The Plumber

There’s a great book called ‘The War Of Art’ (inspired by the ancient text by Sun Tzu ‘The Art Of War’), which focuses on the challenges of being creative. I first read it a couple years ago and glance at it regularly for inspiration. There are many examples within, including one description of a man having a terrible time on a golf course – his ball continues to get caught in the wind. He curses the wind and turns to the caddy for consoling. The caddy then tells him, in a Scottish accent, that he has to ‘play to the wind’ doesn’t he?

Brilliant observation. And that story, with its focus on changing direction, reminded me of a childhood memory.

When I was about eight or nine years old, my family went on a ski trip, where we stayed in a rented ski cabin. Shortly after arriving, my mother noticed a problem with the knob for the bathtub: it was stuck. No matter how hard you turned it in the direction of the arrow, it just wouldn’t go. My father, brother and I all tried it, none of us could get it to budge. Finally, my father irately looked up the number of a local plumbing and heating company, who promised to send someone over as soon as available.

Within the hour, a middle-aged man arrived, grimy tool box in hand. With a cigarette smell, cap, overalls, and his skin wrinkled and leathery, he looked as though he’d answered a casting call for a small town plumber. When asked what the problem was, my father told him we couldn’t turn on the water- the goddamn thing was stuck. The plumber surprised us all by asking: “Did ya try turnin’ it the other way?”

“Why the hell would we do that?” my father grumbled. “That makes no sense”

“Don’t be so sure ’bout that. That’s the first thing ya gotta do.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

This conversation caused me to take notice- I’d never seen anyone challenge my father’s authority before.

The plumber then went to work turning the knob. At first there was a mild struggle, then he effortlessly turned it in the opposite direction of the arrow. Water began pouring out like a mountain stream-the further you turned the knob, the hotter the water got. It was exactly what was supposed to happen, only to the left instead of the right. “There ya go” he said.

We were speechless.

The plumber got up to leave, picked up his still unopened toolbox, waved goodbye and headed towards the front door. Just before exiting, he turned around, looked straight at my father and said “If it don’t work one way, ya gotta try it the other way.” He shut the door behind him.

“The nerve of that guy!” my father exploded. It was the first of a series of rants to my mother about this ‘jerk.’ He remained in a foul mood for the rest of the day. It took hours before his temper went from ‘hot’ to ‘cold.’

With his Ivy League PhD and scores of scholastic honors bestowed upon him, my father always took pride in being ‘right.’ But he’d just been proven wrong by a bumpkinish plumber with a high school education (if that).

The plumber may have pissed off my father (something that admittedly wasn’t hard to do) and may have shown a bit of insensitivity. And it may have been irresponsible of the rental company to have a backwards shower knob in one of their properties. But that day, a valuable lesson had been learned: if moving in one direction isn’t working, try the opposite direction, even if it goes against conventional logic.

In the future, I’d encounter many other appliances and fixtures that had knobs, handles or levers installed backwards. But instead of getting mad, I’d simply think of this incident-it would be a big help in many tour buses, hotel rooms and dressing rooms. And this logic extends beyond showers, baths, sinks and light switches- it can be applied to life situations. For example, if you continue to reach out to someone for a job, a date, a gig, a favor etc…, and you’re not getting a response, try the opposite: let it go. If the situation is meant to happen, they’ll come to you. Similarly, if you’re unfulfilled in your day to day existence, try moving to a new city, one with a radically different culture and climate. You can always move back, but at least you’ll have tried something different.

Which brings us back to creativity: if your song isn’t working as an up-tempo tune, try it as a ballad (or vice versa); if the opening of your essay or chapter isn’t strong enough, try a completely different paragraph (maybe you’ve already written it further into your piece); if the rough cut of your film or documentary is getting jumbled, try shifting the entire storyline with a different focus. No matter what you do in life, you have to be open to the idea that what is being instructed to you or what seems the most obvious is not necessarily the right way.

What the plumber said that day may have been elementary in its simplicity and even grammatically incorrect. But it is timeless, invaluable wisdom. To this day I can hear his words in my head: “If it don’t work one way, ya gotta try it the other way.”

34 Responses to The Plumber

  1. I loved this post and I guess anyone with an Engineering background would have the very same approach as the plumber did. As you rightly said it applies to many things in life. At my job, I do it all the time. Anytime I come across an angry Captain, obviously looking for some confrontation, I take the exact opposite way. I let him do the talking/shouting and then calmly answer back. It always works.

    • That is a good way to handle confrontational types. And it's true that engineers are very open to different types of thinking, no matter what the instructions say or which way the arrow points. Speaking of which,  I've gotten to know some engineers recently who came to a show and one is a huge metal fan. They have this hilarious video:

  2. Ah, “the gotta try it the other way” tactic. It's my unwritten “Plan B”. People look at my like I'm a dumb blonde when I do that, but I gotta try.  It works with so many different things in life like your post indicates. With my 17 year old son, I've digressed from telling him to do things all the time.  I suggest it and then I tell him, “fine, don't do it.  You probably can't do it anyway”,  and you'd be surprised how quick he is to prove me wrong.   I recently took on a song to do as a cover, and for some reason, in it's major key it just didn't work for me.  It was an older Blondie song that is catchy, and just so overdone, so I switched the chords to relative minor and it became just what I was looking for…dark, melodic, and relevant.  I'll have to see if there's an audio version of the “The War of Art”.  Thanks! 🙂

    • It's incredible how unproductive conventional approaches can sometimes be.  In this case, yes, someone screwed up and installed this water system the wrong way. But guess what- it happens. You have to be ready to encounter these situations because they're out there and they're great metaphors for other situations in life.

  3. Exist a serie things that dont work correctly, in our lives and we pass times without percept ! Some prefer a confort zone – or look only one way to open a shower !!! This not so bad, but if some dont work in this way, is necessary other way. I changed for other city simply because I´m tired. Tired with a place, tired with the people, well … tired with routine. When you dont say “goodbye” to old, the new dont arrive, and I think, at all in our lives: relationship, work, friends.

    • It's amazing how it drives some people totally crazy to go against those instructions, even if it's simple arrow on a shower knob. And unless you're very happy in a routine, then a big change is good.

  4. So true! Especially when it comes to guitar players…(yikes!)

    Have talked to so many players who convince themselves that this certain — amp, pickup, guitar, pedal, wood, cord, pick, setting, patch, room, string, peg, nut, fret (what am I forgetting?) — is the ONLY way to get the sound they seek. Well, maybe. When things don't work out instead of examining their premises, which are usually just untried assumptions, they tie themselves in knots trying to make what they KNOW should work actually work.

    Completely inverting things, trying it the other way, forgetting what you think you know, can get tied up with issues of ego and pride — and that leads to weird places. The truly confident guy (or gal) isn't afraid to blow everything up and do it “wrong.”

    Speaking of wrong, here's a white Telly doing all kinds of wrong:

    • Another good example of that: the amp I'm currently playing, at least until my new signature Budda is ready (expected by NAMM '12) is the Marshall Mode IV. Everyone who hears it agrees it's a great sounding amp, maybe not the best ever, but a very good one that's also reliable and road worthy. But Marshall no longer makes them and they didn't sell well. In fact, two Guitar Centers tried to talk me out of buying them, said the were 'no good' until I showed them otherwise (to the shock of the staff, who stood perplexed, asking me how I managed to get such a good sound out of that amp). The reason for this?  It's a solid state amp (with pre-amp tubes), and conventional logic says that a high gain amp must be an all 'tube' amp. But with the right blend of distortion pedal and gain from the amp, it's a really good sound. 
           Gojira= great band. Outside thinking to play a Tele in metal. Very cool.

  5. I'm a guitar player who is now teaching ninth grade English.  If it's all cool I'm going to share this blog entry with my Assistant Principal – there are some people at my school that need to read this – adults and kids.

    Looking forward to this Sunday and seeing you guys with Anthrax!

    • Of course, by all means, please feel free to share this or any other post at your school.  What I would have done to have a guitar-playing English teacher in the 9th grade (or any grade for that matter). I'm sure your experience in music crosses over into teaching in the most positive way.

  6. “Common Sense is not so common”, …”there's no problem sustained thinking cannot solve”(Voltaire)
     The plumber used his experience and common sense at the time and your Dad used a different thought pattern, one I'm sure is mapped quite different. Knowing a few highly accomplished academics, it's not uncommon behavior, in that their brilliant minds in specific areas leave less room for matters outside that focus and knowledge base they know and are comfortable with that can effect their approach and handling of situations outside that zone of expertise. Our brain is a tool that needs to be used in a variety of ways to build a mindset/mind set on a road to creative exploration by new directions, that stretch narrow thoughts and move them to places full of possibility, turning obstacles into opportunities, like this knob incident that gave you early insight and awareness into problem solving. We need to experience re-direction and detours to our preconceived, hard set mental agenda of thoughts and ideas and realize our mind is not made of steel but plastic and meant to be molded by not always turning in the arrows direction, but in a way that will open to new flows of creative thought. We can relocate to new surroundings, or, find by moving to a new state of mind that looks for ways to make life better we become more fulfilled.  We just have to realize the importance in questioning ourselves at times and make sure we are in a place and on a path where we will not miss out on something wonderful by not looking away but rather into another way of thinking.

    • It's true that there is a very different thought pattern applied to academia. I grew up around that one, but limiting myself to it would be little use in the 'real world.'  One of the best books I ever read on the notion of problem solving and being stuck (much like that knob), is 'Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.'

  7. I can relate to this subject in more ways than one,some people just cant think outside the box so to speak. I work around teachers all day long and I'm not saying all teachers lack common sense but there are quite a few that just dont get it.

    • Creative thinking is a different type of thinking than that which is more factual, purely logically based. Unfortunately it's not taught enough in schools. For those who haven't seen this, here's a great TED talk on that very subject,  'Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by Sir Ken Robinson

      • Teachers are more interested on the facts you can pull from the information you read, creativity is silenced. What you think does not matter. *cold glare from teacher* lol. It's becoming more difficult to just be an individual. Society is dying.

  8. Great insights from everybody. I had fun reading all the comments to this article and the response from Alex himself. I maybe a bit late in sharing mine but perhaps it would add more fuel the fire :)… I've been attracted to the distorted tones of metal music and, until recently, made it my goal to emulate the sound produced by my musical heroes. In pursuit of this goal, i purchased equipment i deemed necessary to capture the tones i wanted, the high-gain amps and the tubescreamers, but to no avail. I couldn't get even close to their original sounds. The harder i tried, the more frustrated i became, coupled with a fast-emptying wallet. Until one day, i picked up my guitar and plugged it straight to a  old and almost forgotten Fender amp. It wasn't like i got hit by a thunderbolt or anything, but as i played on, I realized i sounded more like myself. The clean tones revealed a lot of the sloppiness i acquired from playing with too much distortion and fuzz. Gradually, i started to head towards the musical direction i wanted to and not as dictated by what i heard from others playing. By going the opposite way, from distorted to clean, I simply became a much more relaxed and confident musician. Not that I threw metal out the window, I still love all my heroes, Testament included !!!

    • That's a great example. You can learn from someone and maybe borrow a couple ideas here and there, but ultimately, people who are originals did what came naturally to them as a result of their inner explorations. It goes to show that one should never try too hard to emulate anyone, musically or otherwise.

  9. Bless you Alex. You really made my day.
    I've been facing lots of difficulties in the past few month and I have noticed that I have been pushing to hard on myself. It's time to redirect my efforts to some other thing rather than the things that are bothering me.

    • My pleasure. Sometimes that's all it takes- shift gears and move in the complete opposite direction.  Good luck to you.

    • It brings to mind two great quotes by Henry Rollins:  

      “Do it or don't. It's amazing how many things in life are that easy.”

      “I believe that one defines oneself by reinvention. To not be like your
      parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself. To cut yourself
      out of stone.”

  10. A good local plumber will know the area so that they can get to you quickly. It is obvious to say that someone living 10 miles away from you is going to get to you quicker than someone living three or four cities or further away.Nice shared post.Really liked it a lot.Thanks a lot for sharing.Keep sharing.

    • It's good to remember the value in local businesses, whether plumbing, copying, bookstores etc… Sometimes big chain stores are unavoidable, but it's so much more fulfilling to support local businesses whenever possible.

  11. I feel like most of the time people are so stubborn that they HAVE to look at things one way, or the highway…we are so set on “we are right” (human nature) that things will never turn out right. Humans are ususally never right the first time, logic. I grew up under a Christian background in the Midwest…the whole “one way” thing became very popular. It's amazing how your eyes are open to logic and reasoning once you grow up and you try knew things (GOOD knew things). Sometimes it seems like we only use half our brain.

    • I've also found that to be the case for much of my life. So many I've known have been going through their lives pretending, lying to themselves, lying to those around them, lying to society. But most are so stuck in their convictions that they're beyond change, barring some sort of epiphany or life-altering event.

         “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”  from Nietzsche's Human, all too Human

  12. Not big into the Bible…but I saw  this and I was like HOLY SHIT: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom..” Prov. 11:2….. Try eating up that verse after you do something stupid

    • That's brilliant. The bible and other texts do have some valuable, worthy information in them. Unfortunately, its the organized religions built around them that cause all the problems.

      • Totally understandable. I don't really see religion. Never have never will. Just pull as much out of everything as possible. There is a little right and little wrong in everything. I see everything as the learning experience. If people (*cough government*) see it that way things would run a lot more smoothly.  Right and wrong are sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

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    phonebook entries isn't the easiest method to do it. The likelihood of
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