Taking pride in the things you do

  • For the third time in ten minutes, I was jolted forward in my car seat. "Mom, stop braking so hard," I said. She didn't take it well. "Kevin, I've been driving for thirty years. I know how to drive."
  • Jason and I were wiping down the whiteboard at work. It's an old white board, so markers leave a dirty trail. After ten minutes of wiping, my side had streak marks and smudges I couldn't get rid of. Jason's half of the board was a perfect, flawless white. I'd just gotten my butt kicked in wiping a dry erase board. Humbled, I asked Jason for his secret. He showed me: you take two sheets of paper towel and fold that into quarters. Spray the board liberally, wipe one time all the way across horizontally, then flip it over to get a good grip. Then wipe down in hard, straight lines (not circular).
  • "Wow, this is much easier," I thought. I was carrying a heavy box over my shoulder. For the last twenty-two years I'd been lugging around heavy things below my waist, awkwardly holding it against my leg as I walked. Then the other day I thought, "Wouldn't this be so much easier if I could walk properly?" So I began lifting things higher, holding them near my chest or on my shoulders. I'm sure this has been "discovered" over and over again, but it was a revelation for me. I saw the method behind the madness of Indian railway porters.

The thread running through these vignettes is the idea that everything you do has technique involved. Even tasks that people think of as being really easy, tasks that take seven seconds, like tying your shoes, or jobs that command seven dollars an hour.

Marissa Mayer, who's now a top executive at Google, worked as a grocery clerk in high school. No one expects greatness from high school grocery baggers. But Mayer was determined to do a good job. Listen to her description of the art of grocery bagging:

"I learned a lot about work ethic from people who had been there for 20 years," she said. "They could do 40 items a minute over an eight-hour shift. I was pretty routinely in the 38-to-41 range. I was pretty happy about that. I have a good memory for numbers. At the grocery store, you have to remember to charge $4.99 a pound for grapes and 99 cents a pound for cantaloupe by typing in a number code. The more numbers you could memorize, the better off you are. If you had to stop to look up a price in a book, it totally killed your average."

We do basketball drills at camp, but a lot of the value comes from teaching kids to start pride in what they do, and focus on the technique underlying a successful shot, or a particularly tough dribbling drill. A lot of kids are content to just go through the motions; they aren't thinking about what they're doing and whether they could be doing it better. I don't blame them for going through the motions; it's likely no one taught them how to think about technique and continual improvement.

Other kids hit a plateau trap - they reach some level of skill, say "I'm good enough at this skill" and they stop trying to get better. This one is particularly deadly. Because there are a lot of hungry people out there that are focusing on their technique, improving it, and it might not happen today, but eventually they'll eat your lunch.

I'm never going to compete with any one in a "who can tie their shoes better" competition, or a box lifting technique competition. But I take pride in the things I do and in giving everything my best effort. Even on simple tasks I can derive satisfaction from a job well done and hopefully time and stress saved versus doing it badly. And that has to be enough.

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