Chasing Details

22 06 2012

Years ago, when Focus On The Family was a much smaller organization, Dr. James Dobson fired off a memo to his staff (in the hundreds at the time).  Paraphrasing his missile, he reminded Focus staffers that FOTF was a detail organization.  That he was drowning in details but following up and expected the same for everyone else on ship.  If they were unwilling to chase details, they simply didn’t belong in the organization.

The memo was blunt and filled with characteristic Dobsonian fire.  But it was effective.  Apparently a letter—this was the Jurassic era, pre-internet—lay on someone’s desk for three weeks.  The letter from a FOTF listener sought help and was not followed up on and then forgotten.  Word of the failure reached the president’s desk.  Thus Jim Dobson’s ire.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” has become a very popular mantra these days.  Just ask Richard Carlson, whose bestselling book championed the cause.  I read the book and found a lot of practical tips for chilling out and getting past the anxiety curve over stuff that is genuinely not a big deal.

It’s just the “and it’s all small stuff” part that I can’t subscribe to.

Disclosure: I am a retentive.  Ask anyone who knows me.  My pastoral office was always kept so organized that one of my bosses quipped, “This is so well organized, it’s sin.”  Our secretary and her children used to go into my space when I was away and put things out of order and balance just to mess with me.  (This was long before Feng Shui became the rage.)  My IT desk suffers from the same affliction though a tad more relaxed.

All kidding aside, I’ve learned that more often than not, details—and attention to them—make all the difference in the world.  The key is learning that not all details are created equal.

In my daily work in the Information Sciences, I interact with very complex relational databases.  Spreadsheets, SQL queries and CAD drawings are where I make my living.  Anybody who’s worked for any length of time with these kinds of programs and applications knows that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of points of failure if the details are not cared for.  Spreadsheet searches return nothing if you add an extra space or character that doesn’t belong.  Code and query strings will fail to execute successfully if the syntax (the precise arrangement of parts) is not exact.

Little things mean a lot.

I’m reminded of the Bible story of Moses.  When he led the children of Israel out of Egypt, they stopped at Mount Sinai.  It was there that Moses went up into the mountain to speak with God.  And there God gave him the Torah—His law.  Not just the Ten Commandments, but numerous other laws covering everything from the treatment of foreigners to dietary restrictions and allowances.

Moses was also given technical information.  Specifically, God gave him a blueprint to construct a tent for worship.  God told Moses to build it exactly as he’d been shown it on the mountain.  Failure to follow precise details—curtain lengths, incense recipes, etc.—would cause God to reject the whole project.  And Moses would’ve risked his life to improve on God’s design.

I’ve always been struck by this reality.  God cares about details.

Here’s the challenge:  Weigh the import of the details of every thing you do.  Some details are liquid.  But others need to be maintained.  Here are some:

  • Appointments.  Time is inelastic and irretrievable.  Being on time means being early.  A thirty minute meeting—if announced thus—ends at thirty minutes.
  • Birthdays and Anniversaries.  Don’t mess this one up.  It matters a lot.
  • April 15th.  Unless you are filing for an extension, you need to complete your income taxes by this date.  Lacking an extension, you’ll find out that our government takes details seriously.
  • Names.  Take whatever time and effort you need to learn accurately the names of those you meet.  It’s been said that the sweetest sound another person can hear is their own name spoken.

Attention to detail will distinguish you.  It is usually what sets apart the excellent from the mediocre.  Make the effort.

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