The following is an extract from ?The Dancing Toll Taker? by Dr. Charles Garfield. This appears in the ?Learning Journeys? a book where top management experts share their personal stories on lessons learnt, edited by Marshall Goldsmith and others. A wonderful and must read book.
Dr. Charles Garfield was a member of the team that sent the first two astronauts to the moon, where he learned how mission-driven teams can band together to accomplish extraordinary results.
I have been through every one of the seventeen tollbooths on the Oakland San Francisco Bay Bridge on hundreds of occasions, never once having had an exchange worth remembering with anybody until late one morning in 1984?As I drove toward one of the booths. I heard loud rock music. It sounded like a party, or a Michael Jackson concert. I looked around. No other cars with their windows open. No sound trucks. I looked at the tollbooth. Inside it was a man dancing. ?What are you doing? I asked ?I?m having a party,?
Months later I did find him again, still with the loud music, still having a party. Again, I asked, ?What are you doing??
He said, ?I remember you from last time. I?m still dancing. I?m having the same party.?
I said, ?Look, what about the rest of these people??
He said, ?Stop. What do those look like to you?? He pointed to the row of tollbooths.
?They look like tollbooths.?
I said, ?okay, I give up, What do they look like to you?
He said, ?vertical coffins? at eight thirty every morning, live people get in. They die for eight hours. At four-thirty, like the biblical Lazarus who rises from the dead, they re-emerge and go home. For eight hours, brain is on hold, dead on the job. Going through the motions.?
I was amazed. This guy had developed a philosophy, mythology about his job. I could not help asking the next question: ?Why is it different for you? You?re having a good time?
He looked at me. ? I am going to be a dancer some day.? He pointed to the administration building. ? My bosses are there, and they are paying for my training.? Sixteen people dead on the job, and the seventeenth, in precisely the same situation, figures out a way to live.
That man was having a party where you and I would probably not last three days. The boredom! He and I did have lunch later and he told me ?I don?t understand why someone would think my job was boring. I have a corner office, glass on all sides. I can see the Golden Gate, San Francisco, the Berkeley hills; half the western world vacation here? and I stroll in every day and practice dancing.?
The dancing toll taker had been given no special job, no change in the conditions that limited life for the people in the booths. Yet he found a mission, and thereby discovered the will and the way to use the conditions of his job to support his mission.
He had found what Archimedes said he would need, along with his lever, to move the Earth: a place to stand.