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December 8, 2005

When does patience become stupidity?


From time to time this question arises in my own mind about myself.

Let me explain.

For as long as I can remember I've been the sort of person who will remain on hold indefinitely, until either I'm disconnected (whether intentionally or not is always impossible to determine in the end, isn't it?) or the person I'm waiting for finally comes on the line — or doesn't.

It doesn't matter whether it's an office or company where a person has answered, then put me on hold, or an automated call answering/voice mail recording that asks me to push this then that until I'm finally at the final branch of the tree, listening to the company's advertising over and over, insipid music, talk radio, or — on rare occasion — classical music.

I just stay on the line, doing this and that.

I have remained on hold for over an hour on more than one occasion.

In 1998 a cartoon (top) by Leo Cullum appeared in the New Yorker — it so perfectly summarized my approach to being on hold that after I stopped laughing, I cut it out and have had it on my refrigerator under a magnet ever since.

It's now yellowing and torn but the message is still right on the money.


I sometimes describe myself to people as being "pathologically patient."

My on–hold behavior is an example of this.

Anyway, what got me thinking about this subject was the final paragraph of a front–page Wall Street Journal article of this past Monday, about the "notoriously difficult" California bar exam.

It turns out that the most recent victim of the high bar to passing was none other than Kathleen Sullivan, until recently dean of the Stanford Law School.

Ms. Sullivan is the author of a leading constitutional law casebook and has argued several cases before the Supreme Court, noted James Bandler and Nathan Koppel, the authors of the story.

She had resigned as Stanford's dean to join a private law firm and was required to pass the test in order to practice as an attorney in California.

The results of the July examination, released last month, were not good for Ms. Sullivan nor the majority of those who took the exam (8,343 aspiring attorneys).

But the thing that most interested me wasn't Ms. Sullivan's travails but, rather, the long and rocky path to California bar certification of attorney Maxcy Dean Filer, of Compton, California.

Mr. Filer graduated from law school in 1966 at the age of 35.

In May of 1991, by then 60, he passed the California bar exam — after 47 unsuccessful attempts.

Think about that for moment — I'm sure Mr. Filer did.

I did as well.

Because I guarantee you that after the first five or so attempts, for sure by the time the tally was 10, everyone but Maxcy Dean Filer figured it was hopeless.

And I will hazard a guess that by the time he was into the teens and twenties, people thought he was simply stupid for persisting.

Into the thirties and forties?

There can be no exaggerating the ridiculousness with which his quixotic efforts were regarded by one and all.

And yet — he passed.

What do you suppose it felt like to open the envelope welcoming him to the bar?

Mr. Filer told the Wall Street Journal reporters that "... he always tried to psych himself up before taking the test by repeating, 'I didn't fail the bar, the bar failed me.'"

Now, I am not even going to begin to try to compare my own habits in phone limbo to the patience, persistence, and sheer determination of Mr. Filer to attain his objective.

But I will tell you that more than one person, informed of how long I will remain on hold, has called me stupid.

And that's why I asked the question headlining this post.

December 8, 2005 at 05:01 PM | Permalink


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Who needs control?

Let's all go read 'Overdosing on Choices' from December 7th again and breathe a big sigh of relief that some things are out of our control.

Isn't it the need for control that causes stress and the problems that come with it?

Posted by: Gingersnaps | Dec 9, 2005 4:22:49 PM

I know it's bad form to comment on comments, but when did that ever stop me.

Todd's point about control is a good one and probably right. And isn't the need for control all about anxiety, and isn't anxiety all about fear, at the bottom of it? I used to really think money was "the root of all evil." Nah. Fear is the root of all evil. If there is such a thing.

In my experience, riannan, you are absolutely correct. Earmite medicine takes way more than two hands, maybe six or eight. And lots of Band-Aids and sometimes even a trip to the emergency room. And I must confess I've never done it, alone or assisted, while waiting on hold.

Posted by: Flutist | Dec 9, 2005 2:05:02 PM

Sometimes you just have to wait, because there is no choice. No stupidity there. I agree with Flutist, though my time is not put to good use. It's Free Cell or Diamond Mine, and then I miss one of those select-a-number things and have to start again.
By the way, I think earmite medicine takes two hands. Maybe more. In my hands it would. Potentially great visual, though.

Posted by: riannan | Dec 9, 2005 5:56:51 AM

I think it all boils down to control, whether it be too little patience or too much. Trying to make an elevator arrive before its time by pushing buttons constantly or waiting for over an hour on the phone for someone to answer, is merely trying to control the outcome. Either way, there is an element of control that is needing to be satisfied.

Posted by: Todd | Dec 9, 2005 12:42:49 AM

I suppose it depends, at least in part, on what you're waiting on hold for. If I came across someone who was selling a certain golden era Haynes flute in excellent condition for a thousand dollars less than I had ever found anywhere else, and while negotiating details of a sale, I got put on hold for whatever reason, I'd wait. And wait and wait. If I was talking to the IRS I'd probably wait on hold two hours or show up or do whatever they ordered me to do. If I wanted Chinese on a busy night and was told to hold right in the middle of my order, I'd jump in my car and go order it in person.

Maybe you put your holding time to good use. Maybe you wash dishes or sculpt or compose thoughtful notes to the people who count or pay bills or put earmite medicine in your cat's ears or notice something about something (or someone) that you've never ever noticed before. Maybe you made a decision that will totally change your life.

Who can say what's stupid. Maybe it takes one to know one.

Posted by: Flutist | Dec 8, 2005 11:47:22 PM

Re: Patience (and near misses...) Carry on young man. It's all good.

Posted by: Orithyia | Dec 8, 2005 8:25:50 PM

I could ask you the same question. You put your 4:01 posting at 5:01 and I kept pressing the damn refresh button and it kept not showing up - and it drove me crazy (OK, crazier).

I am your total opposite in this regard. I have no patience.

So when is impatience really stupidity? And pressing a button and thinking you are going to change something? (Yes, I'm one of those morons who waits for the elevator and keeps pressing the button. And I know everyone thinks I'm a moron for doing it and I press it anyway. That's the power of the button pressing for me.) ;)

Posted by: Shawn Lea | Dec 8, 2005 6:13:03 PM

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