Conversations in Management: American Pickers

I know how hard it is for people to let go.

                Mike Wolfe

American_Pickers_1This is the kind of story that can make a teacher weep, but here goes: when Mike Wolfe was five years old, he found an old bike in the trash and sold it two days later. He was, in his own words, “hooked.” If he had any life-altering experiences in the old schoolhouse during those formative years, he hasn’t mentioned them. Granted, direct observation makes it obvious that he mastered reading, writing and ‘rithmatic thanks to his Iowa education, but when it comes to career aspirations and life-long passion, he literally picked them out of the garbage.  Now, along with his boyhood friend and kindred spirit, Frank Fritz, he hosts the History Channel’s American Pickers. The two travel the land (and sometimes the world) “picking” through what most of us would consider trash.

 As you might have surmised, pickers are the 21st century variant of the now vanished junk man. In times past, the junk man—with jingling bells—would steer his cart or wagon through the neighborhood in search of scraps to buy, trade or collect in the hope of selling the stuff to some other discerning citizen. The trade had lost much of its panache until Wolfe turned the process into a hit TV show. Now being a picker has a certain cachet (and certainly sounds better than junk man) though working conditions haven’t improved much. Wolfe and Fritz plunge into warehouses, garages, basements and attics that would have most of us recoiling in horror. Occasionally a pick is organized, but most of the “collections” are nothing more than mountains of rusting, rotting and broken junk. They love it.  Now you might think that when two pleasant fellows from Iowa show up with cash and a film crew to buy your garbage you might be glad to see them. That, however, is not necessarily the case. Wolfe and Fritz often struggle to get people to sell the corroded car parts, damaged toys and paper signs they unearth. The problem is, people are emotionally attached to their things—even things that rightly belong in the dump. Sometimes the attachment is emotional. Other times folks have vague intentions of restoring the items or even creating a museum of their artifacts. Most of the time, though, they just won’t let go. One gent offered that he wanted to sell but couldn’t—the attachment, he said, was like a disease.

Buddhists have been talking about the hazards of attachment for several millennia and offering a variety of curatives. Wolfe and Fritz take a less spiritual approach. They try (often at a premium) to get the collector to sell just one thing. They call it breaking the ice and once that’s done more sales always follow.  That’s a strategy we all can use. While we might not have mountains of junk, we all have mountains of attachments; to people, things and feelings. They come in many forms. The less helpful ones might be destructive relationships, unhealthy habits or what is commonly called a “grudge.” Whatever the form, they weigh us down and accrete over time like trash in a hoarder’s garage. When we decide to do something about it, we often go for the grand gesture—the major life transformation. But that rarely works. It’s too overwhelming and we usually fail. We’d be better off taking the picker’s route. Break the ice. Let go of one thing—and then another. Eliminating attachments is another word for freedom. It feels great. So start pickin’ away at that ice.   —Ebert

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