One of the best jobs I ever had was as a manufacturer’s rep for the telecom industry. Specifically my company concentrated the outside plant products and services. Whenever anyone asked me what I did for a living I answered with a pat elevator speech. I would tell them I sell all the stuff phone company guys carry on the inside of their trucks. It was a great job that offered the best balance between freedom and financial security that I ever experienced. The only real negative was how much travel was involved but for a single guy in his late 20’s that didn’t matter much at all. That’s where I learned about the breakdown test set, more colloquially known as a ‘breakdown box’.
The breakdown box was a really neat tool that was ultimately banned from use for causing too many problems from its misuse/overuse. It was dangerous but sometimes it was the only thing that would work because telephone problems can be really tricky to spot. Telephone are very unique in that they use cables that are very small and very brittle. They often develop minute flaws called faults. Even the smallest of these faults can cause all sorts of problems that ultimately result in anything from an annoying buzz on the voice line to no voice or internet service at all. These flaws occasionally can only be detected when there is some obscure combination of environmental effects present. For example if there is a micro fault on the cable it may only cause problems when the humidity reaches a certain level which changes the electrical impedance of the cable at the point of the fault. A classic scenario would be where the end user would experience a buzz on the line and call the phone company complaining. By the time the truck rolled and the technician was on site the humidity level would change ever so slightly that the buzz would disappear and the phone tech wouldn’t be able to find any problems with the standard fault detecting equipment. The homeowner would swear the noise was there. If this was the third or fourth time the tech came out and couldn’t find the problem the result would be a customer who was very embarrassed or very mad. The savvy technician of old would at this point know there is a hard to spot problem and the breakdown box would be employed. The tech would hook up the box and it would put several times more voltage on the line that it was designed to carry and the weaker points would ‘break down’ meaning the faults would become big enough for the tech to find with their regular equipment. One small problem with this approach is that if the correct safety measures weren’t used all that extra voltage would result in large sparks or fires emanating from phone jacks in people’s homes sometimes catching things like tables and curtains on fire. Ok, maybe this wasn’t a small problem per say. This is why the use of the breakdown boxes were ultimately banned.
When I write about the collision points about work and life mostly those collision points are focused on the business world. Sometimes, the focus should be more on the life part. The equivalent of the breakdown box happens in both worlds, but I think it happens more in life that spills back over into our professional worlds. So what are the elements? There are three of them:
1) The Problem is not consistent.
Ever know someone with a substances abuse problem who falls off the waggon but with an unknown regularity. You know that for the most part they handle the pressures of life just like everyone but then every now and again, they just lose it. Maybe they go on a weeks long bender that results in relationship problems and/or job loss.
I’ve seen it happen where it’s emotional. The breakdown becomes a breakup. The couple seems stable from the outside and then there are problems and fights. Nobody can pinpoint exactly why the fights exist. Maybe it’s a switch that hits and someone comes home to an empty house. The Problem originates from a hidden flaw. A gambling problem or maybe something much more complex and buried even deeper. It could be a parental rejection issue. I’m not a psychologist but I do know that problems from the earliest parts of our life can come back decades later. This is the life equivalent of humidity reaching the point of causing issues for the service subscriber’s location.
2) The Problem get’s exposed by some sort of event.
This is where things can get interesting, it’s the life equivalent of hooking up the box and hitting the on switch. Generally the events in question come from something unexpected. Someone important you have been estranged from reaches out to you and it brings up the challenges that existed all those years ago. Maybe it’s a child you had, maybe it’s an ex, maybe it’s a sibling. Looking at the professional world it’s when you are laid off or a new management team comes in with severely different outlook that forces a transition.
At other times it’s something that’s expected, graduation, marriage, home ownership, having a child, getting that dream job and finding out it’s not anything that was expected or what you thought you would enjoy.
Just like the breakdown box of old the exposure may lead to much bigger problems. I know someone who was responsible for managing large sums of money that were not their own. They wound up admitting that they used over $300,000 of the clients money for their own personal needs. Nobody realized what was going on because the problems that drove the embezzlement were so deeply hidden. When it came out it was a big deal with very serious ramifications.
3) The breakdown forces you to address the problem.
Just like the break down box used by phone company techs, at it’s core the unexpected jolt would take a small and semi-hidden problem and blow it up so that it was a big problem that could finally be addressed. It could be the spouse who went from emotionally distant to having an affair and pregnancy with the other person, hard to avoid that one. It could be when the boss calls you into the office and says what did you do with all that money, we have to call the police.
It doesn’t matter what form the breakdown takes, it forces a rework of the system. The questions get asked: Should I really be with them? Do I want to do this for the rest of my life? Why does that memory still hurt after all these years? Why exactly did they fire me when I was so good at my job? The most important question that is always asked in a true breakdown scenario is always “What should I do about it?”
Own the Breakdown!
There were a couple of times when I was the top sales guy in an area and I was let go. Actually I was let go from several sales jobs but I could understand the dismissal when I wasn’t a good performer for the company or if the company had a culture of burn and churn. I had a big problem with the ones where I was the best on the team. Maybe it was my personality or maybe it was my income level for a company in need. Maybe it was just a hidden burn and churn mentality that I didn’t really see. In one instance during an economic downtime it lead to an extended layoff that eventually forced me to reevaluate the nature of my career and go in a completely different direction. It was also the genesis (in-part) of my writing. There was another time related to my health. I was nearly 300lbs and slothful, I had a few health related events that caused me to change my world so dramatically that I was recently referred to as a Health Nut by someone who got to know me after the slothful majority of my life. I took that as a huge compliment!
The bottom line in both cases was that I decided to make a change and it wasn’t a little change. They were big ones, I went from a private sector sales guy who was always reaching for the brass ring of income to a public sector guy trying to help the most challenged members of our workforce. I went from someone who was on the fast track to death from ignoring my health to someone who is considered overly concerned with health.
No matter what the challenge is when the breakdown happens it’s best to embrace it. To make the tough decisions. Sometimes the tough decision is to stick around and to accept that you can’t change anything. Sometimes the decision is to go into another completely different direction. I’ve shared my stories, but if you are reading or hearing this then you probably are thinking of some times you may have had your own break down events or maybe you are feeling some anxiety of the breakdown you know is going to come.
All I can say is that breakdown box is a good thing when we have to use it. We can finally fix the problem which will help us get to where we want to go with much less unpredictable interference. Like a repaired phone line, the end goal of a life with less challenges is something that rings loud and clearly to me!