SUMMARY: A chance encounter with an acquaintance resets Dave’s understanding of Excellence and Productivity.One of my favorite proverbs is Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill. I like it because it paints an image of the classic generational conflict between old people in power and those who are powerful. On the side of Oldness, there’s experience and the foresight born it, plus the insight that many so-called rules are easily broken. On the side of Youthful Power, we have confidence born of ability, coupled closely with a fatally simplistic view of the rules. Sweetening the game is the expectation that Old Age has everything to lose, with the old entitlements of power slipping away more rapidly with each passing year. Youth, by comparison, has everything to gain, and there is an arrogance of of entitlement that often comes with this that drives ambition.
I discovered this proverb fairly late in life, and as someone on the cusp of sliding into Old Age, I’ve increasingly appreciated what experience has taught me as a kind of consolation prize. I haven’t built skyscrapers or journeyed to faraway lands, nor have I won prestige and recognition for my actions. I’ve led a fairly-ordinary, fairly-blessed life. As I age, I’m able to see connections I was unable to even imagine when I was in my twenties. Perhaps my draw to this proverb is that I’m looking forward to being capable of true treacherousness, as this is another form of competence and capability. As I never have felt that I was truly skillful or exceptionally talented in my youth, perhaps old age would grant me a different set of powers that would be just as good.
While I was at Starbucks this afternoon, I saw a young woman pull up on a blue Yamaha racing bike. I admired the bike for a few seconds, as I’ve grown to appreciate all forms of powered two-wheelers—a side effect of owning a scooter. A few minutes later, though, I heard someone say hi and I looked up from my work to see that the woman was someone I knew; she was the younger sister of a good friend of mine. We’d never spoken more than a half-a-dozen words before, but she had some time to kill with her drink and we started chatting. I knew a little bit about her: she was an aeronautical engineer working at a prestigious MIT-affiliated laboratory. She was an accomplished pilot, and liked fast motorcycles. I further learned that she owned her own horse and worked a second job so she could pay her school loans off faster. She’d never gotten a handout, and paid her own way through school, and was now travelling all over the world representing her lab in the world of aeronautical safety. She’s in her mid-twenties. I asked her outright what was it like to be so cool, and she gave it a serious moment of thought. Upon reflection, she said didn’t doubt that there were people who were envious of her job and her motorcycle and her horse, but these were things she worked hard for. While she’d been incredibly blessed to have great people in her life and to have found an amazing fiancé, she liked working hard and felt that she had earned what she had. She paused, revisiting an old memory, before speaking again about an epiphany she had in college one day, and had since spent quite a bit of time thinking about: Excellence is a habit. By this, she said, she meant doing everything, even the stuff that she wasn’t too keen on, to the best of her ability. TThat wasn’t to say that she did things perfectly; she messed stuff up all the time, she said with a self-deprecating half-grin. Since she had made excellence a habit and practiced it even with the boring and demeaning stuff at work, people had noticed her attitude and ability. This had granted her further opportunities; she was now doing things unheard of for someone her age within the group.
By this time I was thoroughly impressed, and thought of acknowledging that this was one of the great secrets of the universe, playing the part of the wisened adult. However, that would have been a lie. In truth, she had taught me a great secret, unadorned by ego or youthful posturing. There was a time in my youth when I believed in Excellence at All Costs. As I grew older and jumped from career to career, this became a taxing mentality to maintain. I started to look for simpler alternatives, like Perfect is the Enemy of Good and the 80-20 Rule, to retrain my expectation for “sustainable productivity.” Excellence no longer served as my driving focus; I now saw it as a byproduct of a disciplined iterative process that produced building blocks of “good enough”. I had managed to half-convince myself that this was the way of things, and decided that what I need was to just keep pushing and trust that once enough of those “good enough” building blocks had accrued, I would look back and see that I had built a superhighway of achievement. And so I have been pushing for these past few months, making slow progress and counting every inch gained as a tremendous victory. And it is! Getting anything done at all, especially in a vacuum, is tremendously difficult. However, it has never felt like a real accomplishment. It has felt like a consolation prize.
Now, I’m not saying that hard work and slow progress are useless, or that one should seek more immediate gratification from their work. Work is still work, and I still believe that there are no shortcuts. However, what I was lacking was the great truth that the right attitude is more than just having discipline. It is also believing that doing any work at all is worth doing well, and choosing to live that way is a mighty testament to the universality of Excellence in all we do. As it turns out, the expression “Excellence is a Habit” is traceable back to something Aristotle said, and to the Greek concept of Arete, which I remember reading about for the first time when reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Arete is, to paraphrase Wikipedia, the notion that excellence is bound in the fulfillment of purpose or function, living up to one’s full potential.This is probably the best working definition of personal productivity that I’ve yet found. I don’t want to just “get things done”.
It was getting late, and there was a horse that needed attention before the sun went down, so I thanked her for the lesson and she rode off into the sunset. In the silence left in the wake of her bike’s performance-tuned exhaust, I realized there was no old age or treachery to look forward to anymore. This has been replaced by the idea that the creation of excellence is the broad principle behind my chosen community, in which each participant forges their particular vision of greatness in the fires of their unique character traits and talent. This realization makes the pending task of folding my laundry far, FAR more exciting than it has been for the past week; there is an expression of an ideal, after all, in the pursuit of even the most mundane of tasks. I just needed to remember that it was there.