The Myth of Simple Plumbing Projects and a Static Self
As I stepped out of my car, two maple trees in peak fall splendor glowed with almost palpable warmth in the rose-colored early morning sunlight. Shadows stretched long and dramatic against cloudless blue skies, adding depth and richness to the scene. My ego dissolved in the clean, cool air. Possibility, peace, and compassion flooded in. Life is miraculous. I am an enlightened being.
Rewind twelve hours.
“Dad, why is there water dripping out of the light fixture downstairs?”
Uh oh. My daughter’s question strongly suggested that my simple plumbing project had turned complicated (as “simple” plumbing projects tend to do). Minutes later, I found myself contorted backward on the toilet, struggling to replace the source of the leak, a faulty shut-off valve that was just fine until I disturbed it. I was frustrated, but things were about to get worse.
Despite working at a plumbing wholesaler throughout high school where I handled tens of thousands of pipe fittings, I immediately realized that I left Home Depot with the wrong size valve. I returned to the store, rushing to beat closing time, getting every light red on the way. I was stopped by a train on the way home for good measure.
As I waited for approximately 9,346 rail cars to pass, my entire body was tense with burning, adrenaline and cortisol-soaked rage. My inner dialogue was filled with self-deprecating vitriol of a sort I would not wish on my worst enemy. I was as unstable as elemental sodium, triggered into violent reactivity by contact with the growing puddle of water on the bathroom floor. To make matters worse, I was keenly aware of my wildly disproportionate emotions, ashamed of myself for losing perspective, but seemingly powerless to course-correct.
This extra layer of self-judgment did nothing to improve my inner dialogue, and I found myself in a self-reinforcing spiral of toxicity. I was the opposite of enlightened. I was effectively psychotic.
So, which is it? Enlightened being, or psychotic? Which is the “real” me?
Both. Neither. It depends.
Thankfully, most of the time, I am somewhere in between, hopefully nearer the enlightened end of the spectrum than the other, ugly extreme. But what determines which “me” shows up? Often, it is circumstances that are beyond my control. Sounds a little defeatist, doesn’t it? Let’s dig deeper.
Enlightened “me” was well-rested. I was relaxed. It was a new day, and I was outdoors in the morning sunshine, immersed in natural beauty, with ample time and free attention to take it all in.
Psychotic me was tired. It was the end of the day. I was exerting myself physically, twisted as I was into the tiny space behind the toilet. With the water shut off for the whole house and stores closing, I was under time pressure. And, importantly, psychotic me was angry because none of this should have been happening in the first place. I had an expectation of how replacing a flush valve should go (quick, easy, simple), and it was definitely not going that way.
Conclusion: When I’m well-rested, un-pressured, and immersed in natural beauty, I tend to be relaxed, open, and peaceful. Conversely, when I am tired, under physical and mental stress, subject to time pressure, and dealing with negative consequences of a mistake I feel I should have avoided, I am likely to be my worst self.
That is not exactly “a-ha moment” material, but stay with me. Enlightened me and psychotic me are edge cases, of course, but examining edge cases can be useful.
What my two opposing edges demonstrate is that we are not static. We are not one thing. We are dynamic, fluid, adaptive beings, and our external circumstances have a profound effect on which version of us shows up. Who we “are” is context-dependent. Perhaps this is obvious in the extremes, but what about more subtle cases, the kind that occur every day?
Can you accurately answer the following?
- Are there topics that your coworkers, boss, or direct reports raise that instantly affect how you feel, either good or bad? And how do you tend to respond?
- What kind of work do you gravitate to? And what do you avoid? Is the quality of your output equal for both?
- How does being a little hungry affect your behavior? How about what you ate yesterday? Do you think yesterday’s meal affects today’s behavior? (Hint: it almost certainly does, at least a little…)
- How are you different meeting with a customer compared to a supplier? As an interviewer vs. an interviewee? With your boss vs. with your direct report?
- What are you like in the last 15 minutes of a 4pm meeting vs. the first 15 minutes of a 9am meeting?
All of these variables, and a million others, affect our behavior in ways large and small, good and bad, yet many of them are beyond our control, even invisible. So what should we do? How can we avoid being buffeted about like a kite in the wind?
We can learn to better predict our own behavior, not by thinking about what we should do, but by observing what we actually do. It is what we actually do that counts. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, Build to Last, and numerous other best-sellers, does this by keeping what he calls his “bug book.”
Collins keeps a meticulous journal of self-observation, as if he was a scientist observing the behavior of a particularly interesting bug, except he is the bug. How does it react when this happens? What are its patterns throughout the day? When does it fight? When does it flee? He understands his own behavior not theoretically, but empirically.
By observing ourselves in this manner, we can gain insight into how we are likely to show up—who we are likely to be, for better or worse—in different situations.
Armed with this information, we can take actions that make it more likely (but not guaranteed) that our more enlightened selves show up more often than the psycho version.
- Observe yourself like a scientist studying a bug. Take notes. Find patterns. Don’t judge them. You’re just a bug after all. You’re doing your best.
- Put up guardrails for yourself. If you observe that you are drawn to flames, build a cage around that candle before it gets lit. Engage yourself at your rational best to protect you (and others) from yourself at your irrational worst. Don’t start “simple” plumbing projects at 8:30pm. Don’t call meetings on controversial topics at 4pm on Friday.
- Now that you know what circumstances to look for, practice noticing them quickly, because you can’t always put up guardrails in time. But you can get better at catching yourself heading down a bad path and redirecting yourself sooner.
Finally, be prepared to fail, because you will, and that’s okay. We are looking for progress, not perfection. When it happens, own it. Take responsibility, because if you don’t, others will, including your children and your employees.
We all tend to make things about ourselves, even when we had nothing to do with it. Let people around you know that it wasn’t about them. “Wow, I’m really sorry. That stupid project really got the best of me and I reacted badly. It didn’t have anything to do with you.” Then put up some guardrails to help ensure it doesn't happen again.
And don't be too hard on yourself. Life, work, and plumbing can be pretty challenging.
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