In Search of the Little Things

This afternoon, an avalanche of e-mail spilled steadily into my inbox, and for a moment I wondered if somewhere a great dam had finally crumbled beneath its own weight.  Support requests of many different types tumbled down the hill, and as I often try to do, I ran at them with the gusto of a child running up the wrong escalator.  Because that’s the only way that getting to the top of an escalator is any fun.

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m quite achievement-oriented.  I detest doing purposeless tasks – and love the image of a meaningful checkmark filling an open box.  Now more than ever, I’ve realized that every job in the world can ultimately be boiled down to a sequence of those checkboxes.  One after another they come, hour by hour, day after day, endlessly filling the gaps behind them with the next thing on the list.

If we look at our jobs this way, then the goal of every employee is quite clear:  get those boxes checked in the way that is asked of you.  Sometimes those tasks are open to various solutions (a design), while other tasks have completely pre-constructed solutions (a contract).  Regardless of the type, however, what’s interesting is how each employee goes about checking the box.

It’s easy to think no one is noticing.  But whether they realize it or not, employees are professionally and personally evaluated at every turn.  Most of these evaluations happen within the subconscious.  I often wonder by what measures others conduct these evaluations, but for me, I’ll let you in on a little secret:  I place immense value in how well you find and do the little things.

As my wife and I drove back home this past weekend, we stopped at an Arby’s.  We did so because, well, pregnant women have to make stops frequently.  As a husband, it’s my job to make sure my wife uses the restroom at the finest establishments possible – and thus Arby’s called to me amidst the sea of gas stations and less finer establishments.  We’d eaten a couple of hours before, so neither of us was hungry, and at 3:00 the place was mostly empty.  It was a uneventful stop.

Until the manager welcomed us to the restaurant.

He stood behind the counter, likely in his late thirties and severely overweight.  No employee sits for long within a fast food restaurant, so his feet were probably killing him.  As my wife headed to the restroom, I randomly took a moment to wonder what path might have led him here.  Does anyone say, “I want to manage an Arby’s twenty years after I graduate high school?”  Probably not.  But somehow I knew that his welcome was completely genuine, and I instantly sensed that whatever his path might have been, this was a man who had decided to take pride in his work.  He wasn’t going to phone it in, at least not today.

In that moment following his welcome, I didn’t quite have the heart to say, “I’m sorry, we’re just here to use the restroom.”  I certainly could have, and he wouldn’t have minded in the least.  But as I decided what I might order, I realized that I greatly treasure employees that do more than what they have to.  And by that I mean the little things – the things that take almost no effort at all.  Because these are the things that no one bothers to do.

As I made my selection, the manager kindly answered the lone question I had with no hesitation, which meant that he knew his menu well.  He waited patiently while his crew prepared my wrap in the back, and when it slid into the metal rack, he called out a thank you to them.  There was little doubt that he meant it.

Was this an earth-shattering sequence of events?  No, of course not.  But the world is full of people that do precisely what they’re asked to do, and sometimes they expend a great amount of effort doing it.  There are probably thousands of Arby’s managers that suffer through eight hours of fast food nightmares for a meager paycheck.  They meet their documented goals.  I’d wager, however, that there aren’t many who look past those goals and set their own, more important goals – completely driven by a inner desire to be something better.

In my eleven years of professional work, I have come across this type of person from time to time, and it’s little coincidence that I call many of them my closest professional friends.  They represent the person who looks past the black and white of a project to see where support may be needed.  They often do the work behind the scenes that goes uncredited.  They are the people that aren’t interested in the ordinary, everyday tasks but instead focus on how to make a room – and ultimately their company – a better place than they found it.

On my best day, I approach being that kind of person, but on other days I fall short.  I might unconsciously lower my standards to feel good about getting more boxes checked.  Or I may stare proudly at the bird in my hands and completely overlook the two in the bush.  But it doesn’t take long for that one person to come along and inspire me all over again – and in almost every case, that person has no idea that he or she did so.  Certainly the manager of that Arby’s did not.

When all is said and done, we spend a great portion of our lives in an office, working under flourescent lights in monotonous spaces.  Everything is ordinary about our jobs, because it’s all been invented years before we get there, by people with titles a lot higher than ours.  But what isn’t so ordinary are the tasks that lie beyond the norm.  If you take a moment to think back to several truly memorable experiences of your life, it’s interesting to consider what made them stand out the most.

Was it the big things, or was it the little things that you never expected?