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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“You Can’t Outsmart the Work”

Chris, Jeff and I all went to the same school to work in our respective Master’s programs back in the early 2000’s.  Our studies were challenging and we enjoyed our learning experience.

Jeff went on to earn a Ph.D in Leadership Studies at a fine school on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.  Those pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy degree spend a lot of time in books and writing, like their counterparts in the medical and legal professions, to name just two disciplines.

Some time later, Chris and Jeff got together—reflecting on their educational journeys.  Their conversation went along these lines.

Chris:  “So, how is your Ph.D program going, Jeff.  I bet it’s intense.”

Jeff:  “For sure.  I’ve never read and wrote so much in my life.”

Chris:  “What does it take to get through a Ph.D program?”

Jeff:  “You’d be surprised.”

Chris:  “Oh really?  What do you mean?”

Jeff:  “Well, the ones who make it through a doctoral program like this aren’t the ones you’d expect.”

Chris:  “Really.  Who make it through and who don’t?”

Jeff:  “Not the geniuses.  The ‘Einsteins’ are the ones who wash out.”

Chris:  “Really?! Why?” (This goes against the standard assumptions of genius and success.)

Jeff:  “Because you can’t outsmart the work.




There is gold here.  And it is this.  There is no substitute for putting in your time and paces to earn a high degree/platform or income.  10,000 hour rule again.   One could fairly apply the 19th century label of “snake oil” to a lot of get-rich-quick schemes and thinking that so many of us gravitate to to make as much money in as little time with as little effort as possible.

We cheat ourselves when we do this.  Self-deception is delicious but it bites hard in the end.

Here’s a couple of quotes to ponder on the value of hard work:

  • “Wizard?  Pshaw. It’s plain hard work that does it.” (Thomas Edison, on being called a wizard)
  • “I was made to work. If you are equally industrious, you will be equally successful.” (Johann Sebastian Bach, author of over 1000 musical works in all sorts of genres)
  • “The only way to escape the personal corruption of praise is to go on working. One is tempted to stop and listen to it. The only thing is to turn away and go on working. Work. There is nothing else.” (Albert Einstein)


  • Do you love work or loathe it, seeking to avoid it if at all possible?
  • If you loathe your work, what can you do to change your approach to it? Perhaps cultivate a new field of work, a new discipline?
  • Are you aware of the genius/talent discussion embodied in the “10,000 hour rule” and the Edisonian maxim, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration?” As a counter to the rule read here.


Suggested Resources:

Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (Geoff Colvin)

Outliers: The Story of Success (Malcolm Gladwell)


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Seven Decades and Going Strong

Dad1942.  Our country fully at war in Europe and the Pacific Rim.  A time of apprehension, fear, courage and destiny.

A boy born in the Great Lake State.  He grew up learning the ethic of hard work, doing his share of chores on the family farm.  It has held him in good stead all his life.

As a teenager, he faced devastating loss with the rest of his siblings and yet survived it.

As a young adult, he  made the courageous choice, in the height of the Cold War, to serve in the United States Air Force, first in Turkey and later at headquarters for the Strategic Air Command, Offutt Air Force Base, just outside Omaha, NE.

He married and adopted a young child–a boy, and went on to add two handsome sons and a beautiful daughter–siblings.  He went on to serve twenty-nine years in the Michigan State Police.

He taught his family the value of hard work.  He was always at work on some project, all the while serving his community and his state during his “day job.”  He still rarely slows down with his projects–carpentry, renovation and additions. Even after retirement eighteen years ago, he has continued his to use his skills in fire and arson investigation privately, providing for his family.

He taught his kids to love one another and get along.  He attended their ball games and school events.

He taught his kids the value of faith, providing for tuition for parochial school–not an inexpensive enterprise by any means.

He taught them to get back on the horse if you’ve fallen off.  That mistakes are not permanent.  Dust yourself off and get back into the fray.

He outworks men half his age.  Two replaced hips later, he still rocks.  He just doesn’t stop.  Serves his wife–our fantastic stepmom Debby–his  family, his Church, his community, this great nation–her values and the things that make her great.

I am that adopted kid.  And this is my dad.  James Edward Fahey.  Today is his birthday.  He continues to encourage and inspire us all.

Happy Birthday Dad.  I love you.  We all do!

Drudgery, Persistence, Creation, Art

Tom ClancyThis past week, the world saw the passing of writer Tom Clancy, bestselling author of the Jack Ryan techno-thriller novels.  He was 66.

He began writing, as many of us do, while busy at his day job, head of his own insurance company.  He published The Hunt For Red October in 1984 and has been writing successfully ever since.

I read an interview today where he said that the most important quality a writer can possess is persistence.  He counseled writers not to try to commit art but simply to tell the story.

It is a common temptation to romanticize the creative life.  The Muse kisses us and we’re off, effortlessly bringing another work to life.

But that is just that: A romantic notion.  Those who are busy in the work of creation will tell you that if you wait for inspiration, you will have few offerings, if any.  In fact, inspiration tends to come as we set our hands to the plow and begin.

Drudgery is something of a dirty word in our day.  It need not be.  The great pianist, Ignace Jan Paderewski, when being praised in a gushing way for his genius by a certain lady said, “Madame, before I was a genius, I was a drudge.”  In other words, great performance can only come through endless hours of practice, out of the limelight.

Drudge?  How unromantic.

But drudgery, persistence, dogged stick-to-it-iveness, whatever you call it, is the explosive secret weapon, the indispensible ingredient in the toolchest of the creative.

So…do the work.  Inspiration comes to those who are busy at their craft.  The Muse kisses foreheads glistening with sweat, tasting of salt.  The very act of creating a work that outlives you and ennobles, challenges, and inspires others brings inspiration in the midst of the drudgery.  It is the artist’s secret.

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How Larry Bird Became Larry Bird

In 1979, Hall of Fame standout Larry Bird first broke into the NBA, the beginning of a long and spectacular career with the Boston Celtics.  Larry had a practice regimen that he faithfully observed throughout his career.  He would arrive at the venue at least two hours before game time and, with the help of a ball boy, shoot baskets.  Over and over.  Before every single game.  Larry said that through hard work and self-discipline, he was able to go farther in his career than other guys who had better natural gifts but didn’t work hard developing their talents.  Though Bird was tall (6’9”), he couldn’t run or jump well.  But he could outshoot and outthink his opponents.  This he did time and time again.

We all come into life with certain aptitudes, advantages and challenges.  What we do with what we’ve been given determine the kinds of lives we make for ourselves.  Quality and success in life do not come automatically.  You may have superior intelligence, even brilliance.  But if you neglect the hard work of study, learning, practice and productivity, your potential will remain unfulfilled.  That doctor, attorney, theologian, financial analyst, software engineer, or Grammy Award-winning musician inside you does not emerge automatically.

Some years ago a friend of mine was working on his Ph.D in Leadership Studies.  When asked what types of students earn their doctorates (versus those who don’t), he remarked, “The Einsteins wash out.” Why? “Because you can’t outsmart the work.”  That was the secret of Thomas Edison’s genius.  “It’s plain hard work that does it.”  I especially am keeping this in mind as I’m going back to graduate school in January to finish my Master’s degree.

Similarly, you may have come into life with health problems in your family tree.  Those challenges do not have to define or limit your life.  You may have obesity, heart disease or high blood pressure in your family line but their effects are not necessarily inevitable.  Again, it takes work—the hard but fruitful work of exercising, eating carefully, avoiding unhealthy behaviors and stuff.

Life is what we make it.  It’s a canvas to paint on.  Like Larry Bird, with hard work and self-discipline, we can take modest giftings, even disadvantages and turn them into a Hall of Fame life.

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Crafting Your Own Job Security

Living in the swamp of a stagnant economy presents many challenges one might not otherwise face in a time of prosperity.  Navigating a volatile employment market takes ingenuity, drive, and creative thinking.  And not a little personal sacrifice.

Depending on where you reside, the unemployment rate currently hovers between 7-10%.  It is an employer’s market, even in the Armed Forces.  One career Army sergeant told me a few summers ago that the job security of being able to reenlist is a thing of the past.  Those who wish to do so are carefully scrutinized.  A record of poor performance, apathy, dust-ups with the law (e.g. bar fights, domestic mischief), etc., and your chances of being rehired are remote indeed.  Even the US Army can now pick and choose.

As well, many highly educated veterans in banking, InfoTech, retail, and other markets, having been downsized, are now taking the simplest jobs, with high mortgages and school bills coming due without fail.

What to do?

I believe that job security is best stewarded in one’s own hands.  Labor unions can only go so far.  Those who keep their skills current, their work ethic stellar, their thinking creative, and their drive unimpaired stand the best chance of finding and maintaining gainful, even satisfying, employment in this competitive economy.

Here are some things you can do to hone your edge and increase your staying power:

  • Traditional continuing education.  This means everything from attaining or completing a degree program to adult enrichment courses at your local community college.  You must weigh the costs associated and determine the value of the investment.  It is a fantastic choice for many.
  • Internet learning–at little or not cost.  There is so much free training material on the Web that one is able to complete a good deal of traditional education for little or no cost.  True, such training may not have the clout of an earned degree, but if it enables you to produce the results a company is looking for, you may get the job.  MIT and Stanford, to name just two outstanding schools, have a huge assortment of free courses online—computer programming to engineering and everything in between.  Avail yourself.
  • A second job outside your primary vocation.  It does not hurt at all to learn skills completely unrelated to your career.  I am an IT professional, but also a carpenter, musician and baker.  When the chips are down, I can look to these other fields for income and production.  If it means taking a second job at low pay and bottom of ladder, do it.  You will learn a new skill, valuable in itself.  And it may well keep you afloat in the days ahead.

Remember, you may have to train on your own time and dime.  Make the sacrifice.  Your sense of self-accomplishment as well as potential marketability are worth the effort!

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The Hard Work Variable In Success

If you stop by The Upside often, you’ll know that I mentor young leaders about once a week.  A handful of guys in their twenties meet with me and we discuss leadership, family, career and steps to success.  We had a great meeting today.

A couple of these men work between 90-100 hours a week.

No, that wasn’t a typo.

90-100 hours every week, holding down multiple jobs.

You simply cannot expect to advance in your career, increase your income and become exceptional in your vocations and avocations without putting time into them.  A lot of time.

There are no shortcuts.  Those who are “getting rich quick” with cheap moneymaking schemes will eventually lose.  Being clever is not necessarily the mark of being a professional.  Nor is it a benchmark of character.

These guys earn my respect.  They are putting out to get ahead for their families—multiple jobs, college and vocational schooling.  And they carve out a couple of hours each week to meet and be challenged.

I’ve long admired the cultural, economic and vocational achievements of the Jewish people.  Jews make up less that 1% of the world’s population and yet have won almost 25% of all Nobel Prizes awarded since 1901.

This is due in part to a sober understanding that to get ahead and make an impact in the world takes an enormous amount of focus and hard work over many years.  The Jewish people have understood this as well as any people group in history.

God initially set the bar for humanity when He said, “Six days you shall labor and do your work.  The seventh is a Sabbath (rest) to the Lord your God.”  The Hebrew day was a twelve hour day.  That alone—as my pastor Kirk Gilchrist has pointed out a number of times—comprises 72 hours.

There are no shortcuts.

I left our meeting challenged by the lifestyle of my colleagues.  How much would my skills as a writer and a musician improve—exponentially—if I worked 90-100 hours each week (including my 40 hour job)?

How much indeed?

Time to get at it.

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