On doing a great job, and not.

There’s this post on Seth Godin’s blog called “Avoiding the GIGO trap” that other than being brilliant as Godin’s posts so often are, also reminded me of what I’ve always felt differentiated the people I’ve worked on the spectrum of face-slappingly awful to walk-on-water great.

On the awful side of the spectrum, you have people who just don’t do anything beyond the bare minimum, and they don’t care that they’re doing that. They’re the ones who go, “she asked for ‘XYZ’, we give her ‘xyz'”. It’s close enough, and with some semantic manipulation even meets the requirements.

On the great side of the spectrum, you have people who do all that they’re asked within their power, care tremendously about the product or service they’re looking to provide, and look to go even beyond that. They’re the ones who go, “she asked for XYZ, but we know that isn’t the best thing for us. What if we give her XXZ? Based on my experience, that’s likely to work better and allows us to deliver us even earlier than expected.”


But… let’s introduce context for a moment.

The phone rings. You pick it up. At the same time a nasty e-mail comes in from a colleague whom always seems to make it hard for you. The person on the phone asks where’s the report you promised him. You tell him you’d sent it two days ago only to realise it’s stuck in your Outbox – for some inexplicable reason it never went out, perhaps to do with the e-mail IT had sent earlier but which you didn’t have time to read. You apologise. As you listen to him say he’s “disappointed” you realise you’re at the start of a marathon list of back-to-back meetings.

Imagine that’s a typical day.

Now, to be on the “great side of the spectrum”… perhaps you could push yourself to give that bit more of emotional labour, and still come out on top, but what would that mean for you at the end of the day? What’s the post-work you like after you’ve given it your all? After mental fatigue sets in?


I hadn’t actually expected to write the passage on context above. I was going to end at the first section – “ra-ra great people do this and so should we”. But I realised that in our lives it’s not always easy to be on that “great” side of that spectrum because we have limits. Some less limited than others, but eventually we hit those limits. Just think of Elon Musk on a great day and Elon Musk on an awful day.

I know of people who, if they hadn’t had so much on their plate, would be great. But because of the nature of the job find it difficult to. Going “above-and-beyond” on second- and third-priorities is never a good idea when even “meeting spec” on first-priorities is a problem.


But in the end I am optimistic that it is possible. I personally like to think that we have more opportunities for great days than awful days.

Luck plays a part, surely, but there’s also an aspect of it that involves an investment of time and labour. The concept of “sharpening the saw” that I first read in 7 Habits was one that changed my life. Though I can’t remember exactly what I read, the one key takeaway for me was that despite the allure of “chopping wood”, where your results are instant, once in a while we need to step back and sharpen our proverbial saw, allowing us to chop more wood at a quicker rate in the future.

Sharpening the saw isn’t sexy, and the results can be quite indirect. For example, for me one of the things I did in school was read lots of books on psychology and management, which didn’t do much for me academically at that time.

But by the time I entered the workforce, many of the things I saw and experienced I could relate to because I had already gone through that in a “virtual” manner through books. And when I eventually took on a formal leadership role, the transition was relatively smooth because I knew what to look out for. Same goes with analytics – I was reading and playing around with scripting and data manipulation years before I formally took up a Masters degree and started working professionally with data.

(As an aside, I also read books on Alzheimer’s, Autism, post-retirement activities, and coping with the loss of loved ones because I know one day I’ll be in a situation in which I may have to face these things – even if not directly, through friends or family. My way of sharpening the saw, in the context of life as a whole.)


Awful people aren’t always awful. They could just be great people in awful days. But whom, perhaps, are working diligently in the background sharpening their proverbial saws, so they may one day come out of their chrysalis and show their walk-on-water greatness to us, positively changing the world.

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