Lessons from a Manhole Cover

July 11, 2017

Nick Stoneman’s connection to manhole covers has been quite a journey!

I was a senior in college interviewing for a job in New York City, sitting across the desk from a “master of the universe” – a 30-something year old investment banker, who managed to find time in his busy life to put me through the paces of a Wall Street interview.

He leaned back in his chair, and, fiddling with his Mont Blanc pen, challenged me as to why I could possibly think I could survive at his firm, to say nothing of actually making a difference. I offered up some earnest response, which seemed to buy me enough time for him to look at my resume – probably for the first time!

He tossed it on his desk, leaned forward, and said, “You probably think you are pretty smart, and pretty quick. Let’s see about that. Answer this – tell me three reasons why manhole covers are round.”

My first reaction was, “I’m really glad he did not ask me a ridiculous math question. That’s what calculators are for!” But that was the good news. The reality was, I had no idea what one reason would be, let alone three reasons. So, I followed the lesson I learned from Supreme Court Justice John Marshall in his decision in Marbury v. Madison. When faced with a tough question, challenge the basis of the question.

Here’s how I responded. “Actually, historically speaking, they were not originally round. In fact, during Roman times, rain water and sewage ran through an open gutter system, right at the street level. Over time, with the creation of clay pipes, the Romans took the next logical step and buried the pipes, and made the tops at the street level round to fit the pipes – and it has stayed that way ever since.”

He laughed – and gave me credit for creativity, but said, with a stern look, that I was completely wrong. The interview came to a fairly quick conclusion. He was, after all, a very busy man.

As I departed, I mustered up the courage to ask what the three reasons were, to which he responded, “First, the circle distributes the weight of a car driving over it equally. Second, the cover can’t fall in the hole and hurt anyone. And third, no matter how it is placed on the opening, the cover fits.”

Suffice it to say, I did not get the job but, my relationship with manhole covers has never been the same since, and for that I am grateful!

Allow me to explain.

Recently I was driving from campus and came to a stop sign. I look ahead and as I pulled forward, my eyes naturally followed the path of the yellow line dividing the lanes. Suddenly, the smooth, arcing path of the line was disrupted by, of all things, a manhole cover! Memories rushed back. It got worse. The yellow line did not flow through to the other side. It was broken. The three-foot segment spanning the manhole turned sharply toward my lane, out of line with its partners on either end.

And then it hit me … The “master of the universe” 35 years ago (who is probably a retired multi-millionaire now) was right. The manhole cover does fit, no matter how you drop it in place! Some work must have been done on the storm water system after the line was painted on the road, and then the worker just dropped the cover back in place, and called it a day.

Every time I see that manhole cover now, I feel a sense of incongruity. The line is “out of whack”, just oddly heading off in its own direction. But, the manhole is safely covered. So, who is at fault? Each person – the road painter and the storm water engineer – were both doing their respective jobs in the manner they were supposed to when this dilemma was created. And neither gave much thought to the other, nor to the “bigger picture” – the perplexed state they created for me, your average citizen, waiting at the stop sign.

For me, it poses an interesting reflection – this notion of thinking of the bigger picture and how one’s individual actions relate to those of others to create an aggregate impact. How do we engage with others – at work, in school, at home – in ways that move beyond our individual routines to work for a better outcome? How do we think beyond self, and reflect upon our actions so that, in our work with others, we can make a better whole?

Maybe the storm water engineer could have placed the cover back in a way that had the lines aligned. Maybe the road painter, on his next time through, could stop and adjust the cover. Imagine if he didn’t and each year more and more stripes covered the surface, as the manhole cover was put back in place in various rotated states!

It is, of course, silly to think of this manhole cover as a real problem. Perhaps it serves as nothing more than a symbol, or a way to extract a metaphor for a life better lived, one where we think of ourselves within the context of community, within relations with others, with care not for just a job well done by ourselves, but for one done in support of, and in conjunction with, those around us. Something to consider.

However you may see it, one thing is for sure. I guarantee you that you will never look at manhole covers the same way!

And, by the way, there is at least one more reason for the wonders of their roundness. They are easier to move because you can just roll them into place. I will have to track down my interviewer and let him know that after 35 years of contemplation, I think I finally have a more complete response for him!


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