Story about why an expert giving a simple fix to a complex problem still deserves to be paid?
August 9, 2007 7:23 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to find/identify a story about a customer with some problem (plumbing maybe?) and calls in an expert to fix it. The expert fixes the problem in some trivial way (turning a valve?) The customer then refuses to pay the expert's fee for such a simple fix. the punchline comes when the expert replies that his fee isn't for turning the valve, it's for knowing *which* valve to turn.
posted by mrgoldenbrown to Work & Money (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A giant ship engine failed. The ship's owners tried one expert after
another, but none of them could figure but how to fix the engine.

Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a
young. He carried a large bag of tools with him, and when he arrived, he
immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, top to

Two of the ship's owners were there, watching this man, hoping he would know
what to do. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and
pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine
lurched into life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed!

A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand

"What?!" the owners exclaimed. "He hardly did anything!"
So they wrote the old man a note saying, "Please send us an itemized bill."

The man sent a bill that read:
Tapping with a hammer....................... $ 2.00
Knowing where to tap.......................... $ 9,998.00

*Effort is important, but knowing where to make an effort makes all the

Note: There are probably dozens of variations on this story.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 7:28 PM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's lots of variations:

Google "knowing which bolt" turns up a few.
posted by vacapinta at 7:29 PM on August 9, 2007

This Google Answers implies its popular as a legend about Ford and Tesla. Related Snopes link.
posted by vacapinta at 7:33 PM on August 9, 2007

Response by poster: I suppose I should now be paying you all 9998$ for "knowing what phrase to google for" Obviously I was trying all the wrong ones.

posted by mrgoldenbrown at 7:43 PM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've also heard the same story, except it stars Niels Bohr. I use it in my consulting fees article on my website, since it's so relevant to consultants.
posted by acoutu at 7:52 PM on August 9, 2007

And it is really old. I've got a 1920's automotive repair manual (ever need to know how to rebuild a muffler (for real) or change a tube on a wooden spoked wheel let me know) that has a funny bit at the beginning of each chapter and one of them features a sign on this theme.
posted by Mitheral at 8:29 PM on August 9, 2007

I've heard it as 'knowing just exactly when to twist the knob: $someexorbitantfigure'.
posted by Malor at 8:52 PM on August 9, 2007

Here's the version I know (and, like Acoutu, use to justify my professional fee):

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him. “It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”

So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”

“Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.

“B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”
posted by Ian A.T. at 5:08 AM on August 10, 2007

I've used this story when people balked at a fee for something I've written.

A famous French hatmaker is sitting in a cafe when a woman approaches and begs him to make her a hat. He assents and takes some pins and some felt out of his satchel. With a whirl of hands he creates a magnificient chapeau. The woman is charmed. The hatmaker says, "That will be 5,000 francs." The woman is aghast. "Five thousand, francs!? But it only took you a few moments." The man then takes the hat, removes all the pins, smooths out the felt and returns it to her saying, "The materials are free." I actually handed someone a blank sheet of paper saying that same thing.

Also, I've worked with a fabulous voiceover actor. I watched him go into the booth and nail a commercial in five minutes. When the client balked at his fee saying, "But it only took you five minutes." My friend replied, "No, it took me 20 years. You only saw the last five minutes."
posted by lpsguy at 6:50 AM on August 10, 2007

The version I heard: Software, semicolon, "knowing where to put it".

(Although reduced to those few words, it sounds kind of dirty.)
posted by IvyMike at 9:41 AM on August 10, 2007

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