An old joke that probably hits home for a lot of us is making the rounds again. It goes like this:

Three people are about to lose their heads on a guillotine.

The first of the condemned, a missionary priest, walks up and stoically gets into position. The switch is pulled and the blade descends noisily down the track. With a heavy thud, the blade comes to rest – just inches above the missionary's neck. After he realizes he's alive, he looks up and exclaims, "God has spared me!" He receives a pardon, and walks away.

Next in line, an insurgent. Cursing and spitting, he's dragged onto the platform and forced to lie on his back across the block. The switch is pulled and again the blade lands heavily, inches from its target. The rebel jumps up and stumbles across the stage with his fist in air, shouting, "The revolution cannot be stopped!" He also is pardoned and disappears into the crowd.

The last of the condemned, an engineer, slowly approaches the guillotine. As he lays down, a flood of loose change, pens, and pencils falls to the ground. Dutifully, he brushes the clutter aside. When he finally gets situated, he looks up, and before he can stop himself, points to a spot on the track and says, "You know, I think your cable may be binding right there."

Nobody likes to be stereotyped, but you have to admit there's some truth to "the overzealous engineer" who provides the punch line for our story. And in his case, as is the case for so many engineers, it's the sort of truth that hurts.

Too often, the fix-it-at-any-cost mentality that seems to drive us is also one of our downfalls. Like the fellow assisting in his own demise, we often get so wrapped up in figuring out how things work and how to make them better that we forget to look after our own basic needs. In the meantime, our finances, our careers, our families, and our lives fall victim to neglect as we stand idly by.

But that's only part of the challenge we face. Another problem is that when we do try to take control of our lives, particularly our careers, we often run into people who've come to expect the kind of personal disregard shown by our friend in the joke. Take a stand and you'll see what I mean.

Don't be discouraged though. Believe it or not, you do have leverage. Even though many corporate decision makers are about as oblivious to engineering worth as you or I are to the latest trends in Italian footwear, there is a way you can get what you deserve. At least that's how it worked out for the engineer who stars in another joke making a comeback. You might want to tell this, kind of as an icebreaker, in your next salary negotiation:

For 30 years, Joe, an engineer, was the "go to" guy at his company. If something had to be done right, Joe was the man.

Several years into retirement, Joe received a frantic phone call. A piece of equipment at the plant where Joe worked was on the blink. It had been down almost three weeks, costing the company millions. Not even the manufacturer could get the thing to run.

The next morning Joe drove out to the plant to look at the machine. While he climbed around the huge contraption, telling the operator which buttons to press and when, the company president got on the phone to let customers know that one of the engineers was "getting everything all squared away."

When he finished his calls, the president went out on the floor for an update. He looked at Joe and asked, "What's the verdict?" Joe grabbed a piece of chalk. Without a word, he reached up and marked a small cylinder. "There's your problem," he said. The part was replaced and the machine worked perfectly.

Later, Joe showed up with a bill for $50,000. He gave it to the president, who slid it back across his desk, saying, "We can't pay this without an itemization of the charges." Joe took the paper, scribbled on it, and handed it back. It said:

One chalk mark ................. $1
Knowing where to put it ...$49,999
The president wrote a check for the full amount and Joe went back into retirement.

– Larry Berardinis
lberardinis@penton.com