First posted by Scott Flowers as an article on LinkedIn on December 22, 2016.
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Actually, I’m not Johnny Cash, I’m Scott Flowers, but the legendary Johnny Cash did begin all of his performances that way even in the height of his popularity. He would follow it with his most well-known hit, “Folsom Prison Blues.” This seems like a silly maybe even ill-advised thing to do, since everyone in the audience was obviously there to see him, and he could keep them engaged by making them wait hours to hear that iconic song. For The Man in Black, it was just one of his staples, no different than his lucky black shirts or his unique style of guitar play. It was one of the basic elements contributing to his legendary status, and he refused to abandon it. Some people thrive for decades, while others are a flash in the pan. Some acts get stale, while others become legendary. If we could isolate the minute differences between them, we could avoid and reverse those inevitable ruts.We can learn to put the right things first.
In all aspects of our lives, repetitive tasks start to become mindless habits. Hundreds of muscles are working in unison at this very moment just to keep us upright without any conscious effort. There was a time when we were young and it took total concentration just to roll over, sit up, or stand. As time passed it took less and less conscious effort and became second nature, but there was a problem. When we eliminated the conscious effort, our posture started to suffer. Our body language started to send the wrong messages. Our joints began to hurt more frequently. Unfortunately, habit and automation is not always a good thing. Too often we go about tasks at work, in our relationships, in our parenting, in our appearance, and other areas with the same conscious effort we give to standing or breathing. We become apathetic to the things making up the majority of our waking hours. We focus the biggest part of our mental energy on interruptions to our daily routine. We become consumed by our stressors and mindless of our routine tasks. Our focus and our priorities get out of balance, and our productivity starts to falter. We might describe it as a rut or slump. We are just not as motivated as we once were, and we don’t know why. Too many days feel like we are just spinning our wheels without going anywhere.
There is an even sadder twist to this erosion. We have spent years building up trust, rapport, and a good reputation among our peers and loved ones. We have loving family and friends and trusting bosses. As our apathy manifests in our relationships or our work product, it is mostly overlooked or unnoticed. It is written off. People in our lives rarely hold us accountable for a thoughtless snub at the dinner table, a bad meeting at work, or a less attentive effort helping a child with their homework. They know us, trust us, love us, and negative experiences get overlooked. When nobody is holding us accountable, and subpar efforts are going overlooked, they become the new norm. “Death by 1000 cuts” starts to kill what was once a thriving career or relationship. Everyone involved becomes a little too comfortable with apathy and diminutive performance.
Vince Lombardi was 46 years old when he took over a Green Bay Packers football team who won only a single game in the previous season. They were pathetic. The following season, with mostly the same players, they won seven games, and Lombardi unanimously won ‘Coach of the Year.” He went on to collect six division titles, five NFL championships, two Super Bowls, an overall career record of 98-30-4, and has the Super Bowl trophy named in his honor. What did he do to make such a quick turnaround and have sustained success? He started every season off by collecting the players together and standing in front of them with a football. He would say, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” He took the team each and every season back to the very basics of football. He did not have a modern-day spread offense or clever strategies, but he was famous for dedicating long hours of study and practice to a single element of a single play. He expected his players to execute the basics “perfectly.” He knew they would never be perfect, but in one of his well-known quotes he said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” In game after game, his Green Bay Packers executed their way to wins over teams having more talent and more complicated schemes. Lombardi knew that apathy was a team killer. He also knew it was easy to ride success and create apathy by forgetting what created the success in the first place, so each and every year he went back to the basics; he stood in front of his team and said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
Here is the good news. We can start changing at this very moment. We can remember what it was like to learn our job as a rookie. We can remember what excited us about starting our career when it was a new challenge. We can reintroduce ourselves at home, and remember what it was like to woo our significant other. We can refocus our efforts on the seemingly mundane tasks that make up our day, and realize those are the important tasks that define whether we are average or great! Those are the tasks that made us engaging and unique when we first captured the attention of our spouse or our employer. We can be conscious, aware, and present in the smaller moments, and celebrate the smaller victories throughout each day. We can choose to stop giving special privilege in our minds to large, looming events. We can focus our mental energy on the recurring tasks that are meaningful and important, instead of focusing it on the interruptions and stressors. We can reverse the Pareto Principle and put the 80/20 rule to work for us instead of against us. Instead of saying, “Put first things first,” we can choose to say, “Put the right things first.”
Turning a poor performing team into a high performing team is an admirable task, and many managers make a career doing exactly that, but it isn’t the pinnacle of achievement. Continuing to operate at that high level and guiding a high performing team to reach new heights year after year is something reserved for legends. When things get stressful, boring, and complicated, remember to stop, re-introduce yourself, put on your lucky shirt, and focus on the basics everyone else is taking for granted. That is the stuff that creates legends!