How to be the best in the world at what you do

via Creative Commons

When I was about to graduate from high school, my guidance counselor passed along to me a small award for which she had nominated me. Part of the award was a book by Judge Danforth called “I dare you”. An exercise in the book was to create a little device called “My Checker”. Below is My Checker, created in 1978. It’s actually written on one of the little cards that would have been in my graduation invitation. The Checker is a square. As you know, each side of a square, by definition, is equal in length. And on each side of this square is written a word: “Mental”, “Physical”, “Social”, “Religious”. The idea is that we will be our best when we are in balanced. I can say with certainty that when something in my life seems off, I can usually see that I am out of balance in some way.

From 1978

Our physical body enables us to sustain the systems which keep us alive. We won’t live on earth forever, but to a great extent the quality of our life will be determined by our physical health.

Our minds are amazing. While there will be considerable advances in artificial intelligence, our minds will always be unmatched in versatility.

Friendships and relationships with family can make our lives meaningful and fun. We are social creatures.

Finally, we can nourish our Spiritual health. Whether you practice mindfulness, prayer, meditation, or something else, being spiritually and psychologically healthy requires you to take responsibility for who you are.

I want you to take just a few seconds. For each of these, I want you to consider how intentional you are about nurturing these aspects of your life.

Physical

Intellectual

Social

Spiritual

There’s a Drew Barrymore movie called “50 First Dates”. The title derives from the fact that she has a memory problem and can’t remember her date with Adam Sandler on the previous day. One of the reasons I liked this movie was the idea of seeing every new day with fresh eyes. If you live 80 years, that’s over 29,000 days. Can you imagine? Even if you’re old like me, you still have thousands of days on average. Thousands of days to make mistakes and learn, to read interesting things, to be vulnerable to others, to work, to play, to laugh, and to cry. Grow and learn a bit each day and you’ll be a mountain of wisdom and character.

Fine, you say, I will be balanced and I will grow each day. But to what end? What am I supposed to do? What is my mission?

When my wife and I were wed, I married into a successful family. I was the first and only person in my family to go to college. My wife’s family was well-educated and professional. So I tried to step it up. I looked up the hottest job markets and thought about what I could do. Though I don’t blame myself, I really had it all wrong. There is a much-better approach.

Perhaps you’ve seen something like this before:

Let’s look at a quick example of someone who I think would qualify as the best in the world at what she does. I have a friend Sarah who enjoys her job as much as anyone I know. She is a family physician who cares for patients in an office, is on-call at the hospital, and teaches young medical students. One of her real loves is delivering babies. Despite bringing many little ones into the world, she still gets emotional about it and marvels at their perfect little features. She feels appreciated because she is appreciated by her patients. Clearly she makes the lives of others better because she cares about the whole person and gives of herself.

I want to focus on the third element, “Doing something you’re good at”. (By the way, it’s not lost on me that this is not proper grammar. I like it better that way.) Sarah’s dream as a young person was to be a physician. In order to do this, of course she needed to make good grades in high school and as an undergraduate. She withstood the pressure and long hours of medical school and residency. She then worked in an underserved area of Michigan in the National Health Service Corps. Finally, she was able to put all of those late nights, the basic science classes, the rounds with professors, the repetitive cases, and the national board tests to use.

The point here is that doing something well is a process, sometimes a long process, you need to follow. The Sarah who sometimes cries with joy when she delivers the baby of a friend is the same one who needed to study cellular respiration, who had to find confidence to present to her attending physician in medical school, and who had to learn to do all this while balancing being a mom, an athlete, a person of faith, as well as a health professional.

One of my favorite quotes is from Jerry Rice who said, “Today I’ll do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t.” I absolutely love my job. I get to work with and mentor college students. Almost all of the 20 or so students with whom I’ve worked in the past couple of years understand the concept of delayed gratification. They know that success is a process.

The third assignment for you, then, is to contemplate your calling. Remember than the road may be a journey. Your journey may require doing things which are not your passion but are necessary for getting to where you can exercise your passion. I can tell you that linear algebra, circuits, and coding aren’t passions for me, but learning these things help me often in mentoring my students, and that is a passion.

Next, I want you to recognize, embrace, and exploit the unique position you have in the world and in the lives of others. You may have a professional position in which you are paid for your particular skills and abilities. Your friends and family value you uniquely for who you are. Let’s say you are a mother. Then you have a wonderful job.

All of this is to say: You have a unique calling in this world. To be the best in the world, you now just need to be your best. In the example I mentioned earlier, Sarah has her unique position, but it’s the way she embraces that position that makes her the best at what she does.

Whether it’s me or you or anyone, we can become the best by being our best. You realize your unique place in the world and become the person you can be.

There’s a story that has been told a number of times. It illustrates this point. There was a fellow named Johnny who bagged groceries in a food store. Johnny was developmentally disabled. One day, a regional executive came to the store to talk to the employee. He asked that they do their part to making the shopping experience exceptional. Johnny decided he would put a note in each bag for every one of his customers. With help from his father, he printed slips of paper with a quote or thought. He would put these in each of the bags he filled.

After a while, customer came to really like these. The manager, one day, saw that there was a line waiting for Johnny’s cashier. The manager told the waiting customers, “There’s no line on register four.” The customer all said they wanted to wait in Johnny’s line so they could get the thought for the day. This contributed to an atmosphere of happiness at the store. For example, in the florist department, if there were a broken flower, they would give it to an older lady as a corsage. The store flourished.

Johnny was in a unique position and he became remarkably successful

The last thing I’ll ask of you is learn to recognize when you are settling. You might be settling for something by being impatient. If you want to deliver babies, then you need to be patient enough to learn organic chemistry. You might be settling for something by waiting. Instead of waiting until everything is perfect, you might need to have courage to have that conversation, or take that trip, or apply for grad school.

You know in your heart when you are settling. Let’s avoid that feeling.

Here, then, are your five assignments:

1) Consider how balanced you are between the physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual. Make corrections as needed.

2) Grow in some way every single day.

3) Figure out your unique calling. Find the intersection between what you can do to make others’ lives better, what makes you feel appreciated, and something you do well. Then do that.

4) Recognize, embrace, and exploit the unique position you have in the world and in the lives of others.

5) Don’t settle.

Do these things, and you will be your best and you will be the best.

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