Knowing which screw to turn

by Calvin on May 27, 2007

The story goes:

The huge printing presses of a major Chicago newspaper began malfunctioning on the Saturday before Christmas, putting all the revenue for advertising that was to appear in the Sunday paper in jeopardy. None of the technicians could track down the problem. Finally, a frantic call was made to the retired printer who had worked with these presses for over 40 years. “We’ll pay anything; just come in and fix them,” he was told.

When he arrived, he walked around for a few minutes, surveying the presses; then he approached one of the control panels and opened it. He removed a dime from his pocket, turned a screw 1/4 of a turn, and said, “The presses will now work correctly.” After being profusely thanked, he was told to submit a bill for his work.

The bill arrived a few days later, for $10,000.00! Not wanting to pay such a huge amount for so little work, the printer was told to please itemize his charges, with the hope that he would reduce the amount once he had to identify his services. The revised bill arrived: $1.00 for turning the screw; $9,999.00 for knowing which screw to turn.

I heard this story a while ago, and it stuck with me, because it resonated with the way I view my work with people, including myself. It’s easy to see the shortcomings of someone else, or see what he or she really ought to do. And your opinions and advice might actually be right on. But unless you figure out exactly what the underlying problem is, and helps the person overcome that, it will only frustrate and infuriate.

Say someone is in an unhealthy relationship, and you’re telling her to get out of it. And it really is a bad relationship, and you’re absolutely correct in your assessment, but she still stays, and keeps coming back, and you go out of your mind.

Chances are there’s a good reason she stays. Perhaps she’s afraid to be alone. Perhaps she believes that life should be hard. Perhaps she thinks she deserves it. Maybe she just doesn’t think she’s worth any better.

Whatever it is, unless you can pinpoint exactly what it is, unless you know which screw to turn, that is, you’re not going to be able to help the person. In fact, there’s a good chance that your trying is just going to take you further apart.

I have this idea that there’s only so many things we’re open to change our minds about at any given point in time. Have you ever had an insight, a realization, only to then realize that your friends had been trying to tell you this all along? Well, you just weren’t ready then. Our beliefs are locked together and reinforce each other, so one has to go before you can get to the next one. It’s not linear, of course, but they are interrelated. Hence the knowing which screw to turn.

Incidentally, when I went looking for the source of the quote, I found it in a text about software debugging. I hadn’t actually made the connection, but now it’s obvious that I find some of the same joy in tracking down a bug that I do in finding the right screw to turn when talking to other people.

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