Are you sane?

By Philip Brewer on 18 July 2008 12 comments

Back in the days before science and modern medicine made their contributions to the field of mental health, sanity was a pretty arbitrary thing.  Even in those dark days, though, it was useful to have a test for sanity, so you could determine if someone reached the minimum threshold of mental competence to be allowed to manage their own affairs.  Here's one test.  Would you pass?

One test for sanity involved giving subjects a mop and bucket and then sending them into a room where the sink was plugged and the tap had been left running.  If they turned off the tap, they were sane.  If they just started in mopping as the sink continued to overflow, they would be judged "not competent."

I expect most of you will agree with me that modern mental health care is to be preferred over this sort of rough-and-ready division between sane and not.  And yet, I think there's a certain value to this test.  In your own life, are you careful to turn off the tap before you start mopping?

I've seen plenty of (metaphorical) mopping in the face of an overflowing sink, usually in one of three situations:


There are times when the source of the leak is hidden, so a wet floor is the only symptom.  For example, if the "wet floor" is a difficulty in paying your bills, I'm sure that Wise Bread readers would immediately know that the "open tap" is an excess of spending over income.  But someone who has just begun to manage a household for the first time ever can perhaps be forgiven for failing to recognize this as quickly as a more experienced person would.


Sometimes the problem is not so much ignorance as it is denial.  You see somebody mopping away, but when you suggest that they turn off the tap, they assure you that tap is already off and go on mopping.

Lack of authority

This is a different situation from ignorance and denial.  it's quite common to see employees mopping away under an overflowing sink.  If you point out that the tap is open, they respond with a heartfelt "Duh!"  If you suggest that they might turn off the tap, they shrug and say, "I'm not allowed to do that.  My job is to mop."


I list the sources of insanity in order of increasing level of difficulty to solve.

Someone who is merely ignorant can be educated.  Depending on the exact circumstances, they may learn the lesson quickly enough on their own, once they realize that continuing to mop isn't going to solve the problem--although there'll always be some people who's first impulse will be to get a better mop.

If the problem is denial, the solution has to be different.  Rather than education, they need something more akin to counseling.  Personally, I'm inclined to refer them to a professional immediately, as I've rarely had much success in helping someone who's in denial.

I leave "lack of authority" for the last, because it's really a special case--there are two people who need help here.  

There's a person in authority who's either ignorant of the problem or else in denial about it--and can be helped as above.  (In practice, they'll usually turn out to be aware of the problem, and will claim that the mopping is just a temporary stopgap until a plumber can be called.  Sometimes that's even the truth.)

It's harder to help the person doing the mopping.  They usually have either a long story of futile efforts to convince management to turn off the tap, or else a short story of management so stupid that there's no point in making the effort.  Either way, they finish up by shrugging and saying that, as long as the manager wants to pay them to mop, they're willing to keep mopping.

I've spent my share of time mopping under an overflowing sink for no better reason than because someone was paying me to do it.  It's frustrating, humiliating, and eventually soul-destroying behavior.  Don't do it.  If efforts to educate management fail, find another job.  Insane behavior doesn't become sane, just because someone's willing to pay you to do it.

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Guest's picture

I hear you. About to jump ships for this issue.

Guest's picture

I knew a guy who was in the Navy for a couple years. He told me about a guy who was a barely functioning idiot, but got promoted quickly because he did what he was told.... Exactly what he was told.

Bathrooms are known as heads (I don't know why, but I've heard it many times) to military types. One day the CO told my buddy's friend to "go paint the head". So, the guy got some gun metal grey paint, and proceeded to paint his own head. To some, this guy was a great employee because he unquestioningly did as he was told. To others, he was merely a source of ridicule because he gave the appearance of not being able to think for himself.

He would be mopping away, even if he was going to drown.

Guest's picture

It seems like many rich individuals do have mental health problems. They have no social life besides what they do because this is what they love.

I sometimes feel like the mop in your analogy. I do feel like I need to start rationing things a little differently at work. If anything it would make me feel a little bit better if I am able to take more responsibility.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

The problem is that for some people it's hard to leave what they know.  For example,  this system administrator in San Francisco who has been driven insane is still trying to keep his job by locking out everyone else:

There is always the fear of having nothing to live on.  So we put up with insane bosses and become more crazy in the process.

Philip Brewer's picture

I well understand the temptation to behave like a crazy person, if there's someone who will pay you large amounts of money to do so.  (In fact, even small amounts of money can be very tempting, if that's what it takes to make the difference between getting by and not.)

It took me years to realize just how much harm it does to go along with that, which is one reason I try to talk about this--maybe I can save other people a few years of suffering.

Guest's picture

A great analogy. I think more people would be willing to walk away from futility and madness in a job if they had more resources. Having enough savings to get you through a long job search and medical insurance separate from your job would be highly useful but most don't have that. I think job freedom is probably one of the best motivators for not living paycheck to paycheck. Having savings also cushions the blow from a layoff.

Guest's picture

and that it becomes a moneymaker for the doctors(creating more definitions of mild illnesses that expensive therapy or drugs can mitigate! not better social communication ties or better herbal supplements to promote mental health?)
and pharmaceutical companies in making sure we are medicated than to address our social ills from social isolation, overwork for barely maintained living , media inspired stress for never ending want/consumption of exaggerated living standards, jobs and activities that inspire no self worth nor allow time to follow spiritual growth and worth building endeavors. That's my opinion.

Guest's picture

It is so true that the situations at work combined with societal stress to have, buy and gain status creates some of our medical and mental problems. Then people spend huge amounts of money on drugs and care to try to plug the sinking ship. That big monthly drug bill and even more dependence on insurance leads to even more need to put up with the employer and stay there.

This is a real eye opener along the same lines.

Guest's picture

I can totally relate to the mopping situation with the sink overflowing, since recently I went through such a situation at work, in a project where all the instructions seemed wrong and out of place, yet we had to keep mopping, enduring offensive attitudes from both the client and our boss, long-hours that included weekends with no extra pay, yet most of the team kept going for the stupidity of a paycheck and those who could go by without the paycheck were hypnotized with "commitment" to your job.....definitely having savings and a debt free lifestyle are the best and sure way to allow freedom from a mopping job....

Fred Lee's picture
Fred Lee

Boy, haven't we all seen our share of overflowing sinks? Then again, I think it's inherent in the inefficiency of human endeavor. People aren't machines, and it seems like whenever you get a number of them together and bureaucracy grows, then more sinks will overflow. We just can't seem to overcome the flaws of human nature.

And I agree that denial is virtually impossible to overcome, not to mention frustrating to no end.

Guest's picture
Gates VP

Mandatory work-world references (especially for those, like Philip, involved with computers): Mythical Man-Month, Peopleware.

I love this quote from the comments: Having enough savings to get you through a long job search and medical insurance separate from your job would be highly useful but most don't have that.

I'd like to extend the thought and state that "mobility mentality" and the cost of mobility are almost forgotten factors in the way people design their lives. The problem isn't just paying the mortgage, it's having to work close to the house on which I'm paying the mortgage.

Ever met anyone who turned down a job for lack of similar jobs nearby?

Philip, I'd love to see a follow-up talking about ways to identify and resolve work-level "mopping" behavior. Stuff off the top of my head:
- Don't "make work", there should already be enough work: identify and prioritize
- Couple delegation with empowerment
- Generate "deliverables" not "desirables"
- Know your numbers (revenue vs. your salary)

I think the concept of "turning off the tap" = "solving problems" is a great analogy for the work-world.

Guest's picture

Nice post.

I believe almost every job has some amount of mopping vs. value adding productivity. Unless you have a job that you truly love 100% of the time, some amount of mopping is required.