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Working Hard on the Smart Stuff

May 11th, 2010

Work smarter, not harder. 

We’ve all heard the mantra.  And when we read it or hear it after a long day, we wonder if there’s a shortcut or workaround we’ve missed.  Is there a cadre of smart people out there that manage to do in three hours what others need eight, or ten, or twelve hours to complete? Is there a silver bullet that they know about?

Truth is, working smart and working hard is more than simply working long hours. The smartest professionals are those who take the time to figure out what their smart work is, and then work hard at the smart work.  One of the best “smart workers” I’ve ever known was a former boss who had laser focus on his goals.  All of Tom’s activity was centered on two things:  Producing results that grew the company, and building positive relationships with the people he interacted with while producing those results.

One of the key lessons he taught me and everyone else in our business unit was to ask questions. How will this activity produce results for the company?  With whom do I need to collaborate or communicate? What effect will this activity have on our customers? My colleagues? Our partners and stakeholders?   Is this the best use of my time right now?

I worked hard during those years I spent in Tom’s business unit – and I’m grateful for all that hard work.   I learned to work smarter because I learned to benchmark the value of my activity. 

Smarter, harder.  It’s not a question of being busy or working less.  It’s the return you get on your time, measured in results and relationships. It’s working hard on the smart stuff.

“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”
Carl Sandburg

Rotary Thought Spot: The Fourteenth Leaf

May 3rd, 2010

“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Leonardo da Vinci

“The difference between something good and something great is attention to detail.”

Charles R. Swindoll

Miss Hill was the first true gardener I met as a child.

Spry at seventy, she wasn’t much taller than most of the kids in the neighborhood.  In the warm weather she’d be out puttering in the dirt in her signature string of pearls, plaid skirt and navy blue tennis shoes. She lived in an elegant Victorian house across the street and if I was lucky enough to pass by as she was planting and pruning she’d invite me for a chat. Her garden seemed like the ones in my storybooks – rimmed with roses and big pinkish-purple rhododendrons and filled with beds of marigolds and zinnias and gerbera daisies. Sometimes she’d send me home with a prized flower or two. 

I vowed that I’d have my own garden just like Miss Hill when I grew up. And I thought I had gardening figured out before Hand Plant happened to me.

A few years ago an elderly relative gave me a cutting from one of her house plants, a single stem with three small spade-shaped leaves.  “It’s a hand plant.” She explained.

Hand Plant?  The leaves looked like little oven mitts to me.  “Don’t worry,” she assured.  “They’ll look like hands as they get bigger.”

Hand Plant arrived at a time of gale-force change and responsibility in my life.  I have bigger things to think about than a cutting, I thought.  So I put it on a kitchen counter and promptly forgot about it.

For the next few months Hand Plant somehow survived my neglect. Sometimes I would notice its leaves drooping in the bone dry soil, pale and flimsy as worn gloves, and I’d sheepishly give it a splash of water.

Hand Plant didn’t get much bigger or grow any hand-like new leaves. Its ringed depression of eroded soil deepened as I continued to push it back into the margins of my awareness.

Six months went by and one Saturday in early September I took a rare break to sit on the patio.  I reflected that an entire spring and summer had gone by and I’d spent very little time emulating Miss Hill in my garden. Since the coming year was shaping up to be as busy as my last, I reluctantly accepted that yet another gardening season would pass me by.

Back to work. I leaned over to empty the dishwasher and came eye level with Hand Plant.  By now its three leaves were yellowy green and one had a hole in it, the stem ringed by that dry moat of eroded potting soil. The roots were starved for space and had matted outside the bottom of the pot.  

Hand Plant qualified for the yard waste bag my husband was filling and I started to take it out to him.  But an image of plaid-skirted Miss Hill kneeling gently in front of her marigolds replaced my mental to-do list. It would take me only a few minutes to repot, feed and water Hand Plant. Was I really so busy being busy that I couldn’t do that? 

I found Hand Plant a corner of afternoon sun in the dining room.  That fall the trees outside shed their leaves while Hand Plant transformed itself.  First a deep green shoot emerged next to the faded stem. When the new shoot was about six inches high, I saw that it was actually two stems. They gradually separated at the base and stayed connected at the top, a thumb and forefinger joined in the Dharmic wheel.  As the tops parted a foot-long frond began to unfurl in a slow-motion spin until one morning Hand Plant had a new hand.  

This morning Hand Plant’s fourteenth new leaf is emerging.  Hand Plant is my daily demonstration that what’s true in nature is true in our Rotary service: what we pay attention to will grow and flourish.  What we ignore will shrivel up, wither away and die.  

Those small details we push to the margins of our awareness can grow into greatness when we pay attention to them.  Like a word of encouragement or an invitation to a prospective Rotarian. A little time spent reading to a child in our community. A few dollars in seed funding for a water well in a remote village. Or a mere sixty cents for a dose of polio vaccine.  Sometimes our impact on the big picture is rooted in each  of us seeing and acting on the seemingly small details.

What great thing can happen with a little of your attention?


PDG  Elizabeth