Not A Fan Of The Phone

I’m not a fan of the phone, specifically the non-smart part of it that we use to talk to one another. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of phones, I’ve just grown not to enjoy them much anymore. I got tired. And annoyed.

I’ve been self-therapying a lot about why I’ve lost my love of the phone and concluded that it goes back to my childhood. Just kidding, and it’s not my Mom’s fault either. Or that I was raised Catholic.

No, the truth is that it’s work’s fault (OK, the real truth is that it’s my fault – but work’s getting the blame for now). I trace it back to the decade between 1993-2003 which, coincidently, aligns with the first ten years of the company I helped start and run. I refer to this as my “Make it About Me” decade. At the start, I had a landline phone in my apartment (sorry, office) to which I was well adapted. I understood it. If it rang when I was in its presence, I would answer and if it rang when I wasn’t, I wouldn’t, but you could leave a message that I’d listen to later.

I should have seen it coming. Car phones had been a thing for a few years. They were appropriately named because they stayed in the car, hard-wired like its radio. From there, all hell broke loose. By the time the decade was over, we’d morphed through bag phones (essentially a flexible car phone housed in a black, woven nylon bag and powered by a vehicle’s cigarette lighter) to hand-helds with a two way radio feature called Nextels and, finally, the more modern smartphone, which wasn’t anywhere near as smart as it is today, but plenty smarter than the car, bag or Nextel.

With each phone evolution, I was more reachable, which I welcomed (even encouraged) at the time. As I was (depending on the day, or the hour of the day) the owner, the office manager, the dispatcher, the salesperson, the truck driver, the billing clerk, the customer service rep and the errand boy for parts, and lunch (because I was useless fixing anything), for the first 5 years, having the flexibility of the bag phone, and its successors, was a godsend for my productivity, although I realize it sounds laughably restrictive by today’s standards.

Having that bag phone, and an answering service to forward calls to me and page me with “emergencies” (by the way, a pager is an ancient device used today only by Doctors who are on call – why is a mystery to me, and to them I think as well) provided us with a competitive advantage at a time when other companies were still using an answering machine (think Jim Rockford from the Rockford Files TV Show – “at the tone leave your name and message…I’ll get back to you.”) and having their drivers stop at pay phones twice a day to “check in” – a thing most driver’s dislike and would avoid, if possible.

They say that you can boil a frog by putting it in a pot of water and turning up the heat slowly, over a long period of time. And that was my problem. I didn’t feel the pain until it was too late. It didn’t occur to me that so much phoning was leading me to my own boil point.

You’d think I’d have seen the signs, like when I’d be driving a tractor-trailer and shifting gears while making a turn in Chicago traffic with a phone receiver crunched between my shoulder and left ear, pen in my right hand and a pad of paper balanced on the right knee, but to me that was just effective multi-tasking. Or at night, after I’d made a schedule and called all the guys at home to give them their schedule, and interrupt their dinner with their wives and family. Or in early hours of the morning, when a customer who’s shift started at 2AM and felt perfectly entitled to page me then to order or cancel additional trucks. Or that I wore the pager in the waistband of my underwear for 10 years (I know, sexy) because if it wasn’t on vibrate it would wake my wife and if it wasn’t clipped to me, I might not notice the vibration.

Even though I loved the real work, and the company was growing and having some success, the phone was making me hate what I was doing. Over time, even as we added competent and professional people, I encouraged them, and customers, to call me with anything they needed, which turned out to be lots of things because I hadn’t put in any systems, nor given them any training – or authority – to do things they clearly could have done without me.

I was boiling my own pot of misery by making me the center of everything. If you need something, call me. If you want something, call me. If you think I might want something, call me. Etc. They were just doing what I asked.

It’s embarrassing to admit that it took me so long to figure out what had to be obvious to others. That I was asking everyone to do exactly what was making me more and more miserable.   If I’d recognized it earlier, I might not hate the phone the way I do today.

There’s another thing at work here that I consider one of my most significant accomplishments (if there is more than one). It started with Robin and then spread quickly, and willingly – generally, throughout the rest of my team. You may have heard of it. It’s called delegation (more details in a future post). I used to hate the phone because I used it so often it wore me down. Fortunately, I was saved from that by the team. They just did what I asked.

Now, I have the opposite problem. I’m so used to the peacefulness, and the freedom, that comes with not being needed. Most days, the phone part of my phone is so inactive it’s easy to forget that I even have one. I’m definitely well into my “Make it About Others” decade, and I like it a lot.

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