First, the TV went on the fritz. There were vertical lines on the screen that didn’t go away, initially only at the left edge of the screen but later near the center as well. Then the TV began clicking off on its own. Just as a program was reaching its climax, the damn TV would go dead—black and silent—except for a blinking red light indicating that it was waiting for something. I’d try every button on the remote and sometimes the TV would come back to life, other times the red light simply kept blinking, but most of the time the TV would turn itself on and off repeatedly as if it was possessed by the devil.
Somehow my inability to get the TV to work properly felt weirdly emasculating. I grew up in an era of stereotypes. Women cooked and cleaned. Men fixed appliances. Don’t hate me. I’m just old. Anyway, when an electric fan in the bedroom began acting up, I thought to myself, “Here’s something I can repair. After all, what’s an electric fan? Just an electric motor with fan blades, right?”
The fan was refusing to spin on demand. At first, hitting it with whatever came in handy got it to move reluctantly like an ancient carabao, but eventually it began to squeak something terrible. Obviously, all it needed was a little machine oil. I masterfully removed the grill and blades—I was the one who assembled this thing in the first place, you know—but I didn’t see anything to lubricate. The motor was enclosed in a plastic cowl held in place by Phillips screws. My father taught me about Phillips screws, so I figured I could handle them. It took some doing but I got the entire plastic cover off, revealing the metal case of the motor itself, fastened together only by more Phillips screws. I eagerly cracked open the case to expose the shiny copper wires, and several plastic thingamajigs fell out.
The electric fan in the bedroom works like new now. In fact, it is new.
There are important lessons in labor economics here. Apart from seeking validation as a super macho, real man, I had chosen to spend my time unproductively attempting to fix an electric fan because as a retired person earning no wages, my time appeared to have no value anyway. In the end, however, I not only used up a lot of leisure time but had to spend good money to buy a new fan because of the Humpty Dumpty effect. (Ok, I’ll say it. I couldn’t put the old fan back together again.) I would have been better off paying the neighborhood handyman the daily minimum wage plus a tip to fix the old fan while I watched television, even on a demonic TV set.
More significantly, I think, there is a lesson in humility in this story. We tend to think that a little knowledge is equivalent to expertise. Knowing the concept of an electric motor and what Phillips screws look like, however, did not make me an engineer or even a mechanic. Knowing that metformin is prescribed for diabetes does not make you an endocrinologist or any kind of doctor. Yet it happens all the time. Quack doctors abound. People read one Supreme Court decision and they start spewing out legal opinions of their own. This guy watches a few NBA games on TV and he thinks he can coach. They’re wrong.
Worse, we sometimes let our achievements in one field lead us to believe we can easily do well in a completely different one. I almost won awards as a television executive; therefore, I can surely fix a TV set, right? Wrong, obviously. But again, we see it all the time: The basketball legend who thought he could also play professional baseball. The marketing man who thinks he can fix the sales department. The guy who made it big in hotels who believes he can turn around a media company. The corporate warrior who now wants to run his own business. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I’m not saying it’s absolutely impossible to reinvent yourself. That happens a lot, too. Singers can become actors. Acerbic lawyers can transform into human resources managers. Bankers can run movie companies. You can always learn new things and school yourself in new businesses. You just have to make sure the tuition fee isn’t too high. How much are you willing to lose due to your bad decisions during the time that you don’t know any better?
As I see it, though, the moral of the story is this: We should stick to what we know and do what we do best. We need to reconcile ourselves with the idea that Renaissance men went out with the Renaissance. For me in particular, I should focus on filing petitions to correct entries in the civil registry instead of trying to fix motors. Old dogs, new tricks and all that.
Epilogue: I brought the old electric fan to a storage room that I rarely go into and found a collection of old stand fans in various stages of disassembly with their heads seemingly hanging in shame for having failed to serve. It made me think of a junkyard of robots, something out of the movies—I, Robot or Real Steel . . .
Maybe I can shift to being an entrepreneur and open up a junkyard or maybe I can develop an app for trading household appliances or maybe I can direct a sci-fi movie . . .