Unexpected Lessons

Jan 4, 2011

YMCA East BayWe learn some of the damnedest things in our work.

One of my telephone list builders works part time at the Y as a lifeguard. She’s a 50-year-old woman who has been married for 30 years. She and her husband have been living apart for the last couple years and it appears that each of them is creating their own separate life in preparation for what appears to be divorce.

I got to know Jean late last year in casual conversation as I bounced around in the pool doing my 45 minutes of pool work that I get to less and less these days. Talking to someone else in a pool while you’re doing jumping jacks is a good way to make the (boring) time pass.

Jean impressed me early on with her intelligence. She is soft-spoken and listens intently to what another is saying. I’d watched her interact with some of the other old farts as they came and went from the senior pool and many seemed to really enjoy talking with her. What I noticed most about her from my watery viewing point is she spoke far less than she listened to the others.

Some would stand there for a good number of minutes and yak away at her and she’d politely pay attention to whatever it was they were sharing.

I knew some of them were tiresome to listen to as I had seen the reaction of others to them in the social setting that the geriatric warm pool is.

I mostly stay to myself in the pool, social skinflint that I am.

But talking to Jean was different.

She asked questions.

Few people do this, you know.

Flattered as I was to be asked about myself, I very soon recognized the glimmer of a phone sourcer in Jean.

One day we got to talking about work. She said she was looking to do something to augment the lifeguard salary she was earning at the Y on a part-time basis as they had recently cut back her hours.

She was worried. She had her oldest daughter’s wedding coming up in July of 2011 and she had begun sharing with me knowledge of some very disturbing financial details of her husband’s behavior back on the East Coast.

She also had her second daughter in her second year of college at Purdue.

She needed to make money. Fast.

I asked her if she’d be interested in phone sourcing. She asked me what it was. I explained it to her best I could but I don’t think it was something she quite understood and I could see her hesitation.

Let’s not forget she hardly knew me.

I didn’t push it.

So I asked her if she’d like to do some phone work building call lists.

She asked me what that was. I explained that people pay us to build number-by-number direct call lists of employees inside specific companies in America — mostly with the intent to call these employees to sell them something (like financial services, etc.)

I could see she was interested but wary. She later confessed to me that at the time she wondered if I wasn’t running some sort of scam. She said she’d taken a leap of faith on me and did what I instructed her to do with the expectation of never being paid.

She was delighted when checks in the amounts of hundreds of dollars started to follow on a bi-monthly basis.

Soon she was developing and delivering 500- and 1,000-name lists of current employees of companies all across America with their direct dials and any information she’d gleaned from their voicemails that is always of interest to our customers.

She was digging the work because it was something she could do at night in those scary midnight hours when she’d lay awake worrying about what financial risk she was at with her long-distance marriage partner.

The work helped assuage her fears and her loneliness.

It brought in support dollars that had stopped flowing from her Atlantic coast spouse.

Today I asked her what she had learned in the near year that she’s been doing the work.

She was perched in her guard chair and I was bouncing up and down in the corner of the pool below her.

She came down off her chair and leaned close to me in the pool.

“You know, it’s funny you ask. I’ve been thinking about this lately.”

I nodded and she continued.

“Even though I have a bachelor’s degree from Purdue I never really thought about the bigger business picture of America. Those company blurbs you send me on the jobs that detail what the companies do I always find interesting. Many times they surprise me, as in ‘Oh, yeah, this company makes THAT?’ and I always find that fun.”

I nodded some more, encouraging her to continue. I could tell she wanted to.

“I realize now I should have paid more attention to languages. Many times the names are incomprehensible –“

Phonetic spelling is fine,” I interrupted.

But I’m very anal and I wish I could get the spellings closer to their correct spellings,” she countered.

“It’s okay — it’s the direct dial and the general name they’re most interested in. Providing that is the real value for these customers,” I consoled.

“I know — but still …” and her voice trailed off as she looked almost wistfully into the distance.

Looking back at me she continued, the pace of what she was saying accelerating.

“There’s something else I’m learning. Even though my husband is an accountant, he always had trouble working in the banking industry much beyond a couple years at each place. I had no idea that industries besides banking hired accountants.”

I nodded.

When I’m working a phone directory I hear all kinds of accounting-focused messaging on peoples’ voicemails. There’s audit and reporting and all sorts of different areas related to accounting! That bastard always told me I was an unreasonable bitch to expect him to find steady work because there just wasn’t steady work in his profession in banking.”

“I realize now that it wasn’t me who was an unreasonable bitch all those years — the fact is he didn’t want steady work! If he had there are all kinds of things he could have done in all kinds of other industries besides banking!”

“I was basically a housewife for the first 20 years of our marriage raising our two daughters. I had no idea. I depended on him and I now realize what a mistake that was.”

I could see the flash of anger under the control and all I could do was nod again.

But that’s okay. I’m making my own life now and it feels good to know that I wasn’t the cause of his failure all those years and my expectations weren’t unreasonable. I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the past year from the work I’m doing for you and I want to thank you for it. You have no idea what a difference it’s made in my life.”

“Do you mind if I write about this?” I asked. “Your lessons are valuable — I won’t use your name.”

Of course! You can use my first name, but don’t use his. By the way, I’m thinking that maybe I might soon want to try my hand at phone sourcing.”

I laughed. Jean had no idea what a gift in the compliment of her growing confidence was (is) to me.

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