From Dr. Larry

Dr. Larry Gelman is fiercely devoted to each client, with a deep and profound respect for their own self-agency and self-determination.

“Kup Choy’s Caveat”

During college one of my part-time jobs was unloading bags of mail from the airplanes at the O’Hare Airport postal service.
At the time I was very young, very strong and very dumb but I really didn’t know how dumb I was.

Whenever a caravan of mail pulled up to the unloading docks, I was the first one to arrive and the last one to finish.
The task required tossing heavy, bulky nylon sacks of mail and small parcels down a chute onto a conveyor belt.

Each bag would later be pulled from the line, opened and carefully sorted by other postal workers in due time.
The whole process hinged on getting the mail sacks quickly unloaded down the chute and onto the conveyor belt.

The other men on the docks were easily twice my age or older and none could maintain my frenetic work pace.
When the mail caravan arrived no one unloaded more mail sacks as quickly as I and for as long.

After a while, it became a private game in which I first competed in my mind with all of my fellow employees.
Two mail sacks for every one they tossed down the chute; then three to one; then four to one.

Soon, I realized that they were no longer my competition –– that I was!
Instead of unloading twenty mail sacks down the chute to everyone else’s four or five, I did 25, then 30!

My coworkers were not pleased because they claimed I was skewing the curve and pressuring them to work harder.
But my supervisor was clearly pleased and thanked me for doing a good job which made him look good to his boss.

Kup Choy was double my age and worked full-time during the day as a mechanical engineer.
He unloaded mail part-time at night “to make money to provide extras” for his wife and family.

He was extremely slow-moving, phlegmatically thoughtful, deliberate like molasses and, in my opinion, quite lazy.
Whenever the mail trucks would pull up to the unloading dock, he would unnecessarily dally to assess the entire situation.

Then, when at least half of the other men had jockeyed into position on the dock, might he begin to work.
I recall asking him what the delay was since I had unloaded a dozen sacks before he unloaded a single one.

Kup Choy smiled a knowing smile and replied that once upon a time he approached the job each time just like me.
Allegedly, he was always the first one to arrive and always the last one to finish.

He cautioned me against maintaining such a Gulliverian standard when contrasted against my Lilliputian fellows.
He said I might engender animosity because I was setting a standard which none of the other men could sustain.

He also warned me that I was creating an expectation in my supervisor that my self-assessed stellar performance was my norm.
I did not entirely understand all that he was endeavoring to impart to me or the help he was gifting altruistically.

After all, he was an ’old guy’, at least 40 years of age, with a wife and two kids to feed and he was not wanting to make any waves.
Then he added that one day, when he had been outperforming other workers, he suddenly became very ill.

Several times he excused himself to use the facilities and wondered if he had the flu or food poisoning.
An honorable man to-the-core, he completed his shift but was castigated by the supervisor who alleged he was slacking!

Kup Choy was deeply offended, shamed and humiliated because he had been an exemplary employee for years.
What good could possibly result from the supervisor criticizing the best employee he had who was clearly ill?

I was very young, very strong and very dumb but I really didn’t know how dumb I was at the time.
At more than half his age, that particular scenario could never happen to me but on one particular night it actually did!

I couldn’t be sure if I had the flu or food poisoning but I felt sicker than a dog and suffered through my shift.
I remembered the story my elder coworker had imparted to me and vowed I would remain at my post without fail.

I kept count of my production and those of several of my coworkers and kept up with them all through the night!
Then, as the shift was coming to an end, my supervisor asked to see me and alleged I was slacking on-the-job!

I was deeply offended, shamed and humiliated because I had been an exemplary employee for over a year.
What good could possibly result from the supervisor criticizing the best employee he had who was clearly ill?

I defensively countered that I was sick and could therefore not sustain performance at pre-illness levels.
My supervisor was wholly unsympathetic and asserted “you’re only as good as you are right now.”

In effect, he was asking me to answer the rhetorical question “what did I do for him on that particular day.”
If I created an expectation from my historical behavior to achieve at stellar levels, then that was my norm.

Anything more I did above and beyond would result in a recalibration of my norm for him to expect more.
Anything less I did would result in his assessment that I was intentionally underperforming on purpose!

Thereafter, I steadfastly heeded Kup Choy’s caveat to “stay in the middle of the pack.”
It took another twenty years or so before I understood the importance of the “middle path.”
Not that one shouldn’t occasionally deign to soar with the eagles.
But there is no need to be offended, shamed or humiliated to frequently walk with the turkeys.

“Kup Choy’s Caveat” is a cautionary reminder for each one of us to pace all tasks of life in a measured way.
And to preclude naive ambition or raw talent from deluding us into believing we have to be more than we are!

Author Note: Dr. Larry B. Gelman is a Clinical Psychologist and a Personal Mentor


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