A plumber’s advice on unclogging your career

(From the archives. Originally written in October 2011.)

“There are four types of toilets.”

“Oh, really?”

“First, there’s the type you know from granny’s house, with the cistern up here.”

He gestured at an imaginary cistern floating seven feet up in the air in the main area of the new house.

One of the types of toilets

“Then people wanted the cistern lower, but with that they became smaller. They’d still work for a pee, but not always for a poo.”

I was tired. Exhausted, even, after a full day of moving house. All I wanted was to take a nap, but first I had to wait for the emergency plumber to fix the leak I had discovered in my new bathroom.

“Then people started hiding the cisterns behind wall panels, so they could be bigger again. But sometimes they don’t give us service access when they need repairs. One time, we had to break down the entire wall in the toilet of a Cambridge restaurant, because we had no service access. Floor to ceiling, whole wall down.”


“And finally there’s the type of toilet you have, which is further removed from the wall. That’s great for me, because it means there are more parts that need fixing and replacing.”


“This is what I did to your toilet to fix it. Come have a look. This is the part that was leaking.”

He showed me a discarded, mildewy piece of plastic piping.

“I put this new part in, but to do that, I first had to remove the entire toilet from the wall, so I isolated the water flow to the toilet. That’s really easy to do. Look, you just turn this screw ninety degrees. Now it has shut off the water flow to the toilet. And if I turn it again it’s back open. Now, after I put the toilet back in place again, I also replaced these screws with brass screws, because, I don’t know about you, but when I was in school we learned that steel and water means rust….”

“Heh. Yeah.”

“So, what do you do?”

I was too tired to explain about communities and scientists and blogs and writing and the internet and SciBarCamp and everything else, so I just said:

“I’m an editor for a scientific journal.”

“Oh. Well. It’s a job, I suppose.”

Clearly unimpressed with my job, the man who fixed the toilet then gave me some career advice.

“At the end of every week, stop and ask yourself: ‘Have I learned something this week? Have I made a difference? Have I enjoyed myself?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, you’re doing all right. When you’re in a new job, you’ll still be learning new things all the time. But when that stops, when at the end of the week you can’t answer ‘yes’ to all these questions, you’re in trouble.”

Sound advice for all careers…

This story was originally published on the now defunct Nature Network site on October 26 2011. I dug it up from my archives after this tweet reminded me of it. Since I wrote this, I changed jobs two more times, and now I’m self-employed, dong what I love.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Writer, science communicator, musician. Find more of my writing at Forbes.com, Undark, Nature, Nautilus, The Scientist, Hakai and other places.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store