“He who considers his work beneath him will be above doing it well” (Alexander Chase).
ISN’T IT IRONIC THAT WE SOMETIMES THINK WE’RE TOO GOOD TO DO GOOD WORK? We dismiss inferior workmanship with remarks like these: “My time is too valuable to waste on menial work” or “That’s not my job” or “Let somebody do that who hasn’t got anything better to do.” When, as Alexander Chase suggests, we view our work as “beneath us,” then we’re “above doing it well.”
Whatever work we’re called upon to do, however, we need to see our workmanship as an extension of our character. “By the work one knows the workman” (Jean de La Fontaine). And there is a sense in which we demonstrate our character most vividly in the doing of “little” things, those that “don’t matter.” It’s the person who is faithful in that which is least who’ll also be faithful in that which is much. None of us likes to deal with people who only do their best when the spotlight is shining on them and they believe there’s opportunity for significant praise. We need to be careful not to be that way ourselves.
Not only that, but when we’ve done less than our best, we ought not to blame our poor workmanship on external circumstances. When our work has been less than skillful, it does no good to say, “I could have done better if I hadn’t gotten such bad breaks.” That would be like Abraham Lincoln saying, “I would have been a great president if there hadn’t been a war going on.” A good workman never blames his tools, and “A bad workman never gets a good tool” (Thomas Fuller).
There really are few joys in life more deeply satisfying than the knowledge that we’re constantly improving the quality of what we do. It feels good to do good work, and it feels even better to know that we’ve done better work today than we did yesterday. But high-quality lives, and the good workmanship that grows out of them, don’t just happen. Continuous improvement requires conscious effort. It requires paying honest attention to where we are, daily examining the worthiness of our goals, actively learning things that we don’t yet know, and never ceasing to pull our performance up to the level of our ideals.
“No fine work can be done without concentration and self-sacrifice and toil and doubt” (Max Beerbohm).