Never Stop Learning

Years ago, as I approached my college graduation, I made a promise to myself (hell, I may have shouted it from the rooftops). I was going to read whatever I wanted to read all summer long. That was my graduation gift to myself. And I did that. For so many years in college as an English major, I had to read 8-10 books a semester in whatever area I was studying. Modern American, Middle English, Eastern European, whatever. They were mostly interesting, but they weren’t always the books that I would have chosen. I had my own list, you see. It was big.

I came across that list the other day. I was surprised at how many of those books I’ve read over the years, but also surprised at how many remain. But that brings me to my point. Never stop learning. Even (or especially) as we age, continuing to learn works our “brain muscle” just like going to the gym works our other muscles. An active mind and body makes for a more balanced, whole person.

There’s another aspect of learning that’s important to consider. It’s humbling to accept that you don’t know everything. In an age of instant access to facts and answers via the Internet, far too few people take advantage of it. Or worse, they get all their information from one source. Hearing differing views and opinions often isn’t easy, but it’s part of the learning process. Sometimes it can infuriate me to hear someone spouting off ignorant, clearly unresearched ideas or opinions. I want to shout at them to go learn about their topic of discussion and then come back to discuss it further. But you cannot force someone to embrace learning.

I’m reminded of a story about a Buddhist scholar and a Zen master that goes something like this:

The scholar had an extensive background in Buddhist Studies and was an expert on the Nirvana Sutra. He came to study with the master and after making the customary bows, asked her to teach him Zen. Then, he began to talk about his extensive doctrinal background and rambled on and on about the many sutras he had studied.

The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, she poured the tea into the scholar’s cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, “Stop, stop! The cup is full; you can’t get anymore in.”

The master stopped pouring and said: “You are like this cup; you are full of ideas about Buddha’s Way. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.” — from Nebraska Zen Center

We all need to remember to empty our cup so that we can keep pouring knowledge into ourselves. That may mean reading those books that you’ve had on your list, visiting a museum to learn about different art forms or other cultures, exploring new languages, or traveling to unfamiliar places. There are also some excellent free college course sites on available for the taking. A couple terrific ones include Future Learn and Coursera. However you tackle it, finding ways to learn and grow can bring about a better you and keep your mental tools sharpened.

Trouble with Tradespeople

Over years of owning a home, you get used to cultivating a list of reliable tradespeople to take care of those odds and ends tasks that you either are not qualified for or don’t have the time or desire to do. Frankly, I know that I’ve been very fortunate with a majority of the tradespeople I’ve hired.

The first ever task that I hire out is plumbing. Short of plunging a toilet (assuming the husband isn’t around to do it) or changing out a shower head, I refuse to attempt it. Plumbing holds too many crazy screw-up possibilities for me. Namely leaks. Fortunately, I have a terrific plumber who happens to be a neighbor. He’s owned his own expanding business for several years, but he always takes care of his neighbors and earliest clients himself. I like that.

After last week, I can no longer rely on my electrician. Over the years, I’ve changed out many, many light fixtures, ceiling fans, and the like on my own. I have no problem with that level of electrical work. However, anything requiring a breaker shut-off and testing to ensure no power is going to the area? That I hire out without question. In part, because we have the screwiest wiring system of any house I’ve ever seen. A breaker labeled “kitchen” may turn off half of the living room (two rooms away), all of one bedroom upstairs, but only a quarter of the kitchen area.

Unfortunately, but hardly surprising in our 32-year-old house, a bathroom exhaust fan finally died recently. A second exhaust fan was sputtering whenever it turned on. The third bathroom fan was running well. Still, I figured the prudent thing to do was replace them all at the same time. I bought the replacement fans thinking I’d get to it soon. I did a quick check of the fan install requirements. Not simple, but not overwhelming either. However, as is typical for most people, life got in the way. Realizing I had little spare time to deal with it myself, I went ahead and called the local electrician I’d relied on for years to schedule the work.

We’ll call the business owner Bill. That’s not his real name. Bill (or an employee) has done myriad tasks for me over the years. Adding a 220 outlet in the garage, replacing sockets as they wore out, installing an entire garage door opening system. The work had always been scheduled and completed in a timely manner, usually in a week or so. I would call Bill’s cell phone. He would call me back later that day or the next morning to schedule.

This time, however, we played several sessions of phone tag, each taking a couple days. I would call and leave a message in the morning. Bill wouldn’t call back that day or the next, unless it was late. When I missed the call and called back the next morning, the process started over. After almost a week of this, I called him a second time one day and he actually picked up the phone. He said he was “calling people back today” as if this was a once a week occurrence rather than a daily one. He said that I was on his list of people to call back.

He couldn’t get me scheduled until two and a half weeks out. He said he was really busy. I get that. It’s Austin. Lots of construction and tons of people moving in, buying, and renovating homes means a lot of work for all the tradespeople. But when the week arrived to install the fans, Bill texted me late the night before to say that they were “running behind” and could they do the work in the afternoon rather than the morning. I said that wasn’t convenient because I had to take my dad to the doctor. So we settled on the first appointment of the day, 10 am, the day after the original appointment.

As I mentioned, over the years, Bill has had various electricians working for him/with him and all have been competent, on time, and done excellent work. All of these traits are what kept me as a returning customer. Then last week happened. Oh, last week.

The day started out on a positive note. The electrician called (a guy Bill hired about a month earlier) at 9:40 am to tell me that he was on his way but probably wouldn’t make it “right at 10” as scheduled. This isn’t a surprise and happens all the time. I wasn’t worried. He mentioned that he was coming from the south end of town. We live on the north end. I said it was fine. He double-checked which main road to exit from the freeway. I told him to call en route if he needed further directions as he got closer. It didn’t sound as though he had GPS or a good map, which I thought was odd. Directions to our house are simple, clear, and available on any of the mapping sites.

An hour went by with no word and still no electrician. I tried to call him back but the call went straight to voice mail which the system said had not been set up, so I couldn’t leave a message. I called Bill after an hour and a half who, of course, didn’t answer the phone either. I left him a message explaining how late the electrician was, asking what was going on, and requesting that he call me back. Even in traffic (and it was long past rush hour by then), the electrician should have arrived long before. After another 30 minutes, he called again. He claimed to still be on the road. I tried to get him to pin-point his location. He wouldn’t say. Just that he was on the freeway.

Bottom line. The electrician finally showed up THREE HOURS LATE and with no real excuse as to why it took him so long. He did the three-hour estimated job in two, but my day was already shot from waiting. To this day, almost a week later, Bill has not called me back about my complaint. That lack of response just adds insult to injury. It says that he doesn’t care that his employee screwed up. It’s the absolutely worst message you can send to a customer.

I had mentioned to a friend when I was getting the work scheduled. She asked if I liked my electrician. At the time, I said they had always done good work and been on time, etc. I had to contact her again after this incident and tell her not use them.

Any business owner worth their salt will bend over backwards to try remedying a bad situation even if there is little they can do. Giving it your best shot; being contrite; hell, any show of remorse for the situation your customer has suffered through is how you keep customers. Don’t do anything. Ignore your customers’ complaints. You will lose customers. Period. I’m sure Bill is busy now. Clearly. But when the business goes away (whether due to a construction downturn or abysmal customer service) I hope he reflects on what he’s done to lose those customers.