It’s one of those days. I’m feeling betwixt and between, a little of this and a little of that. I’m a man whose job is to ask questions and get answers and who — on this day — finds that every answer just leads to another question.
It’s a birthday, one that’s neither a big one nor a small one. It’s not one of big-whatever “ohs,” but it is one where the new card in the mail is for Medicare, not AARP.
If it were one of the big whatevers, I would have an easy handle for a column. I’ve used the same headline for the last three major milestones: “Sex After 40 (50) (60) — What Works, What Doesn’t.” The headline has topped an appropriately numbered list of life’s little lessons, most of them shamelessly stolen from friends and family. None of the observations has anything to do with sex, other than to illustrate another lesson of life — that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good headline.
Five years from now the alliteration would work well for another “What Works, What Doesn’t” headline. But this year it’s another matter. I don’t have the headline, and I don’t even have the facts that might get in the way. Instead I have all those questions that lead to answers that create more questions.
Am I losing it? I don’t think so, I answer. But then I ask, what is it that I might be losing? Some people get to this point and wonder if they are losing their minds. Some people do, I don’t. Not yet, at least.
This past weekend I drove up to the summer cottage, determined to get the water running before June. I failed to get the water running, but at least managed to get a few other issues straightened out, and then departed. An hour after leaving, too far away to turn back, I had that second thought: Did I turn the electricity off?
The next day, impatient at my lapse of memory, I E-mailed my neighbor, and asked if he would take a peek inside. He did. The circuit breaker was indeed off. Still I had no memory of doing it.
So am I losing “it?” No, I have an excuse. Because I couldn’t get the pump operating, my entire close-down routine was thrown off. It was a one-of-a-kind event that triggered a malfunction in my autopilot system.
But another question: What if “it” turns out to be not my mind, but my patience? That would be bad, very bad, is the answer, which in turn would prompt the question: What should I do about it?
I have extolled the virtues of patience before in this space. In the early, dark days of freelance writing, the sign above my IBM B Model electric typewriter proclaimed the top three critical elements to success — 3. physical health; 2. mental health; and 1. — drum roll, please — patience.
Patience has been the safety net that has prevented all sorts of other failures from turning into permanent disasters. In the early days of freelancing I would plan day trips to New York, where I would make the rounds of editors and publishers, flogging the ideas that I somehow had to turn into cash to keep the mortgage ($213.76, at one point) and health insurance paid.
Some days would not go well, and I would simply turn on my heel, and ride back to Princeton, reminding myself I had to be patient.
Patience was the secret sauce in my father’s prescribed method of opening stubborn jars. Get a grip on it, turn it, and then hold the pressure. The duration of the force applied was just as important as the force itself. But most people, of course, would give the jar a twist, lose patience, and give up. In a business setting you run into a lot of stubborn problems — some take more than a quick twist to solve.
Here at the office I have taken a certain pride in maintaining my equilibrium. People yell and I try not to yell back. But recently I have surprised myself in a few situations by snapping back at some of my colleagues. It’s surprising to me that I can patiently read through a 5,000-word article, painstakingly circling words that might be replaced by another word. But in another moment I can be impatient after five seconds of a discussion about a management issue.
Someone in the office shows me some Inc. magazine columns. One lists the five things a great boss never does, including annual performance reviews, meetings to solicit ideas, and creating development plans. I figure I’m doing OK by that measure. Another lists five qualities of a remarkable boss. One of those qualities jumps out at me:
“To some of your employees, especially new employees, you are at least slightly famous. You’re in charge. You’re the boss. That’s why an employee who wants to talk about something that seems inconsequential may just want to spend a few moments with you.
“When that happens, you have a choice. You can blow the employee off or you can see the moment for its true importance: A chance to inspire, reassure, motivate, and even give someone hope for greater things in their life. The higher you rise the greater the impact you can make — and the greater your responsibility to make that impact.”
On a few occasions recently I have walked away from the responsibility, and buried my head in a 5,000-word article instead. Forgetting to turn off the electricity at the lake can ruin a refrigerator. Losing your patience at work can cost you a productive employee. Maybe I should get help with the management, and concentrate on the editorial.
Just saying. Or am I just asking?