Meet Your Needs – The Garbage Collector and the Sweet Smell of Success

When I mistook him for a dead body he was at the end of the line.

It was cold and dark, and I was tired, so I went in search of my hotel, and that’s when I tripped over the bundle of rags that turned out to be a human being – a man, dishevelled, freezing and at the very, very end of his energy and resources.  I stood him up and helped him inside, but the small-town hotel was not welcoming to him, or me.

His name was Tim, and I took him into the reluctant hotel, gave him a room for the night, and asked him to get bathed and shaved and meet me for supper.  He was stone cold sober, unlike many who have suffered a similar fate, and he couldn’t believe that life was going to give him his first break, ever, despite his suspicions at my motives.  I walked a block to a surplus store and bought him some new boots and clothes.

My day had started in a tyre factory in an unremarkable town in the mid-west of the USA, helping to rescue a company and its workers from the command and control culture perpetuated by an ex-Army major who managed the plant.  That’s another story for another day, and with a happy ending.

Tim had been a soldier.  Nothing special – just an ordinary, everyday grunt (his words) who had done his bit for his country, fighting the war on something or other.  His parents had been ordinary folk, but without the skills to help Tim achieve his potential.  They had meant to be good parents, and tried everything they could, but Tim just didn’t smell the sweet scent of success in time.  In fact, Tim had got to nearly forty years of age and never discovered one thing he was good at.  Every school report and every army record on him suggested he was mediocre, at best.  Every signal that Tim ever received in life from anybody suggested failure, in Tim’s eyes.  His first wife had left him three years earlier after a series of job lay-offs, and Tim had recently lost his place at a men’s hostel.  He had held it all together until a couple of weeks before I met him, but his depression had got the better of his punctuality and he’d been fired from the garbage collecting company he worked for.  Tim quickly became a bum, a hobo, a down and out, living in the hostel, and with the help and support of a few passers-by.

He had previously been offered counselling for his depression by a Veteran’s organisation, but when they discovered Tim had no trace of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder he was sent on his way.

We talked long into the evening, and after hearing his life story I told him, yes, told him, to meet me for breakfast at 07:00, and that I had a plan which stood a chance of defeating his depression for good.  I also suggested he would feel good about himself if he had the shiniest shoes in the world.  The boot polish and rags we bought were put to good use that night, as Tim arrived for breakfast with a ramrod straight back, and shoes I could use as a mirror.  Tim reported the best night’s sleep he’d had in a long, long time, and he was every bit as proud of those shiny shoes as I had ever seen a man.

A quick haircut, and we set off to visit his previous employer, and I asked them to give Tim another chance.  They readily agreed, as Tim had previously been reliable and punctual.  They told me Tim had simply become more and more depressed, and fallen by the way side, becoming isolated and gaunt looking.  I thanked them, and told the boss I would keep in touch.

A quick last chat with Tim and I suggested his depression was perhaps caused by the fact that he had not yet found a way of meeting that innate need we all have – to find something we are good at, or to at least get the signals from those around us that we are achieving something, and finding the status in our tribe which our human nature craves.  Tim had been under-stretched as a garbage collector, and it was my belief he had also been under-appreciated.

I strongly suggested to Tim that he turn up to work every morning on time, and with his shoes highly polished.  I hinted at his, as yet undiscovered, leadership qualities, and Tim’s shoulders noticeably widened.  My other request was that he dress smartly and cleanly every day, and that he assiduously clean his garbage truck at the end of each shift, and I’d be back in two weeks to see how he was doing.

Two weeks to the day I arrived back in that small town, keen to see how Tim was doing.  The manager at the garbage collection asked me to sit down, and with a very serious look told me he had never seen such a transformation in any human being before.  The change actually came after nearly a week when Tim’s colleagues started turning up early to clean their garbage trucks too, and many had started wearing formal black boots, all of which were highly polished.  Having people copy his actions and his dress code was all Tim needed to signal he was doing something right.  He bagen to connect socially with one or two of the crew, and he started the road to recovery.  The Tim I shared a lunch with that day was a very different human being to the pile of rags I had tripped over just two weeks previously.

That all happened in 1999.  Today, Tim is an executive and manager in an organisation in California, charged with keeping part of a city clean and free of garbage.  Tim manages a team of around 1800 people, he has a wife and two young daughters, and he has the sweet smell of success in his nostrils every day.

Tim is kind enough to keep in touch, and he tells me that he’s very careful when managing his own teams of people to ensure each one of them feels fully appreciated for their efforts and their achievements.

One of our innate emotional needs is to have status which is acknowledged by others, and also to feel we are achieving something, feeling competent and appreciated.  Each of us has many innate emotional needs, and if we get those needs met in a healthy and balanced way we will not suffer distress and emotional illness in our lives.

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