Four Life Lessons Built Inside of Me at Home Depot

Four Life Lessons Built Inside of Me at Home Depot June 3, 2024

Mark Whitlock at Home Depot with his creation for the Kids' Workshop for June 2024 illustrating his Patheos article "Four Lessons Built in Me at Home Depot"
June’s Kids’ Workshop Creation

My career took a sharp left turn last fall. I have been networking, searching for a job, and re-tooling my résumé like a racecar mechanic trying to get more horsepower.

Instead of further building my career as a storyteller (radio, marketing, or book publishing), I’m a Pro Associate at Home Depot. When I joined the team at the world’s orange-est hardware store, I had no idea that my time here would act as wound therapy to bring about healing from years of work-related mistakes and malformations.

I never imagined myself returning to retail. Or to wages like I earned during the George H. W. Bush administration. But here I am. I first called this pause in my career a “ditch.” I’ve decided to call it a “pit-stop” instead.

As I was getting my feet under me, author, inspirational blowtorch, and podcaster Dan Miller passed away. During his last podcast, he asked a question, “What does this make possible?” He said he asked himself that question during every setback or unexpected development in his life. He believes that twists and turns are God’s way of getting our attention. He encouraged his listeners to look up and around for what God was doing instead of navel gazing and worrying about the future.

“What does this make possible?” —Dan Miller

So, I changed the way I got ready for work. Instead of sitting in my car for a few minutes screwing my “courage to the sticking place” before walking into the store with a manufactured smile on my face, I decided to ask “the question.” Since that decision, I’ve realized that, among all of God Almighty’s many reasons that I don’t understand about this pitstop, I’ve learned these four career search lessons.

Four Character Lessons Learned While on a Career Search

  1. How to be singularly focused and love the person in front of me
  2. Listen—with empathy—at all times
  3. To daily remember my dad’s words and be a lifelong intentional learner
  4. To suck it up and endure—practice longsuffering—from start to finish

I wish I had learned lessons like “how to trigger the AI in HR software to put me at the top of the list” or “asking for what your worth during the job offer process.” Perhaps those lessons are in my future. Please, God, let them be in my future.

1. Love the Person in Front of Me

The Environmental Control Robot from the TV Show "Lost in Spac0"e used as an illustration in Mark Whitlock's Patheos article Four Lessons Built Inside Me at Home Depot
Robot from “Lost in Space”

My DiSC inventory results always produced shapes in the “creative” area. This High-D, High-C got jazzed completing tasks at all times. And sometimes I wanted to complete them for all the wrong reasons like to please others or to be seen as Superman. But often, I became overwhelmed and struggled to sort out tasks once the quantity built up to toxic levels. My system would flash red lights and I’d hear The Environmental Control Robot from “Lost in Space” saying, “Danger Will Robinson! Danger!”

In “overwhelm mode,” I procrastinated. Then, when I neared deadlines, I would promise miraculous heroics to save face.

Okay. Full stop. Let’s not put the PR spin machine on this.

I lied. I lied through my teeth. Then, I would pull something off. The projects would be late, but the customers would love the work so much—or so they would tell me—they overlooked the lateness. In my heart and mind though, I would always wrestle with two lingering questions. First, was the customer lying to me because he or she just needed the work product? Secondly, was that the best I could do? I knew the answer to the second question was always, “No.”

At Home Depot, I am overwhelmed daily, but not with tasks. There are more people in front of me than I can serve. However I’m built, I can never view humans as tasks. So, when I experience the same visceral feelings that rumble through my body when performing tasks, I just remind myself to, “Love the person in front of me.” It is the work equivalent of, “One day at a time.” After more than 100 days of “overwhelm mode,” I recognized that I wasn’t feeling those feelings anymore. I wasn’t breathing faster. I wasn’t gritting my teeth. I wasn’t dreaming of escaping. And I certainly wasn’t lying.

The constant self-reminder to “love the person in front of me” became more than just a motto. It became a way out.

"I could've had a V-8" magazine print ad from the 1970s as an illustration in Mark Whitlock's Patheos article, "Four Lessons Built in Me at Home Depot."
1970s Print Ad for V-8.

Then I blew a deadline on a task. I felt like crap when I did. I was angry. I was sad. I felt godly shame. I gave myself a V-8 bump upside the head and thought, This is how I’m supposed to feel when I miss a deadline. I decided to “Love the person (client) in front of me” even though he or she wasn’t standing right there. A month later, on another deadline for the same client, I was driven to hit the goal. I couldn’t imagine letting them down. The desperation I used to feel after a deadline but before delivery I felt in the days and hours before the actual deadline.

I haven’t had enough experience yet, but I believe I have reprogrammed my system to feel the appropriate feelings at the appropriate time. And thus, get tasks done on time.

For you, that may sound like I spent way too much time with Captain Obvious, but for me, it was a gargantuan revelation.

As one final proof of concept, I don’t think I have ever felt joy of completion the way I felt when I hit that deadline. It was akin to the rush of smiles I feel when I complete a Home Depot “mission” to fulfill someone’s needs, but even richer and more resonant.

2. Listen with Empathy at All Times

Mark Whitlock in his Home Depot apron celebrating his recognition as Associate of the Month at store 0887 for March 2024
Mark Whitlock at Home Depot

I started my Home Depot tenure selling appliances. The number of customers who unloaded the details of their appliance journeys astonished me. I leaned into their stories and practiced my best “active listening” techniques. I thought I was just being my “normal” self until I was rushed. The faster I tried to work with a customer the more wrong I was and the more misinterpretations and assumptions I had to correct. In essence, this axiom was proved in its absence.

Over time, I found myself asking better questions—like the open-ended ones we ask in our Heart of David meetings*. I knew nothing about each new customer. I had to learn his or her needs before I could offer a single solution let alone attempt to sell anything.

I realized that in other endeavors since 2004, I had exercised my arrogance. My cockiness was bolted to my experience and talent. While I thought I was wielding a sword, I was swinging a sledgehammer instead. Listening with empathy lubricated the nuts and bolts and the arrogance fell away.

At first, I didn’t know how to act. I was worried that my confidence fell out of my hands when the arrogance hit the floor. (Trust me, arrogance is not as far away from me as I pray for. I still trip over it from time to time.) I quickly learned, however, confidence was part of the alloy of the sword. Goodbye sledgehammer. Hello Excalibur. (Yeah, I know. A little too far.)

While “loving the person in front of me” and “listening with empathy,” I have become even more successful and feel even richer emotions of genuine joy.

3. Learn Constantly

I served with FamilyLife for longer than 11 years, the richest years of my career (so far). I learned so much. Mentors brought out my gifts and honed my talents. And, for those keeping score at home, I was still a sinner saved by grace in the process of sanctification. I made a lot of mistakes in life, my career, and with my family. I was finishing the process of growing up.

Near the end of my tenure there, my immediate supervisor inviting me into meetings “just to blow things up.” He wanted my opinion and perspective. I enjoyed this, probably a little too much, feeling powerful and influential.

Zoom ahead to year two of my tenure at Thomas Nelson Publishers. I had achieved a great position. Then, the man who hired me moved from Nashville to San Diego to become a pastor. Overnight I worked for a new vice president. In my first meeting under the new leader, he asked for opinions. I proceeded to offer mine in a similar fashion to how I had done so for years at FamilyLife.

"Big mistake. Big. Huge!" Quote by Julia Roberts' character Vivian Ward from the movie "Pretty Woman" as an illustration in Mark Whitlock's Patheos article "Four Lessons Built Inside Me at Home Depot."
Vivian Ward’s Second Shopping Day. From “Pretty Woman.”

“Big mistake. Big. Huge!”

Hindsight? I had not earned his trust. He hadn’t interviewed me, vetted me, checked my references, hired me, trained me, and seen what I could make possible. He inherited me and I needed to learn his management style, needs, desires, goals, fears, pressures, and more. (He and I are still in contact and I have gained much from his wisdom over the years.)

But I didn’t learn that hindsight in 2007 or 2017. I made the same mistake over and over again, including in 2023. It wasn’t until Home Depot—when I was clueless about everything—that I began to see the light.

As a complete novice in orange, I kept my mouth shut and my mind open. And most importantly, I kept my many opinions to myself only to discover quickly how moronic they were. Yes, many of my talents and abilities have been put to great use here and have brought me success (i.e., earned me badges and quick promotions). However, I had tens of thousands of things to learn. I discover dozens of things every day. I’ve had to remain as flexible as a length of 18-gauge wire.

By being such a novice in a new field this late in my career, I was able to watch myself marching through the stages of the process of learning. The video seemed to be playing in fast-forward. By watching the game tape, so to speak, I saw the value of my biting my tongue and only asking clarifying questions to grow my knowledge base.

As I “loved the person in front of me”—including my superiors and co-workers—and “listened with empathy,” I ended up diving headfirst into a renewed commitment to be a lifelong learner.

I hope and pray I’m ready for the next step in my career journey once God deems me ready to leave the pit stop. I don’t know the mind of God, but I am guessing this was a large change He wanted to bring about.

4. Long-Suffer Through Whatever Circumstances Come My Way

When I donned the orange apron, I put a target on my chest for every wandering shopper. Most employees joke that they can’t go to the bathroom without being stopped by four customers along the way. I’ve recommended baseball caps that light up like taxicabs. When the light is on, I’m available for questions. When not, pretend you don’t see me.

Whenever I leave my workstation, an hour or more will pass before I can return because so many customers—whom I will love, listen to, and serve to the best of my ability—will stop me.

C.S. "Jack" Lewis with a large book in his lap while sitting in an arm chair. Illustration from Mark Whitlock's Patheos article, "Four Lessons Built in Me at Home Depot"
C. S. “Jack” Lewis

I have gained a new appreciation for this excellent observation by Uncle Jack.

“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis: The Pilgrim’s Regress, Christian Reflections, God in the Dock

I have tried to see every confused customer as the one “God is sending.” Of course, these customers get in “my” way. Throughout my time wearing the apron, I noticed two things about being interrupted.

First, while I practiced great customer service on my way back to my department, I was always driven by the higher purpose: to get back on task to complete the mission set before me. In my past, I could become distracted or hide from responsibility within the interruptions. Insignificant, non-urgent, and non-important tasks became fuel for procrastination. At Home Depot, I find myself desiring to get back to what I was hired for and trained to do.

Secondly, I now avoid taking on an interruption as a main focus. I remember one time in the 1990s when I used the C.S. Lewis quote as justification for spending more time and energy on the interruption than I did on my main task. I pulled multiple all-nighters to finish the project while my mission languished with mediocre effort applied. Then, I made the same mistake two years later on a similar interruption.

Now What?

These lessons are not the ones I expected to learn during my career pit-stop, but they are lessons I will carry with me for years to come.

The career search—so far—has been brutal. While I’m waiting, I take solace in these lessons. Time has not been wasted. And God has taken His loving chisel to my character to further shape me into the man He desires me to be. I’ll take that.

Under most circumstances, this channel is about how music, poetry, the visual arts, and motion pictures reflect our world and point us to the gospel. This Jimmy Buffet song contains wisdom that would make Solomon point and say, “Yes!” The first verse in particular comforts me.


*The Heart of David, an offshoot of The Samson Society, exists to help men learn how to process their feelings, work through their addictions and hangups, and find freedom in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We accomplish these goals by participating in a weekly modified Quaker Clearance Committee built around the life-giving work of Chip Dodd. Join us on Saturday mornings at 6:30 a.m. CT. Leave a comment and I’ll send you an invitation.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!