Showing Up or Phoning It In?

showing up or phoning it in

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1988, I was hired as the sole manager of a full-line bakery in Upstate New York. I was twenty-four years old and newly married. The owner of the bakery lived a hundred miles away. We did business twenty-four hours a day, 364 days a year. We closed for Christmas; that was it. I was on call always. I learned to get on well with fatigue, my constant buddy.

I learned a lot during the two and a half years I managed the business. One lesson I learned early was the importance of your attitude toward your work, however menial or apparently insignificant. That first year I had one particular employee who worked the counter as one of our bakery clerks. This lady was bright, but not very motivated to keep busy in her tasks, which included waiting on customers and preparing baked goods for the showcases. She told me one day, “When I get a real job, then I will work hard.” (Apparently preparing and selling food, a basic life necessity, didn’t qualify as real work.) Eventually she moved on.

That is the one thing I remember about her. She came to work but she didn’t show up. She punched the clock and did minimal enough work to ensure she didn’t get fired. But she didn’t try. Her attitude colored everything. I’ve wondered a lot over three decades where she ended up in life.

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. The best you can. We cheat ourselves and our colleagues when we give the least amount of effort necessary rather than being a professional and acting like it.

Here’s a few reality checks that will help you:

  • What is your attitude as you approach work? Is it engaged and focused, or passive and listless? Trust me, those to whom you report or who report to you can tell the difference.
  • With your tasks, how attentive are you to the details? It’s in the details that excellence and mediocrity part ways. Take the time to do it right. The first time.
  • Are you committed to continuous learning and improvement in your work or do you stay only as current as you need to keep afloat? Doing the latter will catch up with you, eventually; doing the former will serve you.

Suggested Resources:

Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life  (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

The Success Principles(TM) – 10th Anniversary Edition: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (Jack Canfield with Janet Switzer)

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Dr. King on Excellence

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

 

Suggested Resources:

The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue EXCELLENCE (Thomas J. Peters)

Inner Excellence: Achieve Extraordinary Business Success through Mental Toughness (Jim Murphy)

 

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Initiative, Effort, Excellence

Initiative Effort ExcellenceWhen you were growing up, did you hear this question (I bet you did)?  “Why do you have to wait for me to tell you to clean up your room?”  One or both parents would make this nagging request.  Yes, I thought it would bring back memories.

What were our parents trying to do?  Were they simply bored and looking for something to gripe about, harping on us, making our lives unpleasant?  No.

What they were trying to mold in us was this:  Initiative.  Self-discipline.  Drive.

I thought about this today and realized that the difference between excellence and mediocrity boils down to whether one is a self-starter or has to be told, constantly, what is the next step in any given enterprise or series of tasks.

Understand this:  Your boss, like your parents, can spot initiative.  And initiative taken, even if the performance is not up to speed, gets favorable attention from those who are in a position to help us.  The obverse is true as well.  Our betters can spot laziness and a “just enough to get by” attitude a mile away.

I studied French for six years in high school and college.  One common occurrence I’ve heard about more than once comes from people who’ve either visited France or Quebec.  The French are notoriously jealous of their native tongue.  And they should be for it is a beautiful language.  Those who take the initiative to try and communicate in French with native French speakers, even if their own skills are marginal, often have the reward of the French trying to help them, honored that someone took time and effort to try.  Such initiative has an ingratiating quality about it.

Here’s the challenge:  Find something in your job, your vocation, your home, wherever, that you can do without being asked.  And then make a habit of this.  “It’s not my job” must not be within a million miles of your credo.  You are meant for far more than that.  And the habit for doing more than is expected will be rewarded.

Remember, people are watching.  Up the ante.

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Uneven Performance and Excellence

Uneven PerformanceDerek Jeter, throughout a stellar career in Major League Baseball that has spanned eighteen seasons, gets a hit—on average—only three times for every ten at-bats.  And he is destined for induction in the Hall of Fame, probably the first ballot, five years after he retires.

Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player to step onto an NBA court, has missed more shots than he’s taken.  That’s an admission out of his own mouth and a matter of statistical fact.  And he’s Michael Jordan—a Hall of Famer and the standard by which professional hoopsters are judged.

Thomas Edison had over a thousand failures before he perfected the incandescent light bulb.  He kept at it until he got it right.

None of us is perfect.  We are all uneven performers in every conceivable area of life.  And yet we are capable of excellence and being outstanding in those things to which we put our hands.  Think about that.

Excellence does not mean never making a mistake, striking out, dropping a pass or making a train wreck of a meeting or conversation.  It does mean, however, getting up and dusting off, stepping back into the batter’s box, and calling someone and saying, “I’m sorry.  I blew it.  Please forgive me.”

Failed recently?  Join the club.  You are not a god and neither am I.  We are uneven often, perhaps most of the time.  But we keep at it.  We don’t stop trying.  We double down and give better effort and evaluate failure points as well as those times where we succeeded.

Okay now—no self-pity.  Don’t take yourself too seriously.  Bruised egos are not fatal by any means.  Get back on that horse and charge!

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Ambition, Talent, and Plain Hard Work

talent-is-overratedPeople tend to get quite uneasy at the mention of the word ambition in context of discussions about career, calling, vocation.  The classic stereotype is the self-centered man or woman who claw their way to the top of the corporate ladder stepping on anybody and everybody who happens to be perched on the rungs below–and in their way.  Ego, indifference to time-honored virtues, and bullying are all.

This is unfortunate.  Frankly, ambition has gotten a bad rap.  In fact, without it you will not hit any of your goals, whether personal and professional.

Last year, some friends and I discussed healthy ambition and its importance.. We focused on moving up in one’s career and becoming the best in one’s chosen field.  There is cost, effort, and sacrifice expended to make this happen.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  The pursuit of a highly valued station of influence and achievement takes patience, focus and a lot of hard work.  Those who take shortcuts are cheating themselves and are usually found out.

In his fascinating book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else, author Geoff Colvin–Senior Editor-At-Large of Fortune magazine shatters a number of myths about “natural” talent, genius and how pros become such.  These are usually echoed in statements like this: “Well, Tiger Woods was born to play golf.  He’s a natural.”

Here’s something you may not know. Tiger Woods and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart both had fathers who started them on the paths of golf and music from infancy.  Earl Woods had a putter in Tiger’s hands before he was a year old.  Leopold Mozart was an established musician and composer before his son was born.  He set Wolfgang on a very focused and intense vocation in musical performance and composition from childhood.  Neither Tiger Woods nor W. A. Mozart were geniuses in common parlance and legend.  They spent many years mastering their crafts.

Peak performers in any discipline acquire that position through untold hours of deliberate practice.  Not just practice, but focused periods of review and goal setting with specific objectives in mind.  When Tiger Woods goes to the driving range, he doesn’t simply pull out a driver and see how far he can hit the ball.  Instead he might take a five iron out and practice hitting the ball not more than sixty-five yards.  There is much more intense energy and concentration that attends deliberate practice.

Here are some steps that are crucial for you to rise to the top of your calling:

  • You must be a lifelong learner.  This means college, vocational school, online seminars, or training at the feet of a master whether a cabinet-maker or a jazz pianist.  It will cost time, discipline, sacrifice, and money.  Make the investment.
  • Saying yes also means saying no.  Getting to the top of the classical guitar world meant that a teenage Christopher Parkening was unable to play baseball with his pals as much as he’d like to have done.  His father, Duke, had him executing deliberate practice from the age of eleven.  Up at 5:00 AM to practice before school.  More practice when school was over.  Choosing mastery in an enterprise means you will not be able to say yes to lots of other pursuits simply because of the time and focus it takes to excel in your chosen field.
  • You must move past the drudgery curve.  A woman once told the great pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski, “You are a genius.”  His reply: “Madame, before I was a genius, I was a drudge.”  The driving range, the woodshop, the music room are not glamorous environments but it is in such places, over long hours, that one becomes a master.

When asked about his remarkable success as an inventor, Thomas Edison–who only had a third-grade education–remarked, “It’s plain hard work that does it.”

Well.

The world is looking for individuals who are outstanding at what they do.  Mediocrity, for such as these, grates against every instinct inside them.  You are called to such excellence. The sky is the limit.  Focus and move forward.

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When Less Is More

less-is-more-pic

One of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read is Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney.  In this book, the author unpacks some of the keys to the design and marketing philosophy of Steve Jobs and Apple.  Some of the chapter titles are provocative (Focus: How Saying “No” Saved Apple; Elitism: Hire Only A Players, Fire the Bozos).

Jobs was leery of trying to do too many things with Apple.  In fact, when he took over Apple again in 1997 after a twelve year absence, he slashed and mothballed a lot of projects in the works.  Apple was in deep trouble financially.  He made the decision to focus on a few key products and make them superior to anything in the market.

“Feature creep” is the IT design practice of creating all sorts of bells and whistles for any new piece of technology, thus increasing the product’s versatility and, therefore, sales.

Steve Jobs had no patience for feature creep.

This impatience was an outgrowth of his Zen minimalism which, in design terms, meant making technology as simple and user-friendly as possible.  So he and his colleagues worked painstakingly to do a few signature Apple devices extremely well.  As Jobs’ famous mantra says, “Focus means saying no.”

Two summers ago, Apple passed Exxon Mobil as the most profitable corporation—at the time—in our country.  Jobs really knew what he was doing.

As a musician, it’s taken me quite a few years to learn that less is more.  The spaces between the notes I play are as important, sometimes more, as the notes themselves.  Or, as Dan Fogelberg said as a young studio musician, “I learned that it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play.”

What have you been given?  What do you do well?  What can you pare down or eliminate to simplify and focus, bringing your contributions to a higher level of excellence?

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Aristotle On the Habit of Excellence

Plato and Aristotle from “The School of Athens” (Raphael)

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

–Aristotle (384-322 BC)

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