Lighting the light bulb

You are commissioned to change the light bulb in a lighthouse by the caretaker who is a little old man. This is an important job. You know it critical for it to be done but you have never done before. You have been given the light bulb and the wrench to loosen and tighten the bulb. You have two paths to choose from, a freestanding ladder in the middle of the lighthouse that runs straight to the lamp or the built staircase that hugs the perimeter of the lighthouse.

Here you are faced with a seemingly simple task in principle even though you have never done it before at this scale. You have changed light bulbs before in your house so how much more difficult could it be? He has given me the tools to do the job, so why not, it could be fun.

Linear Thinking Scenario –

Without any questioning you accept the challenge. You think, “Well, I want to do this as quickly as possible so I will use the ladder. Shoot up there, change the bulb and then be on my way.”

You pick up the bulb. You think, “I didn’t realize the bulb was going to be so heavy I am not going to be able to hold it and climb the ladder at the same time. That’s OK, will put it in my knapsack. The wrench is pretty heavy too and awkward. I just shove it down deep in the knapsack and tie it with drawstring.” You are off, climbing the ladder to the top.

About ten feet off the ground, the wrench shift in the knapsack and you think this isn’t good. I better move quicker so I can get to the top before it slips out. The wrench shifts again, and you continue to ramp up your speed. Then it happens, your foot slips which causes the wrench to pop out to the bag. It swings wildly as you try to get your footing back. The wrench proceeds to hit the bag and smashes the light bulb.

“Now, what am I going to do?”

Just then you hear a voice from below, “The supply closet should have an extra light bulb.”

As you climb down the ladder you come face to face with the old caretaker. He is standing there smiling from ear to ear. What is he smiling about? I just broke his bulb. He doesn’t say anything, he just points to the door halfway up the staircase. You run up the staircase because now you are thinking you are wasting time.

The door is unlocked. You go right in, find the light bulb and head back down the staircase to pick your knapsack. Back up the ladder you go thinking that you have really wasted some time now. Finally, you are at the top of the ladder. You pull the light bulb out of the knapsack and discover that wrench is at the bottom of the ladder in the hands of the old man.

Damn! Why doesn’t that old man just carry it himself if he wanted to be helpful? He is standing there with that stupid smile on his face. But you don’t bother to yell down to him because you know he is hard of hearing. So you climb down the ladder to get the wrench.

Now you are really feeling the stress because you have wasted way too much time. You grab the wrench and head back up. As you are climbing up you thinking, “This was supposed to be a simple task, if that stupid old man has been doing it all this time it can’t be that difficult.” Finally you get to the top and you are prepared to do the task at hand. And yes, the task was as simple as you thought it would be which makes you more mad. You are kicking yourself that you have wasted so much time.

You descend the ladder for the last time. At least the job is done. The lighthouse keeper offers you a glass of ice tea which you take it because you have worked up a sweat. The keeper and you stand in silence looking up at the light bulb burning bright.

The keeper smiles and says, “Thanks for helping me out. I am not as young as I use to be. Even the simplest tasks are getting hard to do.”

You say under your breath, “Tell me about it.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing….Let me ask you a question. You are a small man who has been here a long time doing this task, how did you managed to carry the light bulb and the wrench up there all those years?”

With that the lighthouse caretaker shows you that ear-to-ear smile again and says two simple things,

“One, I used the wrench that I kept up there and

two, I never took the ladder I walked up the staircase.”

Moral of the story

  1. Ask questions before you start. Learn from the ones who have come before you.
  2. Understand the dynamics of the situation, and then calculate your risks and benefits of your plan.
  3. Completing simple tasks with forethought and finesse can change your life.

Photo by Federico Stevanin @