Years ago I had a manager who told a story about a guy driving along a country road who gets a flat. The guy gets out to change the tire and discovers that the jack isn’t in the trunk. It’s gone. Since he can’t change the tire without a jack, he gets desperate. But then he notices a farmhouse across a field and decides to ask the farmer for a jack.
But as he walks toward the farmhouse he starts to work himself up. “What if he’s got a rusted jack that doesn’t work?” “What if it’s the wrong jack?” “What if he’s a jerk and won’t let me borrow his jack?” “What if he just stands there and laughs at me for not having a jack?”
By the time he gets to the farmhouse he is so upset that when the farmer opens the door, he yells: “Oh, yeah? Well, you can take your jack and shove it!” Then he heads back across the field, leaving the farmer in disbelief.
I bring this up, because I played the role of the guy with the flat this week. I worked myself up over something that turned out to be only in my mind, which is where most of the conflict in my life take place. When it happened, I thought immediately of this story, which may be a subset of farmer jokes, although I’ll leave that for another post.
Thankfully, I have developed the skills of not reacting immediately and giving myself enough time to process things even in the tightest spots. That’s what I did this time. I kept my cool and did not react. I may have felt like the guy with the flat, but I didn’t shout the moment the farmer opened his door, as it were. Believe it or not, this has taken me a lifetime to master. I’m not stupid, just difficult.
To be fair, I don’t think our guy had to act the way he did even if he were genetically disposed to do so. Type A personalities don’t have to develop a negative attitude when things don’t go their way. They can be assertive, competitive, and impatient without expecting the sky to crash down around them. Our guy may have been Type A, but that didn’t seal his fate. He wasn’t destined to yell at the farmer.
Then how did he get such a negative attitude, especially when it only served to kick him in the pants? The thing that makes the most sense to me is that he must have had bad experiences that conditioned him over time. That is, he expected the sky to come crashing down around him, because it had come down before. It’s possible that he not only anticipated these outcomes but brought them about in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, he got into the habit of seeing the worst in everything.
By contrast, I don’t do that. I don’t expect the worst. I don’t have my spear at the ready. I don’t litigate, although I remember taking detailed notes in graduate school for the express purpose of setting some obnoxious student back on their heels once I started teaching. So, maybe in that sense I anticipated a rusted jack. I’ll give you that.
In the end, I believe my manager told me that story, because he truly wanted to share some wisdom that he had acquired the hard way. I say hard way, because he had also confessed that his goal in life was to make more money by thirty than his father had made at that age. I couldn’t imagine having that kind of relationship with my father. Sure, we competed, but mainly for my mother’s attention. Since my manager was clearly over thirty, I’m guessing he hadn’t achieved his goal and so had to come to terms with failure, at least as he defined it.
I remember sitting there, listening to his story, not quite sure what to think or how to respond. I do that with non sequiturs and confessions. I also remember feeling that the story couldn’t possibly apply to me. After all, I knew for a fact that I had a jack in the trunk.
Image credits: feature by Frances Gunn; jack base Jen Theodore. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”