Every day we deal with an incessant stream of decisions, from personal choices about diet and exercise, to business related ones about the quality of our work and the performance of the team we are responsible for. If we wanted to, we could take a day’s worth of these, and set them out in order of priority, just to see how we handled those which weren’t that important. Chances are, those particular decisions are not given much time, and nor are our choices the best we could have made.
During the evening hours I don’t seem to have the power to stop snacking. I have a choice, but I always end up grabbing something from the kitchen to eat while I finish off e-mails, or do some research, writing or coding. All day I easily navigate any cravings for food, and eat the healthiest diet out of anyone I know, but in the evening the endorphin levels are low, the cortisol levels are high, and having that same self-control is not quite as easy.
It’s easy to say that this is such a minor problem, that it is almost irrelevant. But the eating itself isn’t the issue – the fact that I’m giving in is . No doubt most readers will have read Steve Jobs’s Autobiography. It was fascinating to read about the attention to detail he had when finalising the design of the circuitry inside the Macintosh, which almost no one would ever see. Most people would think it was obsessive, unnecessary and borderline ridiculous, but I completely see why he did it. Together with his strict diet, his love of minimalism and his dislike of material possessions, Steve Jobs’s relentless attention to detail was aimed at making sure of just one thing – rejecting the lollipop of mediocrity.
Giving in to a single snack, or to a badly laid out circuit board, gives your mind permission to say 99% is fine, on this one occasion. It imprints a pattern, a routine, in your neural network, that then fires much easier the next time the same issue comes up. If it was fine last time, then surely it’s fine this time too. And slowly but surely, that routine gets activated as you come across other problems and decisions. Suddenly it’s not just a circuit board, but the design of a part that’s outside, visible and important – what happens if you allow 99% then? You certainly don’t get devices like the iPod, iPhone and iPad.
This routine becomes even more destructive if you have people who look to you for guidance, motivation and direction. There are some qualities that an entrepreneur or a leader simply has no choice about having – dedication, integrity, discipline and never-ending energy. It is up to you to inspire your team, and everyone around you. No one else will ever have the same dedication to your venture as you do, but they will certainly be moulded by your approach and the way you work. If you expect perfection from yourself, then they will know that they expect p[erfection from them too. If they see you, even once, accepting something average, then that same routine of giving-in will imprint itself all around your organisation, and the effects will compound so quickly that it will be too late to turn it back. A team of a hundred people working at 99% are only a third as good as the same team working at 100% – and that entire drop can come from the leader showing that “just ok” is acceptable.
And that’s why in my office, when people write e-mails without checking their spelling or laying them out in an easy to read way, they have to re-do them. I’ve replaced carpets and furniture because they didn’t fit perfectly when they arrived, or didn’t look as expected. One wall has been repainted 11 times, because each time it was done the contractor who did it left marks that were obvious. It’s not an obsession. It’s a way of life. If you want to be great, you have to first make sure that you’re not mediocre.
So what about this lollipop? Well last year I was at a conference, and one of the speakers mentioned a quote which has stuck with me. Beware the lollipop of mediocrity – lick it once, and you suck forever.