Sunday, May 13, 2012

What Success Looks Like

"A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week." -- US Army General George Patton, 1885-1945.

The quote above is one of my favorite. Ever. I use another Patton quote in my e-mail signature -- one warning against Groupthink -- but as a manager or even member of any team, sometimes I like this one even better.

On Saturday morning, there were about 25 people gathered around the front steps of City Hall for the Give Lowell Back kickoff.  Mayor Murphy had the proclamation in hand, ready to read, and we were discussing when to get started with the founder of the event, Kim Jackson. After agreeing that we'd allow for a few more minutes for stragglers, Kim wondered aloud how the day's events would go.

None of us was sure, but we all agreed that events like this gain steam and build their own momentum, but it sometimes takes years (look at next Sunday's Cancer Walk and the Memorial Day event at the Lowell Cemetery..both are great examples). Anyway, Kim's response was "No matter how the rest of the day goes, I'm already calling this a success."

I had to ask why. We hadn't even started the opening ceremony, and the rest of the day's events were still all wildcards.

"Because we're standing right here and it's happening," she said.

I loved that answer. I think Patrick loved it, too, because after he read the proclamation he tacked on a Gaelic proverb that translated into something like, "Great things happen from small beginnings." Maybe almost every culture has this: "...journey of a thousand miles," or "poco a poco, se va lejos." 

[The event, by the way, really was a huge success. I only attended that first part of it, but walked past the Butler/Shaughnessy later that day and saw a sizable crowd working on a Lowell Give Back project. The Facebook pics I saw posted throughout the day showed a lot of involvement in other places across the city, too.]

But anyway, back to the answer. This gets at the philosophy of pretty much everything I do. In order to orient good ideas -- which are, frankly, a dime a dozen -- into tangible results, you have to take that first step. You have to give yourself deadlines, you have to be willing to fail, and you have to be willing to then incorporate your "lessons learned" into your next at-bat. That's why Edison said what he did about inspiration and perspiration. That's also why Teddy Roosevelt said his famous piece about the Man in the Arena.

Planning is important, but only to a point -- there's no teacher like experience. Studying the biographies of highly successful people should teach that it's not just about dusting yourself off and getting back up, which is how Rocky Balboa said that "winning is done," but it's also about figuring out how to do it better next time. That's what gets you 4,192 base hits. Or three Super Bowl rings (shoulda coulda woulda been five though, right?)

A couple weeks ago, an 18 year-old senior from the Voke e-mailed Mayor Murphy. The e-mail just said, "I want to be successful. I'd like to have lunch with you so I can hear your thoughts on the matter." Happy to reach out and help, Patrick got in touch with the guy, who doesn't even live in Lowell, and took him to lunch at Cobblestone's (you won't read that in the Column, though!) They talked about a lot of things, like taking the extra time to compare financial aid packages (they're often way better at the deep-pocketed schools), looking for internships, and being unafraid to reach out beyond what seems immediately possible.

I tagged along to this lunch and had to jump in with a story. I wound up with an excellent full-time position for most of 2010 because I had failed well. Seriously. I saw a job posting at the Guard HQ in Milford for a position that I didn't meet all the pre-reqs for. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, the guys doing the picking already had someone in mind). I had no idea what to expect from the panel interview, how to handle the protocol (remember, seafaring pukes don't salute indoors or under cover), or what to prepare with.

I asked someone who asked someone who referred me to a guy that steered me towards a few Field Manuals and other official Army-ese type documents. I did everything he said, read all the material he gave me, and followed back up before the panel interview, which I bombed. All I can remember from the interview were a lot of "I don't know, sir" and "I'm unfamiliar with that process, ma'am" type of answers.

But the twist to all of this is that a couple weeks later, the guy who had helped me get ready was looking to fill a position. I was the right paygrade, he knew I was available, and I had made a good impression on him earlier. The day before I was set to start a job that would've paid barely above the minimum wage, my phone rang. That Major was on the other end, and had a full-time gig to offer (indefinite time period, but it wound up stretching all the way 'til we mobilized). I was doing meaningful work, and had gone from how-will-this-work type worrying to the northern reaches of the five-figure world in a heartbeat...all because I had initially thrown myself into something against long odds, and failed. Patrick followed up on that to talk about how running for Congress in 2007 -- and losing -- had prepared him for his upstart and ultimately successful 2009 City Council bid.

Right now, I don't manage anyone. But I have in the past, and hope to again in the future. When I think back to the people who I've really enjoyed having "in my stead" they are the people who, like Kim, see the value in just stepping forward and following through with something, soup to nuts. The headache-inducers, on the other hand, are the ones who get a tasking, sit on their hands, and when asked about why nothing has happened say something like, "Well, I wasn't really sure what you meant."

Planning is important. Foresight is important. But as long as you're making the right adjustments on the fly, those things can be part of an ongoing process. Meetings are good, but only when they end with everyone present understanding what the "due-outs" are.

Whatever you're trying to do, whether it's write a novel, lose weight, learn a language, start a blog, network more, or ANYTHING else under the sun, just start. Start with something that sucks. Then take that thing and make it suck less. If you're planning an all-nighter to write a 2500-word essay, just start off with 2500 words from your consciousness stream while the first pot of coffee brews. There, now 80% of the pressure has lifted. Keep making that better and better. If not, when the sky starts turning blue, and then the sun starts peeking out over the horizon, and you're staring at a blank white screen on a monitor, you'll wish you had just jumped in.

No endeavor is really any different. That's why the Nike slogan of "Just Do It" has endured for so long, or why so many cultures have proverbs to talk about the need to overcome that initial inertia. Or why Warren Buffett likes to say that "Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill."

Lowell Give Back was a success in its first at-bat. From year-to-year, it will only get bigger and better, thanks to the snowball effect that Buffett talks about. But its exact course and trajectory are all in the fine details. What matters now is that the event has already taken the biggest, and most important step that it ever will -- its first.

1 comment:

Lynne said...

You forgot one really important proverb..."Try not! Do, or do not. There is no try."