the depth and scope of math and science was “far beyond my expectations.”
“I nearly failed my first exam in physics,” he said. “Now, I’ve lost my confidence. Now, I’m a small fish in a much, much bigger pond.”
What made it worse, he said, was his parents’ disappointment. They had grown accustomed to his academic success.
“They thought I would be doing better. What they were feeling was harder on me than what I was feeling.”
As for that “failing” grade? “It was a C or a B,” he admits. Perception really is reality. Wu immediately applied his proven method of studying – outworking everyone.
“I needed to readjust my attitude in this much larger pond,” he said. “I realized what adjustments I had to make.” The results? By the time Wu finished his junior year, he had the highest grade point average in his class of 120 students, with a major in electrical engineering at one of China’s best engineering schools.
Working at John Deere
Jump forward 20 years. Wu may not consider himself smart, but he’s not dumb either. Opportunities for a person with his abilities are available at nearly every turn. Therefore, the question, though blunt perhaps, is obvious: What keeps him at John Deere? In North Dakota? That answer is something he uses to continue to recruit top-tier talent to Fargo – being a firm believer in the company’s higher purpose.
“What we do for the world is important,” Wu said. “We can make cell phones or we can feed the world. It’s an important message. Letting people know how sophisticated a technology company John Deere is, that’s my most important role.”
His best sales pitch is something he has with him at all times – himself. His Fellow Award application said candidates choose to come to Fargo to work for – and with — Long Wu, not necessarily John Deere. That is an honor Wu takes seriously. He is known for his ability to mentor employees and practices inclusion.
The process is working. Wu recently hired an engineer whose other choices included going to California-based automaker Tesla or advanced mobility technology company Faraday Future. “But now he’s with us,” Wu said with a grin.
Raising a Family
Wu and his wife, Ruilin Tian, an associate professor of finance at North Dakota State University, have two children of their own – daughter, Helen, is 8 and son, Allen, is 15.
Their lives are different than Wu’s childhood. Wu and his wife find themselves running their kids to piano lessons, swimming meets, volunteer events, and school functions. Spending 85% of their day studying is no longer practical.
“Some principles don’t change though,” Wu stressed. “Working hard. Being diligent. My wife and I have talked about the regrets we might have from our childhood because of the pressures we faced. I’m happy my children don’t have to face that and can explore their lives outside of school.”
Wu admits wisdom is of equal value to brain power, and his parents’ wisdom is being handed down to his own children.
“What I teach my children – and what was the greatest lesson my parents taught me – is that life is a long journey. Don’t be too afraid of a single failure. This is a message I share with my own children. Life is a marathon. It is not a sprint.”
It may come as no surprise then that when Wu stood on a stage to receive his 2018 Fellow Award, he looked back on his journey – the boy that was 7 studying late into the night, his early education and the pressures it cultivated, and on the forces that forged his ability to out-work the problems that stood in his way.
“This is a great honor and I highly appreciate it,” Wu said. “I feel that I have more responsibility now to work on my area better, but also leverage this award to help me advocate for my passions and growth areas for John Deere.”