You Won’t Guess The Hard Part

Recently, the lights in my bathroom stopped working. I would flip the switch and the bulbs would glimmer briefly, but they wouldn’t stay on. What more could a troubleshooter ask for? Here it was—a project!

I thought briefly of calling in the cavalry (i.e., a pro), but I’ve heard that it’s hard to get tradespeople to come out for “little stuff”. Smaller jobs like these are why many people rely on those who are “handy”: those jack-of-all-trades that can pass for an electrician, painter, plumber, or carpenter. Since I am my own favorite handy type of handyperson, I decided to dive right in.

First, I watched a few videos on how to replace a light switch. Cute cat videos aside, the learn-by-seeing possibilities of video sharing sites like YouTube make them one of the greatest self-education platforms ever created (also notable: libraries). Now, before I tell you any more, I want to share my mindset going into this project. Thinking about repair is something I like to do (obviously!). I may ruminate about fixing things more than the average person, but it’s only because my mind is saying: “Pay attention! You probably will end up having to write an article about this…”

However, as much as I’ve studied and theorized about fixing things, I’m constantly humbled by reality. In particular, guessing the Hard Part. You know what I’m talking about: whenever you contemplate a fix-it project, your mind starts spinning. You do your best to conceive of a plan from end-to-end, and your thoughts will invariably dwell on the tricky parts of your imaginary process. Maybe it’s something you don’t understand, a task you perceive as strenuous, or something that’s tripped you up in the past. Whatever the reason for my consternation, I’ll say to myself, “This is the part of the repair that will cause me trouble.”

Simply by slowing down, asking myself the right questions, and thinking about what I’m about to do, I’ve saved myself countless times. It’s easy to rearrange the steps of a project in your mind, but once you start swinging a hammer, things get harder to reverse. Avoiding trouble, at the speed of thought, pays big dividends. Yet, dwelling on the imagined Hard Part seems to have consistently poor returns.

What I perceive will be difficult isn’t usually just a little bit off, it’s often not even in the same ballpark. In the case of this particular repair, I thought the most difficult parts of the project were going to be:

  • Avoiding the dangers of live electricity.
  • Diagnosing the problem: I’m not an electrician, so how am I going to figure out what is wrong? Is the problem the switch, the light fixture, the wiring, the bulbs, etc.?

Yes, these two concerns did have to be overcome, but it turns out they were among the easiest parts of the project. The DIY tutorials I watched all started with disabling the electricity to the circuit about to be worked on. Sure, it took a little trial and error, but it was just a few quick flicks on the electrical panel and I had identified which circuit was powering the lights. Done.

Okay, but I still had to complete the diagnosis. Surely that would be sticky, right? Yet again, this was easily overcome when I thought about the electronics class I took in high school. We learned that a switch is a very simple device: it just breaks or completes a circuit. To figure out if this particular switch was faulty, all I had to do was remove it from the circuit and see if the lights turned on. I’m no electrician, but this seemed like an obvious way to isolate the switch. It felt good to so easily figure this out: “challenge met, competitor bested, obstacle overcome!”

With the power off, I began to remove the switch, attempting a bypass to see if the circuit would complete in its absence. But here’s where the actual Hard Part entered the scene: it turned out that I had a lot of difficulty removing the old switch. In the videos I watched, the wires were attached by screws on the side of the switch. Installed in this way, disconnecting the switch was just a matter of undoing the screws.

On my switch, however, the wires disappeared into the back. I pulled on them every which way. I cycled through my modest collection of pliers, from small to big, in an attempt to improve my grip. I considered cutting the wires, but ultimately didn’t because I wanted to preserve the original wiring. Stuck here, I cursed the drywall that looked on and had witnessed the switch’s original installation, quietly hiding the secret to this puzzle.

As I got more aggressive wrestling with the wires, I sensed that I was about to cross a line: after all, if you have to force it, you’re probably doing it wrong. So, I decided to take a break and do more research. Why wouldn’t the wires come out? If you know anything about common light switches, you probably know the answer to my dilemma. There are two ways to connect the wires: 1) posts with screws on the side and 2) gripping clips in the back. The clips are designed to operate one-way: you slide the wire in and the clips prevent the wire from coming out. To get the clips to relinquish their death grip, you have to insert a screwdriver into a little hole and hit the release mechanism. Once I recognized this, the wires detached easily from the switch.

From there, the rest of the project was downhill. I removed the switch, connected the wires that used to run through it, and turned the power back on. Shazam—the lights came on, bright and clear! This test isolated the switch and showed that it was likely the culprit. Therefore, the obvious next step was to replace it. That meant a trip to my new favorite place: the local big-box hardware store. Returning with a new switch, I attached the wires through the holes in the back, realizing why they have two ways to connect the switch. If you worked as an electrician wiring new construction, the gripping clips would save you a lot of time. They avoid the extra work of bending wires around the posts and screwing in the screws.

The new switch works great, and my flossing is back to being fully illuminated (lesson learned: don’t floss in the dark). But, the trouble I had getting the wires out of the switch got me thinking about the Hard Part. Why is it so difficult for me to predict what’s actually going to be difficult about a repair project?

Imagining Risk

Searching for an answer, I was reminded of an interesting story I read in The Black Swan. This book is a fascinating meditation on improbable events, with author Nicholas Taleb showing how we often fail to properly conceive of rare but significant hazards: from misused mathematical methods and faulty conceptual frameworks, to our own mental shortcomings that make it difficult to comprehend the very large and very rare.

While illustrating the mismatch between perceived and actual risks, Taleb recounts his visit to a prominent Las Vegas casino. On a tour of their facilities, he finds that the “casino’s risk management, aside from setting its gambling policies, was geared toward reducing the losses resulting from cheaters.” Along these lines, they show him an elaborate electronic surveillance system, which made Taleb feel like he was “transported into a James Bond movie—I wondered if the casino was an imitation of the movies or if it was the other way around.”

However, when cataloguing and ranking the top incidents that actually came close to putting the casino out of business, he finds that—they had nothing to do with stolen cash, roving bands of card counters, or shady dealers pocketing chips! For example, one of the casino’s star entertainers got bit by a tiger during a magic show (apparently, this alone was about a $100 million loss!). Then there was an injured contractor, so offended by a settlement offer, that he tried to blow up the casino (luckily, the attempt was thwarted). And, this doozy:

…casinos must file a special form with the Internal Revenue Service documenting a gambler’s profit if it exceeds a given amount. The employee who was supposed to mail the forms hid them, instead, for completely unexplainable reasons, in boxes under his desk. This went on for years without anyone noticing that something was wrong. The employee’s refraining from sending the documents was truly impossible to predict. Tax violations (and negligence) being serious offences, the casino faced the near loss of a gambling license or the onerous financial costs of a suspension. Clearly they ended up paying a monstrous fine (an undisclosed amount), which was the luckiest way out of the problem.

Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan

Average Fears

When it comes to guessing the Hard Part while troubleshooting, I’m like that casino risk management team. My fears are loosely based on the small sliver of reality that I know and think I can control, using forms that are familiar. In this sense, they’re often very pedestrian. Back to the light switch project: a truly imaginative roadblock to the repair would rightly be dismissed as unrealistic by my mind and not considered (A nearby black hole causing a disturbance in the space-time continuum? An evasive and invasive Smurf hiding in the walls?). Examined closer, the things I thought were going to be hard about replacing the light switch were quite tame. After all, I can flick a switch to cut the power and use logic to isolate and make a diagnosis. I’ve done both of these things countless times!

Attempting a repair for the first time is stepping into something new, so it’s to be expected that the Hard Parts from your past are not likely to be the Hard Parts of your future. This is true because past troubles are familiar; you’ve already either overcome or avoided them. This prior experience and knowledge automatically makes them less potent.

Even if a repair is routine, you probably still won’t be able to guess the Hard Part, should it arise. A seasoned electrician would have laughed at my light switch repair problem: a person with those skills would obviously know how to release the clips holding in the wire. This simple repair would have been a 5-minute distraction for them. They might be able to do a thousand with no incidents…

Compared to me, a professional electrician has a much more detailed map of how a light switch replacement should go. But even though their mental model is larger and more complex, filled with the rich details of their training and experience, it’s still just as finite as mine. That means that when the Hard Part finally arrives for them, it too will be outside their prior experience and conception. And, just like me, they will be surprised.

A never-ending process: the Hard Part lies outside your experience and knowledge. Every time you encounter an unseen difficulty, your circle of awarness expands to include it. But, the next Hard Part will be outside of that enlarged circle, etc.
(image: © Jason Maxham)

Your Imagination Needs Help

The Hard Part lurks outside the bubble of your experience and what you consider possible. It’s therefore hard to guess, so you’re going to need help! This is especially true if you’re working on something dangerous (like electricity), where unforgiving Hard Parts can damage, maim, or kill.

Manuals, troubleshooting guides, and “how-to” tutorials are typically filled with references to the Hard Part. This is also the kind of thing that seasoned repair veterans are quick to point out, if you bother to ask them (“You’re doing what?! You better watch out for…”). Between what is written down and what is in the minds of the more experienced, hopefully it’s enough to keep you safe.

Yet there is no end to the process: acquiring more knowledge simply pushes the Hard Part further out into the unknown unknowns. That means there will always be accidents and unseen difficulties involving repair. Cultivating a curiosity about the wider world gives you a chance of avoiding these troubles, but be glad you can’t extinguish all the mysteries. As long as the Hard Part doesn’t harm you, these unexpected moments of discovery are part of the glorious wonder of being alive.


  • Header image: Wilson, William A., Photographer (1978). Bulldozer Freeing Tractor Stuck in Mud. May, 1978. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
  • Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2007), The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Random House.

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