I always have loved that "never doubt" Margaret Mead quote. I have found it to ring true in both my personal life and my work life.
I was reminded of the quote this week, when my mentor, Steve Minter, was honored on the occasion of his 40th anniversary with our company. I've worked with Steve for more than half of that time. In fact, he hired me to be an assistant editor on Occupational Hazards in 1989-90. By the time it evolved into EHS Today, Steve had been promoted to publisher and I was named editor of the magazine.
In his remarks, Steve said that half the battle of making it to a milestone like 40 years was "just showing up and working hard."
He cited a recent New York Times column by Roger Cohen titled "Mow the Lawn," which says, in part:
"Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane."
What Cohen said reminded me of another article, titled "The Zen of Dishwashing," written by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, which says: "If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of drinking the tea joyfully. With the cup in my hands, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the fragrance and the flavour of the tea, together with the pleasure of drinking it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment."
Thich Nhat Hanh encourages his followers to to be aware and mindful and fully engaged in whatever the task is at hand. If we cannot fully engage in the simple tasks, how can we expect to be present for the complex challenges in our lives or work, the ones that take years to achieve?
Cohen says he doesn't know if Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000-hour rule," which presumes that 10,000 hours is the time required to become an expert, is true but adds, "I am sure grind is underappreciated in our feel-good culture. Don't sweat the details, but do sweat."
Cohen shares that he's "grown suspicious of the inspirational. It's overrated. I suspect duty – that half-forgotten word – may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next."
Which brings me to Margaret Mead… All too often, the thought that we cannot accomplish something alone – or even with a small group – stops us from even starting. We give up before we begin, not remembering that the journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step.
What we forget is that every great idea – every great accomplishment achieved by civilization – started in the mind of one person; one person who perhaps shared that idea with a few others, engaged them in the task and moved forward from that point.
A doggedly determined person who refuses to give up is worth 100 people with short attention spans. Those people never reach the goal because their goals constantly change.
The "grind" isn't sexy; it isn't an attractive concept to many, but it's the "showing up and working hard" part that gets the job done. It's finding a few like-minded people, who also are willing to work hard, that helps us get beyond the "great idea" stage and into the "change the world" stage. It's mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, dotting the I's, returning the calls, performing the audit, checking the equipment – the things we've done 1,000 or 10,000 times – and doing them with a sense of purpose and awareness and completing these tasks to the best of our abilities that ultimately will change our worlds.