Absolute Beginners

I was having lunch with a friend recently when our waitress finally approached with the menu. She apologized for keeping us waiting and I could see that she was clearly under some strain. “Tough day?” I said, trying to put her at ease. “Actually, it’s my first day,” she said, smiling nervously. “So I’m afraid you’ll have to bear with me.” And bear with her, we did. This girl was terrific! Throughout the lunch, she worked her tail off, never once looking tired or like she didn’t want to be there. And it did not go unnoticed when it came time to leave a tip. Remember what it was like to start a new job? The butterflies in your stomach, the sweaty palms, the stay-up-till-dawn-figure-it-out excitement that made you feel alive, even though you were exhausted? How sad, I thought, that we all lose this eventually. I was thinking about this recently when a client was telling me about the “restructuring” going on at his startup firm. The climate there had become toxic due to layoffs, with those remaining all jockeying fiercely for promotion, title, etc. What should he do? How should he position himself correctly? How was he going to spin this to his advantage? Tell me what to do? Tell me how? “Why not just do the work,” I offered. “Do your job to the best of your abilities. Let the chips fall where they may.” He smiled a little sheepishly. “That’s it?” he said. “That’s it,” I replied. I see countless people caught up in the drama of work – the anxious striving for recognition, the internal politicking. And it strikes me as a massive waste of creative energy – energy that could better be used learning new skills and becoming a better asset. But how do I promote myself, you ask? I say, “Do your job. Let the work speak for itself.”

Tune Out The Noise
Back when I was running a lot of marathons, I learned very quickly to identify (and avoid) the “nervous” runners. These are the ones who show up eight hours before start time, obsessively running to the Porta-Johns, checking the weather reports, the course, shoelaces, etc. Spreading anxiety like the flu. By the time the gun goes off, they’re all exhausted, and usually crash around mile 13. These “nervous runners” also like to gather around the water cooler at work, with similar tactics and results. Don’t indulge them. Good work requires a level of concentration that only comes from deep calm. Even if you don’t have the luxury of shutting an office door, there are ways to cut down on distractions and improve your focus. By tuning out the noise, we are able to conserve our energy, saving it for the most important task.

Recommit to Your Vows
It’s become popular for some married people to “renew their vows,” and I think we need to do the same for our jobs every now and then. For what is a job, if not a vow? Back when you did that interview and signed that contract, you committed yourself to showing up and doing your best. But no job, and no relationship, is ever perfect. People leave, the market crashes, technology changes. These are uncontrollables. What we can control is our promise to do good work. That’s what being a professional is all about. As Mickey Rivers used to say, “Don’t worry about things you have no control over. And don’t worry about things you have control over, because you have control over them.”

Cultivate a Beginner’s Mindset
The beginner’s mindset refers to an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconception when it comes to learning any new skill. It’s also what separates those people who are merely “o.k.” at their jobs from those who are great. Why? Because beginners are open and curious; they ask questions and they listen well. More importantly, they are not afraid to risk looking stupid in pursuit of knowledge. How much of our time is spent trying to appear “smart” – and what does this cost us in learning terms? In his book, Zen Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.” Learning doesn’t end at graduation, age 50, or retirement. Luckily, I learn something new from every client I meet with. And sometimes I get it wrong. But I rarely make the same mistake twice. Every day, try to show up and do good work. Don’t get caught up in the anxious energy that surrounds you. Work is about more than just making a living. It’s about earning your own respect and the satisfaction of a job well done, whether that job is treating patients, designing software or serving food. When in doubt, just do the work. Trust me, it won’t go unnoticed.