A Broken Elevator and a Lightbulb Moment

I stepped into the elevator on the 25th floor to start my journey home at the end of a downtown workday. The only other passenger got off. The elevator descended, then eased to a stop. A voice said: “This elevator is now out of service.” The Open Door button didn’t work. None of the buttons worked.

Uh oh.

Being stuck alone in an elevator isn’t unnerving for the reasons you might think. It’s roomy enough, and fresh air circulates. You never get the sense, as in the movies, that it might plunge and pile-drive you into the sub-basement. No, what’s troubling is the uncertainty of the time frame. Is this a hiccup or day-changer?

I knew the answer when the security guard, a gentleman named David, who had answered the alarm, and whom I had gotten to know through an odd exploratory conversation consisting of polite shouts, said:

“Hang in, there, Bruce: the elevator company is on its way.”

“How long, do you reckon?”

“I dunno. Traffic’s pretty bad.”

“David, can I ask you a favor?” I said. “My phone’s out of juice. Could you please call my wife and tell her to get dinner going for the kids?”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

I heard David taking to Jen.

“She says no problem!” he reported.

I sat on the floor and brought out my laptop. A Word file was open on the desktop. I picked up my earlier train of thought and started typing. It was very quiet.

This was, it occurred to me, actually no hardship at all. In fact it was … kinda great. It was like serving a very short stint in prison, but without the social stigma. (In fact, just the opposite. I was exempted from my chores and eliciting sympathy. Bonus!)

I worked like an ant until the battery died. (Note to self: Always plug in to power when you can. You never know when you might be without it.) Then I brought out a book. Tranquility filled the little room. This was both productive and relaxing – normally a hard mix to achieve.

This unforeseen event had produced exactly the right conditions for good, deep work, namely: no interruptions and no distractions.

Nobody could reach me. Which meant a free pass from the kind of things that typically chop up a work day: no meetings, no phone calls, no driving people places. If Coleridge had been stuck in an elevator, the Man from Porlock never would have found him, and Kubla Kahn would have been a very different poem.

“No distractions” was an even bigger boon. Digital diversions are an ongoing battle for everyone. They’re worse than interruptions because we create them ourselves. They’re an intruder already in the house. (And they’re the reason our attention spans have shrunk to around eight seconds on average — two seconds shorter than a goldfish’s.) You need Sufi-like self-control to stay on task when the wifi sign’s illuminated on the toolbar. This isn’t just an issue of productivity; it’s an issue of mental health. For me, the elevator was a black box. It removed temptation. After a brief moment of panic (not that I was trapped in an elevator, but that I was trapped with my own thoughts and nothing else) I settled in. Jung had his tower, those Lockheed Martin engineers had their Skunk Works. And I had my broken elevator.

So here’s the “lightbulb moment” part. What if we could create our own broken elevators? In other words, what if, at pre-arranged intervals, we bubbled ourselves off from the world to do whatever we needed to do? And to further sharpen our focus, what if we made a deal with ourselves: This thing we’re applying ourselves to, whatever it is, has to be one thing. One task, one goal, and you don’t come out of the elevator till it’s done.


Ninety minutes later, the Otis guy showed up. I could hear him talking to David. Then he applied some kind of key. The door slid open. Handshakes all around.

David looked me up and down. He’d clearly been worrying. What if I was a litigator or a doctor, and some important piece of the people’s business went south because this elevator didn’t? There could be a lawsuit. David seemed relieved that I was just a regular guy.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

“No problem,” I said.

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