Nothing less than insanely great work

Several years ago I visited with management thought leader Tom Peters  at one of his seminars and received this inspirational note from him. The message sits on my worktable even today.

Does it ever make sense to do less than insanely great work? Maybe it’s how you are cut, but I don’t think so. When I feel I’m not doing my best work, I crank things up and get it to a level I can be proud to put my name on. Anything less than that doesn’t see the light of day.
I had a project recently where my final report was, well, OK. It wasn’t where it needed to be and I was disappointed in myself. What I was missing was some specific insight to give the document the edge that it needed. I couldn’t deliver the document as it was; mind you it was a good document but wasn’t “insanely great”. I dug deeper and reached out to a couple of colleagues with the right questions, found that insight and brought the document up to my personal standard of excellence. Beyond owing it to the client, I owed it to myself .

If we’re ever in a situation where we’re not doing our best, it’s a good time to ask ourselves “Why?” Why are we holding back from giving our absolute all to a situation? What are we waiting for? As Hugh MacLeod writes in his book Evil Plans , if the situation isn’t enough to drive us to excellence, perhaps we need to find something else; find the opportunity that makes us want to give our all.

We all need that Broadway show we’re in where every day we give it everything we’ve got leaving our souls on the stage for the audience. Everyone has talent of some kind and to fulfill his or her life’s purpose needs to use that talent to deliver insanely great work. Nothing less.

Ants in my bathroom

Aside from wondering how on earth they got there, I’m actually quite captivated by them.

When we bought our place several years ago, we completely wrecked out the bathroom and replaced all fixtures, flooring (tile on concrete), wall covering (more tile on concrete) and paint. All of it was changed. This bathroom sits two floors above the garden below which is why I’m puzzled how these tiny creatures found their way into the concrete and tile wall that separates the shower from the tub. And I mean tiny – they’re no more than 1mm long.

What’s amazing about them is that they’ve carved out a living in our bathroom. I have no idea what they live on – drops of water from the shower? Soap residue? An errant drop of toothpaste? It seems a meager living but they seem to be making it work.

I never see more than one to three of these creatures at a time. They’re out on typical ant missions, crawling along the line where the wall meets the floor or searching the bathmat for something of use to them.

Each week a number of their mates meet an unexpected and untimely death when we vacuum and mop the bathroom and change the bathmat. I’ve never verified this loss, but I’m certain that some of them disappear from the colony as a result of this routine of ours. And still, after we’re done, others appear and go on about their task of living.

I admire their perseverance. I realize that they don’t have the option or faculty to exercise judgment or self-determination to pursue other things in life but the preservation of the colony. Still it’s admirable that despite the odds against them of location and the definitely dangerous conditions in which they live, that they keep on with their mission, with their lives, with doing what it is they set out to do. Day in and day out, despite the obstacles and radical changes to their surroundings and “team”, they continue to work toward their ultimate objective.

Sort of makes my excuses for not completing things that I’ve had on my “To Do”  list for many months rather weak in comparison…


Jimmy Page and me

Does a person choose their instrument or does the instrument choose the person?

Just watched “It Might Get Loud” a cool documentary about musicians and their guitars with Jimmy Page, Edge and Jack White – three top guitarists spanning three generations with three different stories.

It seems that the guitar sort of found them rather than the other way around. Their first encounters were somewhat random occurrences or serendipitous situations that shaped their lives from then forward. Jimmy Page found an abandoned guitar in a house where his family moved. The Edge, generally curious about electronic gadgets, built his first guitar. Jack White received his first guitar as payment for helping his brother move a fridge to his brother’s thrift shop.

One message I took from the film was that we must always be open to the possibilities, to embrace and explore opportunities when they present themselves. None of the musicians set out to be guitarists; it just kind of happened and they took advantage of the opportunity.

In my case, it was not my first camera (my Mom’s Ansco Reflex II) that found me, per se, but rather the darkroom. The first time I helped my neighbor develop an image in his makeshift under-the-staircase darkroom was magical; the hook was set. Shortly afterwards, I received a very basic Sears darkroom kit and have loved the smell of fixer ever since. My neighbor – six years my senior at least (I was 10 at the time) – inviting me to help him develop some images changed my life.

I’d like to know something that came into your life unexpectedly that you embraced and how it has shaped your life. Please post a comment and share your experience.

(Oh, and my connection with Jimmy Page? I was at the MTV European Music Awards in Frankfurt in 2001. Fred Durst (Limp Bizkit) was performing “Thank You” by Led Zepplin. As he introduced the guitar soloist, Jimmy Page strolled onto stage playing the solo as only he can. I jumped out of my seat in the 17,000+ person venue and roared my approval. To myself. It was a rude awakening that I was probably the oldest person at the show as no one else seemed to know who he was…)


Saying yes or saying no


It’s always a choice we make when made an offer of any kind. Brian Lanker, an outstanding photographer of our generation passed away last week. I never met him, but my mentor, Howard Stephens, offered to introduce me to either Mr. Lanker or his mentor, Rich Clarkson, when I graduated from college. I don’t exactly remember which one he offered – too many years have gone by – but the memory of this offer was jogged to life when I read the news of Mr. Lanker’s passing.

When I left school I felt the need (nay, it was fully expected of me) to be productive; my father and his father before him were businessmen, so I should be also. Not follow in their footsteps exactly, but go out and make my way in the world. (And a reasonable expectation it was, I believe.)

While I was doing some excellent photography in school, I had also been doing some reasonably good writing, been published, etc. Due to this recent “success”, when faced with needing to live on what I earned, I chose the writing path. This path, through many years of training, more school, opportunities and decisions, successes and failures, evolutions and morphing has brought me, ultimately, to where I am today. And it’s been a good journey.

The interesting or strange part is that I did not take Howard up on his offer. All he offered was an introduction; no guarantee of opportunity or employment or even an interview, just a chance that an acquaintance of his might give me the time of day to discuss the business and perhaps my opportunities. For whatever reason, I said no. No to the possibility of a conversation that might lead to an open door or even just move my career forward in some fashion. No to the chance to meet an interesting person and learn something from him. I have no idea why I did this.

While I don’t regret my decision to follow the writing and ultimately marketing direction, (although I am curious about the “what if” had I pursued photography from the beginning), I have learned over the years to say yes more than I say no. No, as I’ve written before is a showstopper. All action ends at “no”. Yes on the other hand moves things forward, for better or worse and from a sample size N=1, I say it’s usually better.

Saying “no” closes the door on an unknown opportunity whereas we never know where “yes” may lead unless we simply say, “Yes.”


Between waiting and tossing

It’s been a long winter here. Seems like it started in September – no “Indian Summer” or as it’s called locally “Old Maid Summer” – it turned cold and rainy and never looked back.

I just stepped out on our terrace, expecting to find what remains of our meager terrace garden in shambles. The pampas grass, dry, brown, rustling in the breeze, the day lilies in similar form. Even our attempt to grow raspberries in a container looking like a loss.

I reached for a branch of the raspberries, ready give it a bend and feel the crisp snap of dead wood in my hand when, just below my thumb, I felt a cool, smooth bud. Leaves. What I thought was dead is quite alive.

Upon closer examination, I see that the Japanese maple is also still alive, albeit barely, and the lilies are sending up more shoots than I’ve seen in years. The jury is still out on the grass, as I seem to recall it emerges later than the rest.

My haste to give up on something given its initial appearance gave me pause. Sometimes we need to look closer at the situation and see if it still has life left in it. If so, we should give it encouragement and food and see if it can not only survive but thrive. When it’s obvious the answer is no, then it’s time to toss it and move on. Dead wood will not sprout. Ever.


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