Dear Nicolás

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(An open letter to Nicolás Maduro, courtesy of reader and sometime guest blogger Aquiles LaGrave)

Dear Nicolás

As a college student, I worked as a plumber to help supplement my income and buy beer for my friends. I got the job not thanks to merit, but because a well-meaning friend put me up to it, and I accepted. I wasn’t particularly gifted at it, and had zero experience, so I can relate to your predicament from an abstract fish-out-of-water perspective.

The experience taught me a number of principles – spanning such esoteric subjects as human nature, systems, laws of physics and simple math – that no college courses at the University I attended were able to impart with the same level of gravitas that only practicum can deliver. I will share three with you.

The first lesson I learned is that when you are not particularly well suited to your post – when you lack any formal or intuitive gift at it – every task you are expected to fulfill becomes a full-fledged crisis.

A crisis is an unnatural state, since like pain it calls attention to an unhealthy development of things. A lot of people like to think that during a crisis they will rise to the occasion. But thousands of years of recorded history into the insights of human nature prove the exact opposite. In a state of crisis and panic most people will naturally cede to their last level of acknowledgeable skill, not surpass it. This is why armies drill, why athletes train, and this is why it takes years of formal study to meet the minimum requirements of training for any profession.

The second lesson was based on the reality of dealing with inherited systems. In most cases I was not the first, or second, or even the third person touching the plumbing in a residential building made up of dozens of apartments. I was one of many uncounted souls who had, in some cases over succeeding generations, patched, altered, fixed and broken a system made up of thousands of feet of pipe, hundred of fittings and patches, all under constant pressure.

Even under the best of circumstances, a well maintained system needs constant upkeep and repair. Like Venezuela, I was constantly dealing with underperforming plumbing suffering from chronic underinvestment, which was held together more by sheer force of history than anything else. I spent my days in a constant state of crisis, fixing a leak here only to realize that my fix caused an equal and opposite reaction somewhere else. Unlike you, I was not trying to ‘revolutionize’ or ‘radicalize’ the water system by turning hot to cold or ensuring faucets turned left instead of right, I was simply trying to ensure the system continued delivering on its most basic premise.

Even so, the state of affairs was simply unsustainable – me running around the building with my tool kit, placating residents, fixing one thing even when I knew it would break something else, constantly prioritizing one thing over another, scalded here, drenched there. Soon I found myself knowingly making promises I was not capable of delivering to angry residents, and misdirecting fault for my poor decisions far and wide.

And so I endured a miserable existence, which takes me to my third lesson. I was too wrapped up in the state of things to take the time to acknowledge my own limitations. And when you cannot see your own limits you find yourself in a scenario where you believe there are no limits, and things get dangerous real fast. And so the day came when the in-house commercial boiler stated making a weird noise and I had the wherewithall to call a professional in to check it out. A closed pass valve which I closed to fix a leak in the hallway had caused a pressure build-up in the boiler, which – had it exploded – would have taken half a city block with it.

And so that day I learned that, try as I might, I could survive a day, a week, a month, but sooner than later, one way or another, the residents and my employer would realize that although I wasn’t a bad kid, I was sure as shit not cut out to be a plumber.


Aquiles La Grave

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  1. As someone that worked my way through university doing plumbing I can really identify with this. Perhaps I am biased when I say this is an absolutely brilliant post. Excellent analogy.

  2. This is something called the Peter principle. Not everyone is strong? enough to recognize when you cannot deal with a situation for lack of skill or knowledge…For example How you could be the Ministry of planification being a Electrical engineering? , or a finance minister knowing only about Differential Equations? and I could give 3 million examples…and I think in vnezuela is just the country of yes of course once I play atari, I could be the ministry of Scince and tecnology kind of example…I am a doctor in Medicine ( but I have not idea about administration of a hospital…you are a minister!!!) Only few people are brave enough to say , Sorry I don’t know about Public administration, I know about medicine and that is it…If only!

    • Not everyone is strong enough…? I call it not having the moral gumption or intellectual honesty to tell the truth. And yes, Vzla is full of that. But so are other countries at various other levels (I have a shovel, call me a landscaper; I have a hammer, call me a carpenter, etc.).

    • It is possible for a person not entirely trained in the subject to make the right decision if he has enough common sense and proper advisors, the problem with Nicolas is that he have neither

  3. I’m not sure, but the Greek word “Hubris” might be the same as what you are describing, is also a “crime” that Maduro is committing as we speak.

  4. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that a CC post would elicit nothing – nothing – but praise, and effusive praise at that. Including mine.

  5. Very well written, even if it made no analogy to President Maduro. As someone who has done some journeyman plumbing work, such as replacing faucets, and also consulted with plumbers regarding some humongous plumbing issues in my HOA, I can relate to your plumbing experience- such as a patchwork system evolving over decades through the work of many different plumbers. It appears to me that while you had the qualifications to work as a plumber’s helper/journeyman/apprentice, you were working as a full-fledged plumber- which doesn’t speak well for how plumbers are hired in Venezuela.

    You showed much wisdom in realizing your limitations and getting a real plumber on the job to look at the boiler. Your point that being in the middle of trying to solve a whole bunch of problems, it was difficult to keep perspective and look at things as a whole, is a point well taken. Some plumbing work doesn’t require much thought, but some plumbing work, such as trying to figure out a spaghetti-like configuration of plumbing lines, requires some engineer-level problem solving ability.

    Your tale of working as an underqualified plumber reminds me of a neighbor in my HOA who hired a plumber to do some work. The “plumber” arrived for the job on a BICYCLE. The work of the plumber-on-a-bicycle shut down water in the HOA for eight hours. I and several neighbors had to replace faucets caused from a pressure surge that knocked lime off the inner surface of the pipes.

    If only President Maduro could also recognize his limitations and call in the pros. Unfortunately, President Maduro has already called in whom he considers the pros- the Cubans. Unfortunately for Venezuela, the Cubans are expert only at maintaining a regime in power, not at running an economy.

  6. Desgraciadamente, Aquiles, tu muy bien escrita carta NUNCA sera leida por Nicolas, ni por los que piensan que lo ayudan. Que lastima. Yo sigo este blog por mis raices en Nicaragua (tengo que explicarte mas?), y lo que pusiste hoy me llega hasta el corazon :-(.

  7. Howdy! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could find a captcha plugin for my comment form?
    I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having trouble finding one?
    Thanks a lot!


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