The Work Ethic and the Dignity of Excellence

There are some things we “just feel in our bones.” I suppose such feelings are nurtured by demonstrated example, perhaps even from something in our genes; such embedded attitudes seem implanted quite early in life. One example of this that intrigues me is the inherent belief that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Some people live their lives framed in that philosophy, while others are consistently content to do enough to “get by” – to just get the job done.

                                 Notable Disciples of Excellence: Steve Jobs                                of Apple Computer and My Father

Steve Jobs_1

Two people come to mind as the ultimate practitioners of “excellence,” Steve Jobs of Apple Computer… and my father! Jobs was a visionary, but one who had the drive and discipline to turn visions into reality – real products that everyone wanted. Why did products such as the Apple II computer, the McIntosh computer, the iPod/iTunes tandem, the iPad, and the iPhone succeed so brilliantly? Because they each served a market looking for a solution….and they worked extremely well at a user/technical level.  Steve Jobs was obsessed with the desire to design truly excellent products. His successes were characterized by ease of use (and usefulness), superb reliability, and, equally important, appealing aesthetics – product “sizzle,” if you will. His favorite phrase about these milestone products echoes still: “Insanely great!” He clearly drove his design teams at Apple to constantly strive for product excellence across the board.

Jobs did not – could not – do it by himself, of course. Anyone hired under his tenure at Apple had to run a possibly unprecedented interview gauntlet before being asked to join the company. Jobs suffered no fools in the process. When I was an active design engineer here in Silicon Valley, stories circulated throughout high-tech of Jobs’ sometimes brutal and blunt interviewing process for prospective high-level Apple employees. He was looking for the spirit of excellence in the people who would be Apple Computer. If you were not on board in that regard, you did not belong. Certainly, “Bozos” need not bother to even apply!

My Father

My father was the perfect example of the attitude that the world needs. He was a gentleman perfectionist in all aspects of his life, with only one year of high school (of economic family necessity) who worked his way up the ladder, the hard way, to become a mechanical design engineer at United Air Lines, responsible for much of their ground-equipment in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Although he gravitated to the more cerebral occupation of engineering, he was also the finest hands-on craftsman I ever knew – extremely skilled at both the design and execution of any project.

RC Dad_1

Dad's Work  Station_1

Everything he designed, made, or repaired, was a work of art including his many RC (radio-controlled) model airplanes and his paintings of early aviation. Even his RC work -station which he took when he went flying was designed by him and hand-built – truly a work of art.

Dad's Dogfight_1

See my blog archives for the post of June 9, 2013, Family Funnies / Great Laughs for more insight on my father and his RC flying.

As a youngster growing up, I admired his talent and ability. Most importantly, I took away from his personal history and example a distinct appreciation for work well done, whether a product of the mind or the hand. That appreciation has never left me; I will add that he has been a tough act to follow!

Most importantly, Dad respected ANY man or woman of good character who always tried their best and, at least some of the time, produced good results in their chosen endeavor – no matter what their “station” in life. I learned that from him and his example.

The Work Ethic, Excellence, and Personal Dignity

What do we gain personally by putting out the extra effort required by a task well-done as opposed to “good enough to get by?” Here is my take: Individually, we can feel proud of our efforts while hopefully earning the respect of our peers. In most cases, one’s good efforts will be noticed by friends, family, and colleagues, and they should be noticed and appreciated. Incorporating a spirit of striving and excellence into our daily activities infuses us with an innate personal dignity that money and “station” in life cannot procure – a dignity that no one can minimize; call it “feeling good about ourselves.”

What does society gain when its members strive for excellence in each and every daily endeavor? First, a more efficient and pleasant existence for all; second, an elevated esprit-de-corps which serves to intensify even further the drive for excellence while promoting the idea that “we must all pull our own weight, for we are in ‘this’ together.” People with a solid work ethic are the folks who make the world go ‘round – no matter what their occupation or their so-called “level” in society.

             The Dignity of Work Well-Done: Equally Applicable to Steelworkers,      Janitors, Fast-food Cooks, Doctors, and Engineers

My father was able to overcome great obstacles early in life and enter the engineering profession. Not everyone can do what he did. He truly believed that each and every one of us should be judged more by the attitude and effectiveness we bring to whatever activities and profession we embrace than by our ultimate “station in life.” The true dignity of a person and their profession is far better reflected by one’s character and efforts to excel at their work than by the perceived “status” of the profession itself.

A janitor who can add value by demonstrating an ability to repair things on the job and make constructive suggestions while efficiently and effectively fulfilling the typical job description is someone to be admired as opposed to one who knows and cares only how to empty trash cans and vacuum floors.

My wife is a retired schoolteacher from the Catholic schools. During her years on her school faculty, she came to know one or two of the custodians very well, men who always went the extra mile, were always there to help, and were willing and able to make helpful suggestions to the teachers. “That’s not in my job description” was an attitude never heard. These men earned and received great respect from the faculty and were treated as important members of the staff.

Speaking of janitors and the work they do, it saddens me to go into a McDonalds or a Starbucks and observe over-filled trash bins and restrooms with papers strewn all over the floor. I hasten to point out that this problem is not unique to these two businesses; rather it is becoming more the rule than the exception out there. My immediate reaction is two-fold: Why is the public so careless, and why doesn’t the staff take more pride in their premises? Frankly, of the two parties involved, I come down harder on the public at large which seems to have less and less respect for property and for those who operate it.

If all patrons would do their part and pick up after themselves, the world would be a better place – not just cleaner, but more civil. How many times have you seen take-out food and beverage containers sitting forlornly in the middle of a parking lot, the consumer too lazy and uncaring to take their trash with them? Respect is a two way street. I respect those who make an honest effort to do their part and shoulder their responsibilities every day no matter what their “station” in life. As for those who just do not care: Grow up and earn some respect!

                                             Recognize a Good  Attitude                                               and a Job Well Done

I make it a point to single-out and praise anyone who is providing special service or delivering a job well done. Tipping at restaurants is the usual way to cast your vote on the service, but why not tell an outstanding server verbally how you appreciated their attitude and service as well?

Years ago, we had some very stubborn wallpaper removed at a fixed price determined ahead of time. The company sent out one of their workers (not the one who bid the job!) who soon discovered that removing this wallpaper was not at all a typical effort. The guy worked like a beaver the entire day, sweating heavily the whole time – always cheerful. I was so impressed with his energy and positive attitude throughout that I tipped him $100 for his efforts. I suspect he was paid not much more than that by his employer. He was surprised and pleased that I validated the dignity and worth of his efforts in such a way. I was pleased to observe that the work-ethic was alive and well and was pleased to reward it.

9 thoughts on “The Work Ethic and the Dignity of Excellence

  1. I found myself scrolling back up to that RC workstation. I did well in shop, and when I was working on a ranch my boss (my friend’s mom) ran her carpentry shop out of the garage. I know craftsmanship when I see it.

    Being a person who is committed to excellence (not perfectionism, excellence — though people who know neither think they are the same) can actually be detrimental in work situations if you have a boss or work for an organization with a *half-assed* attitude. These are the moments when I hate being an American, because that attitude is acceptable here. I differentiate excellence and perfectionism because pefectionism is always driven by an internal idea of a perfect process and a perfect outcome, and an unwillingness to deviate from any of it — it has to be “just so…”

    I am driven by the particular kind of laziness and aversion to a particular type of work — namely, the unneccessary work created by other people not paying attention or not caring, (leaving me with a project that looks like a box of yarn that has spent the morning in the company of preschoolers). I’ve never understood how people can go to work, get paid for a job, not do what they are being paid to do, and still get paid for, what…”attendance credit”??? I’ve been consistently yelled at by various members of the *half-assed* tribe over the most ridiculous things. I had managers hand me a five year filing backlog, nothing sorted whatsoever (following a file clerk who was clueless to her many misfiles), and wonder what, exactly, was taking me so long? I was lost for a response (but how about keeping a file clerk for more than one year in five?).

    Some things — like knitting eyelet lace or metrology — require perfection. Everything requires excellence (which some other cultures “get” more than our own). The cultural acceptance of a lesser ethic I will never understand.

    And if I can eventually figure out the financial side, that commitment to excellence got me into one of the top universities in Los Angeles. I tell myself this will eventually bring proof that commitment to excellence pays off.

    • Your distinction between “excellence” and “perfectionism” is right-on. The latter can be detrimental given the practicalities of real life. It takes a mature attitude to ably balance the two in a given situation. Painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel called for invoking perfectionism – as Michelangelo surely did. His suffering during the ordeal resulted from the devil-drive of perfectionism haranguing him throughout the process. Painting one’s house thankfully requires only excellence, at best! I liked your phrase “attendance credit” to explain some of the workplace apathy we all encounter today.

      • Oh please. While I do appreciate a job well done, when I was supervising others at various (better) points in my employment history, no one under my supervision got gold stars on the sticker chart for simply doing his or her job. A sincere “Thank you for your help” is about as much as you’re going to get from me for showing up to work and doing what you’re supposed to do (like a real grown-up). This, apparently, is not viewed positively in all workplaces. It’s all ridiculousness.

        • I, too, expect people to do their job. Unfortunately, getting the job “done” encompasses a huge range of performance in today’s society – from excellence down to “it will do.” We seem to both agree that the latter should be upped a notch…say to “good work.” I like to acknowledge those who go beyond “good” to deliver “excellent” results in an efficient manner even though both get the job “done.” Are we on the same page, here?

          • Even I have “it will do” moments, but I’m talking about people who sometimes don’t even get that far — not even DOing anything — before they start whining if they don’t get their ego massage fix. It’s frightful. I think we agree otherwise though. There is an idea in places like Japan that not merely that it gets done, but that it gets done with some degree of artistic deliberateness, as if the doing is also part of the end product.

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