Avoiding Stupid #1

When I was younger, I ran my own consulting company. This took me all over my hometown, Kansas City MO. My clients ranged from one side of town to the other; north and south, east and west. This was accomplished in my trusty, rusty, 1977 Chevy Camaro. The fine vehicle, a result of GM’s attempt to ruin the American auto industry, was acquired through my marriage to my wife. A three-owner daily driver, it had been in one bad accident and repaired, and driven hard for its eight year life. One hundred and fifty thousand miles later, it creaked and squeaked, rattled and rumbled, but I still made the rounds to my clients each day.

One effect the years and miles had on the Camaro was the gauges and lights on the dashboard. The speedo wobbled around 10 or 15 miles per hour from actual speed, no matter the current velocity. Red lights would flicker off and on with every bump, and were soon ignored as false positives. This combination lead to certain maintenance being forgone, in the vein if there wasn’t an idiot light, then nothing was wrong.

The late months of 1985 were pretty chilly. I would get up and get going to clients around 8.30 in the morning, at the tail-end of KC’s so-called rush hour. The Camaro would sluggishly turnover in the cold mornings and reluctantly cough into life. A few kicks on the accelerator helped wake my faithful steed into a workable rhythm. A tug on the console shifter, a nice clunk into gear, and another day of servicing my loyal client base was begun.

This particular day, the old girl was a little rougher than usual. A quick glance at the flickering dashboard lights gave me no indication of anything out of the ordinary, so I put it down to lots of hard miles and the chill. I hopped onto the highway and made my way into traffic. After a few miles, the roughness smoothed out a bit and I brought my speed up with the cars around me.

I flipped on the well-worn volume knob of the AM radio to catch up on traffic and local news and turned it up to drown the ever-increasing rattle from the engine compartment. As I approached my exit, traffic increased a bit and we slowed down to a crawl. The roughness in the engine increased and I thought I was going to be stuck on the highway. I made it to the exit and to the right-hand turn at the bottom of the ramp. When traffic cleared, I moved onto the street and the Camaro gave a great shudder and promptly died. Without power the steering immediately became impossibly heavy and I barely got clear of the busy four lane street I had just entered.

As the car drug to a stop on the side of the street, my left-side tires just touching the white at the edge of the lane, all the dashboard lights suddenly decided to come to life and give me a pretty clear indication that things were bad. Odd clicks and whistles emanated from beneath the hood, and a few wisps of steam tailed thru the cracks of the bodywork.

I cautiously opened the drivers door and popped the inside hood latch . As I made my way to the front of the Camaro, I stumbled a bit and laid my hand on the hood. I was surprised at the amount of heat coming off the car, almost enough to burn me. Carefully, I cracked open the hood and was met with a puff of steam and smoke. Sizzling sounds and loud cracking noises came from all areas of the motor. Nothing visible was obvious, but a great deal of heat were emitting in waves.

I moved around to the driver-side fender and started looking for the oil dipstick. As I reached down to move some wires, hopefully to expose the measuring device, a large boom and explosion of steam hit me as the upper radiator hose let loose. My reflexes told my body to leap backwards from this sudden car hell; directly into oncoming traffic in the busy street immediately to my rear.

Screeching tires, loud horns, and muffled expletives filled my ears. Afraid to even glance at traffic, I jumped from the street to the front of the car in one mighty lunge. My heart thudded against my rib cage as never before, whether from the bursting hose or my quick excursion into traffic I couldn’t tell. The term ‘weak knees’ took on physical form and I leaned my hand onto the fender, only to snatch it away again as it was still exceedingly hot.

I took a deep breath and took stock of the situation. The Camaro sat there, hood open, pieces of radiator hose littering the ground, and steam lazily drifting up from the cooling disaster area. Loud ticks from the contracting metal of the engine could be heard over the rush of traffic beside me.

I forced myself to calm down. A few more deep breaths and trying to slow my heart were starting to help. My brain leapt from thought to thought; “I could have died!”, “damn dashboard lights”, “I could have died!”. More breathing and one final thought, “Boy, leaning over a hot engine in traffic was really stupid!”.

Thus, the first “Be” of avoiding stupid came into being, “be mindful”. I analyzed the situation; “I should have waited for a minute to see what was going on before I jumped out of the car without knowing what was wrong”. “I should have been checking fluids instead of just driving the wheels off this car”.

As I went thru all the things I should have done, the second “Be” of avoiding stupid came into focus, “be skeptical”. Thinking about the noises, rough running, and the flickering lights, I should have stopped myself and said this is all wrong. Cars don’t just make these noises and run normally. Stop and question what’s going on. Just because everything was fine yesterday, or even a few minutes ago, doesn’t mean everything is status quo. Question everything, no matter how “normal” it seems.

Luckily, a service station was just a few yards down the street. Also luckily, they had a hose and a loaner bucket to repair the damage and refill my fluids. I grabbed some tools out of the trunk and from the front of the car, performed minor surgery and breathed life into the mostly-dead Camaro. A quick phone call to my client explaining my lateness, and I was on my way.

This experience started a thirty year exploration of stupid. I didn’t think of it as such until recently. Nearly forty years in the computer and IT arena exposes a person to more than a little stupid. This is true of life as a whole, but technology seems a bit different. Decisions are made without a firm grasp of reality frequently. My take on the concept of stupid and how it works came into focus via a great comedy routine by Ron White, “You can’t fix stupid”. That simple phrase has truly deep meaning. As I thought about it, I agreed with Mr White, but while it can’t be fixed, it can certainly be avoided. That is the driver behind the “Be”s of avoiding stupid. The first two were pretty simple, be in the moment and question everything. I found that a third “Be” was needed; “be disciplined”. A method of applying the first two “Be”s consistently is imperative. Making yourself and those around you stop, think about what is happening, and then question the decision processes and actions. These three, used together are a great start on avoiding stupid.

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