Back in the days of yore, I had a college philosophy course. It was basic an introductory in nature. Honestly I’ve forgotten most of what I learned about philosophy from the class, but there have been a couple of lessons that I carry to this day. They had little to do with Philosophy 101.
I was doing ok in the class. As the add/drop deadline approached, I had a solid B. To that point, though, I had earned only A’s, and I was considering dropping the class to avoid the potential for ensuing GPA damage. I went to Dr. Aizawa to have him sign my drop form and explained my reasoning to him. I’ll never forget his answer.
“John, I’ll sign this for you. But before I do, I want you to think about it just a little more. You have a B. You can get an A. Work harder.”
“I know, I know. I can. But it’s just I’m not sure what’s going to happen, and I don’t want to lose my 4.0.”
“What if my harder work isn’t good enough to make the grade?”
“If you stay in this class and do your best work, it will be good enough no matter what your grade is. If you leave this class now, your 4.0 will never be good enough.”
I stayed in the class. At the end of the term I discovered that he was absolutely right. I wrote him later about how important that moment was for me...and how that lesson was the most important thing I learned from his philosophy class.
Not long after that, during a wind ensemble rehearsal, my first conducting teacher, frustrated by the horn section’s inability to play a passage for the seven hundredth time, said to the players, “Guys, you have to learn this part. You have to be able to play it. Not because I said so. Not because of my standards. Because you should never let anyone hold you to a higher standard than you hold yourself.”
To what standard should we hold our self? Dr. Aizawa’s standard: our best. No more, no less. Anything more is unreasonable and unfair. Anything less is lazy and a copout.
Alas, striving for my best doesn’t mean I always do my best. There are human failures, most often my own, that get in the way. There is fatigue. Physical exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion. There is frustration. While I can never acquiesce to their influence, I can accept their reality...and I can forgive myself when they gain the upper hand.
I apply the same standard in leadership. After all, it is unacceptable to hold the people around you to a higher standard than you hold yourself. My choirs have heard me say that I will not ask for more than their best...but I will hold them accountable for their best. That seems logical to me. Expecting more than what people are capable of can only lead to frustration as I demand more and more while an angry choir struggles to reach a goal it can’t possibly achieve. On the other hand, allowing them to coast will inevitably lead to atrophied skills and a lack of spirited commitment to the cause.
It’s tempting to focus on the outcome rather than the effort. After all, the outcome is the deliverable. It’s how our effort will ultimately be judged. If we come up short, we fail. I think that’s what John Mason (Sean Connery) was saying in The Rock when he said, “Your best? Losers whine about their best. Winners go home and…” [Editor’s Note: use your imagination to finish that quote; it’s not suitable for this publication. Suffice it to say he clearly thought the outcome was more important.]. But as much as I love Sean Connery’s voice and many of the characters he plays (including Mason), he’s wrong about that. Focusing on the effort rather than the result is likely to yield a positive outcome for both. Focusing on the result alone...not so much.
That’s hard to stomach in a results-driven world. When I try but fail, I feel like a failure. But 100% success is a wholly unrealistic standard. At the end of the day, I’ll be happier with myself and indeed happier with the world if I accept that I am capable only of offering the best of what and who I am to any situation. If I have done that, there is nothing to regret. Moreover, I will achieve much closer to 100% success than I would have if I worried about the outcome.
PS 2000 points for anyone who can tell me why the title of this article actually makes perfect sense.