ValueSpeak - A Weekly Column by Joseph Walker
HOTLINES, M&Ms AND INSTANT GRATIFICATION
In my real world job (as opposed to the world of newsprint and electronic signals in which we meet each week to share thoughts, experiences and ideas), I close roads.
Well, OK, technically I don’t actually close the roads. I just tell people that the engineers and construction workers with whom I’m employed are going to close the roads. Of course, we also build new roads and repair old roads. But nothing captures the imagination of the traveling public quite like telling them that we’re going to close a road that they frequently use.
Oh yes. Their responses to that news can be VERY imaginative. Trust me on this. I’m the one they call on the construction hotline to be . . . you know . . . imaginative with.
Like yesterday. A major reconstruction project on a state road required that we close two of the three access roads to a big subdivision. It wasn’t something we wanted to do – we recognized that it would make things awkward for folks in that area for a few months. But because of the nature of the work we needed to do – I won’t go into it here because, frankly, I don’t understand it myself – we didn’t really have a choice.
But the lady who called me at 6:30 in the morning didn’t see it that way.
“Of course you have a choice,” she said. “There’s always a choice. But you just take the easiest way, and you don’t care how much you inconvenience the people who pay your salaries.”
I tried to explain how these closures would enable us to get more work done faster than we could do it otherwise, which would allow us to make the bigger, wider, more efficient highway available to her and to other motorists that much sooner – perhaps as soon as April.
“I don’t care about April!” she said. “I care about right now! And right now you are making my life miserable!”
I’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t take comments like that personally. She wasn’t really saying that I am, individually and specifically, making her life miserable – only my wife Anita knows me well enough to be able to make that claim. But as I hung up the phone, her words resonated in my ears: “I don’t care about April! I care about right now!”
In my mind I went back in time about 10 years to a group of Sunday School children I was teaching. The lesson was the Old Testament story of Jacob, and how he worked for seven years to be married to Rachel, only to be tricked by her father into marrying his elder daughter Leah. So Jacob worked another seven years to be married to Rachel, too.
Let’s set the “Big Love”-ish implications of the story aside – the point I was trying to make to the children was how important it was to be willing to sacrifice today for what we really want in the future. So by way of illustration, I offered them a choice: a handful of M&Ms today, or a big family-sized bag of M&Ms next Sunday?
“Can we have both?” then-9-year-old Brady asked.
“Nope,” I said. “You have to make a choice. A little now, or a LOT later.”
They weighed the decision carefully. Every one of them wanted that big bag of M&Ms, but they also wanted the M&Ms that were right there in front of them, beckoning them with their candy-coated chocolatey goodness. Eventually they all chose to have a handful of M&Ms that Sunday – and I saved a ton of money.
Of course, I didn’t really expect that I would have to buy many of those big bags of M&Ms because . . . well, that’s sort of the way it is with 9-year-olds. They’re all about immediate gratification. But as we get older we learn the wisdom of delayed gratification, and the value of sacrificing what we want right now for what will give us the most benefit, pleasure or fulfillment later. At least, I THOUGHT we learned that as we get older.
Then I answered the hotline.
— © Joseph Walker
[A NOTE from the Editor: My niece and I both would have had all the classmates sign an agreement… Half of them take the M&Ms now and split it, and half of them take the big bag later and split it so everyone would benefit! There’s always another option. LOL!]
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