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the NAPKIN, the MELON & the MONKEYHow to Be Happy and Successful by Simply Changing Your Mind
By Barbara Burke
HAY HOUSE, INC.Copyright © 2010 Barbara Burke
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Eleventh Problem
I wish I had discovered the secret sooner. My worries evaporated. My daily tension headaches vanished. I began to smile more. I complained less. The little things that used to irritate me just didn't matter anymore. For the first time in my life, I could honestly say I was happy. Happy on the inside.
My relationships changed for the better, too. Jake, my husband of ten years, loved my new, easygoing attitude. Instead of spending his Saturdays working on projects in his workshop, he started spending them with me. Our second graders, Nate and Natalie, stopped their constant squabbling. They were happier, too.
That's on the personal side. My work life is what has undergone the biggest transformation. It's hard to believe that not long ago I was either going to be fired or would have to quit.
What happened? How did I transform myself from being stressed-out and messed-up to being so confident and calm? I learned how to do one thing: unplug.
It all started two years ago. I had just gotten a new job as a customer service representative for Mighty Power, our local utility company. At first, I wasreally jazzed about the job. The starting salary was several dollars an hour more than I was making as a waitress. The company was solid. It had been around as long as I could remember. And the best part-it offered great benefits. That was important because Jake didn't get health insurance where he worked. I figured that if I did a reasonably good job, we'd be set.
Since I'm a real people person, I figured that a job that involved talking to people on the phone all day would be a breeze. Boy, was I wrong.
One Monday, after working at Mighty Power for about two months, I finally cracked. What a day! The morning started out with Jake and me arguing about money-an almost daily occurrence. Then I managed to spill hot coffee down the front of my shirt. The twins missed their bus because Natalie couldn't find her backpack. And my ancient Honda was allergic to cold mornings, so it took several tries before it finally started.
By the time I dropped the kids off, I was late for work-again. That made three times in two weeks. I was terrified that my supervisor Lucy would notice and put me on probation.
Usually at that time of day there was a steady buzz of activity in the call center. Not that morning. The place was in an uproar. People were frantic. No wonder! Some genius in the billing department had messed up and sent shut-off letters to several thousand customers. Perfectly good customers who paid their bills on time got a nasty form letter that read: if you don't pay up, your power will be shut off in 24 hours.
As hard as we tried, there was no way we could handle the avalanche of calls. Some customers were on hold for 20 minutes! Call after call I was yelled at, sworn at, and called every name in the book. All for something that was somebody else's fault!
I managed to keep my cool most of that morning. But finally, after a string of really awful calls, I lost it. I started to fight fire with fire. By lunchtime my attitude was so bad that some customers were certain they had just had an encounter with the service rep from hell. I wasn't proud of that.
The stress took its toll. Exhausted, I began to plan my escape. I pictured myself grabbing my purse and dashing out to my car. I fantasized about hurtling down the freeway as fast as that wreck of a car could go. The fantasy did not include a return trip.
I figured I was about to get fired anyway. If Lucy happened to monitor any of my calls, she'd be horrified. I would be shown the door for sure.
I simply could not afford to get fired. Not now. We were still trying to recover from last winter when Jake had been unemployed. Losing my paycheck would really set us back. Plus, I didn't want to leave! As hard as this job was, I actually liked it. On a good day I felt almost competent.
Feeling desperate, I knew I needed help. That's when I thought of Isabel. Sweet Isabel. The senior service rep who'd been my "buddy" in new-hire training.
What a woman. She had the most experience of anybody in the call center. I couldn't put my finger on it, but there was something special about her. She had the unique ability to remain calm-no matter what. All the other reps knew that if they had an impossible customer, they could transfer that person to Isabel and the customer would hang up happy.
Isabel had been a lifesaver during my training. Looking back now, I see how clueless I was. I had barely used a computer before. But Isabel noticed when I was floundering and came to my rescue. Now I needed to be rescued again.
I found my hero in the cafeteria. She was standing by the window with her back to me. I approached quietly. "Hey, Isabel," I said, faking a smile.
She shifted her peaceful gaze to me. "Oh, hello, Olivia. How are you?" she asked softly.
I couldn't hold back any longer. I burst into tears.
Pointing to a table in the corner she asked, "Should we have a seat?"
Before I knew it, I was pouring my heart out. I told her about my horrendous day. That I felt like a failure. That more than anything I wanted to be good at this job. But today made me realize that I just wasn't cut out to be in customer service. I hated myself for getting mad at customers who were getting mad at me. I told her I was convinced that Lucy was about to fire me.
My tears kept coming. I sobbed even louder when I told her that if I didn't have Jake and the twins, I'd get in my car and never come back. "I just don't know what to do!" I blubbered.
Isabel took my hand in hers and gazed into my eyes. I knew she understood. She handed me a napkin. Drying my tears, I sniffed, "You're always so calm. How do you do it?"
"Oh, Olivia," she said softly. "I have been where you are." She went on to explain that she had been in a similar situation years ago when she first started at Mighty Power.
Feeling as though her whole world were caving in, she had gone to her mom for advice. Her mother was a very simple woman with a grade-school education. Born in Mexico, she had come to the U.S. in her teens, married in her early 20s, and raised six children. Despite having more than her share of life's problems, her mother had always seemed to maintain a peaceful sort of calm. Her mother's wisdom was borne from experience.
"I sat down with my mother and related my problems, expecting her to take my side and say everything would be okay. She let me tell my whole sad tale, sitting quietly and saying nothing. I desperately needed some answers. 'What can I do?' I pleaded.
"Here is what my mother said: 'For the ten problems of life that come to us, nothing can be done.'
"This is not what I wanted to hear. I wanted the solution to the problems and relief from the accompanying grief. 'Then is it all hopeless?' I cried. 'Are we doomed to just stumble through life unhappy and confused?'
"My mother calmly replied, 'For the ten problems of life-family troubles, work problems and money worries, finding your way in the world-I have no solution. But you have an eleventh problem. For that one I have help.'
"I asked what the eleventh problem was and how it would help my situation. Here is what my mother told me: 'The eleventh problem is your view that you should not have the ten problems. You can never get away from life's problems. Thinking that you can will always make you want to run from your life.'
"That, Olivia, is what my mother told me. It is probably the same advice my grandmother gave her. It was such a help to me, I am happy to pass her wisdom along to you. What you decide to do with it is really up to you."
Wait a minute, I thought. Knowing I have the eleventh problem doesn't do much good if I can't do something about it.
I demanded more. "Obviously you've figured out how to deal with the eleventh problem, Isabel. What's your secret?"
"It's pretty simple, really. Every day I unplug for a few minutes," she replied.
I resisted laughing. I couldn't believe she was serious! I thought about what "unplugged" meant to me: unplugging a lamp from a wall socket, unplugging a radio, unplugging the headset I wore on the job.
Still confused, I said, "I'm not sure I understand what you mean. Sort of like when I unplug my headset?"
"That's it exactly," Isabel smiled. "When you unplug your headset, you disconnect from all the noise. The voices, the static-everything disappears. All you hear is peaceful silence.
"The same thing happens with our minds. They are filled with constantly whirling thoughts and feelings and endless chatter. I discovered that when I unplugged mentally, it all stopped. All I heard was silence. I felt calm and at peace.
"Here is the best part," she whispered. "I have the power to go to that quiet place any time I want. I can do it anywhere. Sometimes I unplug mentally as I'm waiting in line at the grocery store. When the weather is nice, I go outside and take a few minutes to sit quietly and unplug." She laughed, "I even unplugged the other day as I sat in my car as it was going through the car wash! So, Olivia, you wanted to know my secret. Now you have it."
That sounds simple enough, I thought.
Isabel read my mind. "I have to warn you, though. You will need to practice for a while before you can go to that quiet place whenever you want or need to. I have found that it happens naturally whenever I stop, sit up straight in a relaxed manner, and focus on my breath. The idea is to be present with what is going on at that particular moment. Just relax and observe your thoughts as they float in and float out. You won't be able to stop them, so don't even try. When you find yourself latching on to a thought and thinking about, simply say to yourself, That's a thought, let it go. When you spend even five minutes a day unplugging from your busy mind, you will find that you see what is possible and useful. It will keep you from getting stuck in the ten problems of life."
We walked back to our cubicles. I felt a little better. I always did after spending time with Isabel. The idea about unplugging sounded weird, but if it worked for her, maybe it would help me be less miserable. I was ready to try just about anything. I was a mess.
But where would I go to unplug? I needed somewhere far away from the chaos of the call center. Then I remembered there were some offices on the next floor that were used for temporary storage.
The next morning at break I decided to give unplugging a try. I took the elevator to the floor with the empty offices. I tried door after door until I found one that was unlocked. I opened it. The room was pitch black. I flicked on the light and gently pushed the door closed behind me. A chair in the corner was piled high with boxes of files. I placed them on the floor and got comfortable. Recalling Isabel's instructions, I sat up straight, put my feet flat on the floor, and took a deep breath. I closed my eyes.
February 12, 10:32 A.M.
Breathe in, breathe out ... slowly ... breathe in, breathe out ... breathe in, breathe out ... slower ... much slower ... breathe in ... breathe out ... breathe in ... breathe out ... breathe in ... I hope nobody comes looking for me. They probably won't. The phones are slow right now. I should be back in a few minutes ... Nobody will notice I'm gone ... Lucy is in a meeting ... When I get back I'll have to remember to finish setting up a new account for that woman in Lincoln ... She needs a credit check ... I should go to the bank at lunch. Oh yeah, then there is the Honda ... I hope it decides to start ... It is warmer outside, so it should start ... It must be the starter again ... I thought Jake replaced it ... Maybe he forgot ... No he must have ... Whoops, I was just thinking ... That's a thought, let it go ... Isabel was right-it's hard not to grab onto my thoughts ... They just keep coming ... non-stop ... My mind wants to stop and dwell on them ... Think some more about it ... Hang on to it ... See where it goes ... This is a lot harder than I thought ... Whoops ... I was just thinking about how I was thinking ... That's pretty funny ... Breathe in ... breathe out ... That's right, concentrate on breathing ... Slowly breathe in ... breathe out ... Slowly breathe in ... breathe out ... breathe in ... breathe out ... breathe in ... breathe out (sigh) ... Mmmmm ... This feels good ... I do feel a little more relaxed ... just as she said ... but getting good at this is going to take some practice ... (sigh) Better get back to work. I'll deal with the car later. Who knows? ... It could start with no problem this time ... No use worrying about it ... Better get back to work ...
Chapter TwoThe Gift
Wednesday was "disconnect day," the day our guys in the field went out to disconnect the meters of the customers who hadn't paid their bills for months. Without power, these customers had no lights, no heat or air conditioning, no hot water, no freezer or fridge. Even more problematic for many, it meant no TV.
I dreaded going to work on Wednesdays. By noon I had a pounding headache. After trying the usual headache remedies, I'd resort to the old standby-food. First, I would dip into my emergency stash of jelly beans. If that didn't make me feel better, I'd hit the candy machine. Before I knew it, I'd washed down a bag of M&M's, a bag of chips, and a candy bar with a Coke or two.
Mighty Power didn't like to shut people's power off. We always tried to work out flexible payment arrangements. But despite our efforts, we'd have hundreds of shutoffs every Wednesday.
Many were repeat offenders. To their way of thinking, unlimited electricity was their God-given right. So when faced with being shut off, they would call us to plead their case. Inevitably their excuses were some variation on "my dog ate my homework."
And who would they take their anger out on? My fellow service reps and me. Every call we took on disconnect day was a potential land mine.
"Let them vent. Be empathetic," the trainer said. Be empathetic. Right. How would she like to get verbally abused every Wednesday? See how cheerful she would be.
My attitude didn't go unnoticed by my supervisor. Each service rep received a service quality score based on a random sample of phone calls. While my other scores had been steadily improving, the scores for courtesy and call control were not. I knew that unless my scores went up, there was no way I would get what I so desperately wanted-to get through my probationary period and be a permanent, full-time employee.
My scores were so bad that I was required to meet with Drake, one of the performance coaches. He was a nice enough guy. Trouble was, he'd never been a service rep in a call center. He had no idea how challenging it was to take about a hundred calls a day-day after day.
Drake told me the same thing over and over. "Olivia," he said, "when customers call, they are angry and frustrated with the situation. Most of the time there is a good reason they are upset. Your job is to figure out how to fix the problem. I guarantee your scores for quality will go up immediately once you accept the fact that it's not about you."
The coaching sessions worked for a few days. But despite telling myself, It's not about me; it's not about me, I eventually reverted to flaring up and fighting back.
Then there were the daily unplugging sessions. I was failing at those, too. Instead of finding peace and quiet, I was getting even more stressed out trying to control my mind. If the eleventh problem was thinking that I could live my life without the ten problems, maybe I had a twelfth problem: thinking I could unplug my mind for a few minutes.
Lucy had the patience of a saint. Any other supervisor would have given up on me long ago. Then came the day when I really blew it.
I was in her office reviewing my latest call quality scores. Her phone rang. She picked up. Her face changed from a pleasant smile to a dead-serious frown. The person on the other end was doing all the talking. She listened, took notes, and apologized at the end of the call. "Sir, I am so sorry that this has happened. That is not how we usually handle things here. I'll look into it immediately, sir, and let you know what I find out."
Lucy hung up the receiver and looked at me as if I had committed the crime of the century. Uh-oh, I gulped.
"Do you know who that was?" she glared.
"Ah, no, but whoever it was, was not happy," I replied sheepishly.
"Not happy would be an understatement! That was Mr. Mathwig, our new CEO. He just got a call from Mr. Ficcorello, the retired CEO of Great Stuff Industries and one of our largest commercial customers, who is so angry that he is threatening to call Channel 7 News.
"Evidently, he was in Florida for several months. When he got home last night he had no heat, and his pipes had frozen. The electricity had been off for at least a month, maybe more. He said that he called us before he left and made arrangements to have his electric bill paid automatically by debiting his bank account every month.
"The man said that somebody by the name of Olivia had been 'unbelievably rude and abusive' to him. Not only is he calling the consumer reporter at Channel 7, he is suing us for the water damage caused by the burst pipes."
Excerpted from the NAPKIN, the MELON & the MONKEY by Barbara Burke Copyright © 2010 by Barbara Burke. Excerpted by permission.
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