Minding My Own Business

A funny thing happened on the way to this column

August 28, 2006

After a successful career, a human relations guru found herself standing before the pearly gates. "We've never had a human resources director make it this far," declared St. Peter, "so we're not really sure what to do with you. So we'll let you experience one day each in Hell and in Heaven and permit you to choose where you want to spend eternity."

The executive immediately found herself in an elevator dropping at high speed straight down to Hell. When the doors opened, she stepped out onto the eighteenth green of a beautifully manicured golf course. She saw a lavish country club, rolling fields, lakes, and a waterfall. Waiting to greet her all of her old friends, her fellow executives with whom she had worked all her life, all dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns. They let out a cheer, hugged and kissed her, and talked about old times. After a fantastic round of golf, she was escorted to the country club's formal dining room, where she enjoyed a succulent steak and lobster dinner. The Devil, who surprised her by being charming and even kind of cute, stopped by to introduce himself and danced with her for much of the evening. Before she knew it, she was hugging and kissing everyone goodbye, and then she boarded the elevator for the ride up to Heaven.

Back up at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter met her and escorted her to Heaven, where she spent the next 24 hours lounging around on clouds, playing the harp, and singing. She enjoyed it thoroughly, and before she knew it, St. Peter arrived to ask for her choice.

"Well," she said, "Heaven has been really great, but I think I had a better time in Hell." So back down she went. When the elevator doors opened, she found herself standing in a desolate wasteland covered in burning garbage and filth. Her friends were dressed in rags, picking up the garbage and putting it in sacks. The Devil came up to her and embraced her.

"There must be a mistake," stammered the woman, "yesterday there was a golf course and country club and we ate steak and lobster and danced and had so much fun. This place is disgusting and everyone looks miserable!"

The Devil smiled at her. "Yesterday, we were recruiting you. Today you're staff."
It has long been claimed that laughter is the best medicine, and certainly humor does tend to make people feel better. Humor, when used appropriately, can also be the best teacher, as we are prone to recognize more readily our own foibles through a prism of laughter instead of criticism.

Throughout the ages and across many cultures, leading thinkers have espoused the use of humor for constructive purposes. Voltaire, the 18th Century French philosopher and author, understood that "in laughter there is always a kind of joyousness that is incompatible with contempt or indignation."

In the context of using humor to find our way in the business environment, we might do well to heed the advice of 19th Century British philosopher Samuel Butler, who pointed out that "a sense of humor keen enough to show a man his own absurdities will keep him from the commission of all sins, or nearly all, save those worth committing." Butler's thoughts echoed the 17th Century Spanish Jesuit philosopher Baltasar Gracian, who pointed out in Orculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia, his timeless tome of maxims and instructions for acquiring worldly wisdom, that "advice is sometimes transmitted more successfully through a joke than grave teaching."

I have personally used this next nugget more than once to convey my frustration. A little field mouse was hopelessly lost in the thick forest, when he stumbled upon a wise old owl perched on a branch. "Oh, wise old owl, could you please help me by advising me how can I get out of these woods and back home?" asked the mouse.

"No problem," replied the owl, "Just grow wings and fly out of here, as I do."

"But how can I grow wings?" the mouse wondered.

The owl looked down at him haughtily, sniffed disdainfully, and shrugged, "Don't bother me with the details. I only advise on strategy."

The 19th Century German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche could very well have been speaking about the business world when he declared that "man alone suffers so excruciatingly in the world that he was compelled to invent laughter." Just ask the folks at the former Anderson Consulting Worldwide, who administered the following short quiz consisting of four questions to determine whether someone qualified to be a "professional."

1. How do you put a giraffe into a refrigerator?
Correct answer: Open the refrigerator put the giraffe inside and close the door. (This question tests whether you tend to do simple things in an overly complicated way.)

2. How do you put an elephant into a refrigerator?
Open the refrigerator put in the elephant and close the refrigerator.
Wrong Answer!
Correct Answer: Open the refrigerator, remove the giraffe, put the elephant inside and close the door. (This tests your ability to think through the repercussions of your previous actions.)

3. The Lion King is hosting an Animal Conference. All the animals attend except one. Which animal does not attend?
Correct Answer: The Elephant. The elephant is in the refrigerator. (This tests your memory.)
Now, even if you did not answer the first three questions correctly, you still have one more chance to show your true mental capabilities.

4. There is a river you must swim across. But it is inhabited by crocodiles. How do you manage the crossing?
Correct Answer: You swim across. All the crocodiles are attending the Animal Conference. (This tests whether you learn quickly from your mistakes.)

Around 90 percent of the professionals Anderson tested answered all four questions incorrectly. Many preschoolers, however, provided several or even all correct answers. (Decide for yourself whether this true-life study conclusively disproves the theory that most professionals have at least the brains of a four year old).

Thomas L. Masson, a noted editor of American literature, defined a sense of humor as "a thread of illuminated intelligence that links two opposite ideas." This is a wonderful visual image conveying the delicate balance between an incisive, well delivered humorous critique to a subordinate and a $10 million sexual harassment suit. Then again, Masson is most famous for his declaration that "Be yourself is about the worst advice you can give to some people."

The 20th Century American author William Feather once explained that "an education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't. It's knowing where to go to find out what you need to know; and it's knowing how to use the information you get."

Unfortunately, as in life itself, there are those in the business world who are just impossible to teach. In the simple words of another noted 20th Century American philosopher, Yogi Berra, "There are some people who, if they don't already know, you can't tell 'em."

This brings to mind the engineer who had an exceptional mechanical aptitude and a talent for repairing complex equipment. Forced into retirement after more than 30 years of loyal service, he was contacted one day by his former employer about a problem they were having with one of their expensive machines. They had tried everything and everyone to get it to run properly, but to no avail. Now the CEO was desperate, and he turned to his retired expert.

The engineer reluctantly agreed to return for a day, and spent some time studying the problem. At the end of the day he smiled, reached up and marked a small X in chalk on a component of the machine and stated, "Here's your problem!" The part was replaced and the machine instantly began functioning perfectly. A week later, the company received a bill for $50,000 from the engineer for services rendered. The CEO demanded an itemized accounting of his charges, to which the engineer responded succinctly: "One chalk mark: $1. Knowing where to put it: $49,999."

Elisha Tropper is the former president of Prestige Label Co., headquartered in Burgaw, NC, USA.
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