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The Un-Comfort Zone With Robert Wilson

Quality Insider

Here’s the Real Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals

How experience trumps the rules

Published: Thursday, January 6, 2022 - 13:02

During the past decade, I’ve seen several dozen variations of the following urban legend posted online:

A large oceangoing ship stalled at sea when its engine broke down. None of the shipboard maintenance crew could repair it, so the shipping company helicoptered a consultant out to the stranded ship. The grizzled old ship mechanic with 40 years experience carefully inspected the engine from top to bottom. He then took a small hammer from his tool bag and gently tapped the engine, which immediately roared back to life. He then told the ship’s captain, “That will be $20,000.” “What?!” cried the captain, “You hardly did anything. I demand a detailed bill.” The mechanic jotted briefly on a scrap of paper and handed it to him. It read: Tap with a hammer: $2; knowing where to tap: $19,998.

I believe this story is so popular because it resonates with people who are still paying their dues and looking forward to the day when they, too, will have mastered the skill set necessary to do a job with ease and aplomb while receiving the big bucks.

Back in 1999, during the looming Y2K crisis, my friend Marty got to enjoy a similar role to the ship mechanic. The problem was that many older mainframe computers, because of data storage issues, kept track of the years by the last two numbers only, i.e., 98 for 1998, 99 for 1999... and when 00 got here the date might roll back to 1900 instead of forward to 2000. Businesses and government were concerned that if not corrected, it would cause all sorts of problems for everything from banking ledgers to high-rise building HVAC systems. The media, as usual, fear-stoked the public into believing that the entire world economy would shut down and cause chaos.

As a computer programmer, Marty was one of the few people still able to write code in COBOL and FORTRAN who had not yet retired. He earned crazy-huge consulting fees as he rushed from company to company correcting their computer code. I recall him saying, “I wish 1999 would last forever!”

Back when I bought my first house, I had an experience similar to the ship’s captain. My house was a 62-year old Craftsman bungalow with one bathroom on the first floor, and a potential second bathroom in the basement. I say “potential” because the previous owner started remodeling the basement bathroom by stripping out all the fixtures and tile, but broke the waste pipe under the toilet when removing the bowl. The project was abandoned, leaving the room completely bare except for the exposed fresh water pipes.

I wanted a second bathroom so I wouldn’t have to wait in line when the main one was occupied. As a new homeowner motivated to save money, I set out to repair the broken waste pipe myself. I chiseled out the concrete floor around the waste pipe opening, creating a hole about 12 inches in diameter, then removed the bent and torn lead pipe elbow that fed into the sewer line. Next I measured the opening to the cast-iron sewer line where the new elbow would have to fit.

I then went to a plumbing store and requested a proper replacement. I was given a white plastic PVC elbow-shaped pipe and a rubber flange to make it fit snugly into the cast-iron pipe. When I got home it wouldn’t fit, so I took it back. The man at the plumbing store said, “It’s definitely the correct size. I didn’t say it would go in easy. You will have to force it in. You may have to beat it in with a hammer, or lever it in with a two by four, but this is the right pipe for your job.”

I took it back home and set to work. I couldn’t hammer or lever it in because there wasn’t room to generate enough force. However, I was surprisingly able to fit my car jack into the hole, but every time it would start to work, the PVC pipe would pop out of the cast-iron pipe instead of going straight in.

At that point I became frustrated and decided to finish the job later. I had many other projects I wanted to do on that house. Unfortunately, I never got back to finishing the basement bathroom, and had to wait in line whenever a family member or guest got to the working bathroom first. Six years later, I bought my second house and moved into it. I kept the first house as a rental property, and I knew that if the second bathroom was functional, I could charge a higher rent.

I still needed to put in the tile and install fixtures, so I called in a plumber to get the waste pipe problem out of the way. I watched as the man picked up the two pieces I had purchased six years earlier. He slipped the flange over the end of the PVC elbow and found—as I had—that it wouldn’t fit into the cast-iron pipe. He pulled a knife out of his pocket, shaved a thin layer off the rubber flange, and slid the elbow right into the cast-iron pipe. He spent all of five minutes, and charged me $60—a bargain! I thought to myself, “Gee, if I’d hired you six years ago, it would’ve only cost me $10 a year to not wait in line!”

And, that my friends, is when I learned the difference between an amateur and a professional. It was a great lesson in creativity, too. I realized that when something doesn’t work according to the rules, it’s OK to modify, bend, or break them.


About The Author

The Un-Comfort Zone With Robert Wilson’s picture

The Un-Comfort Zone With Robert Wilson

Robert Evans Wilson Jr. is an author, humorist, and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Wilson is also the author of the humorous children’s book The Annoying Ghost Kid, which was self-published in 2011. For more information on Wilson, visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.