Have you ever been given a lesson that has just stuck with you? Maybe you can still hum that song from third grade that alphabetizes the fifty states, or maybe a boss, coach, or parent once imparted a piece of wisdom that you can still repeat verbatim. I learned a lesson like that on one of my first jobs when I was barely a teenager, and I still find myself thinking about it monthly and repeating it to new employees decades later.
I grew up in El Centro, California. You probably haven’t heard of it. It is a small, out of the way place in the desert on the Mexico/California border, and at 13 the only work I could find was on a feedlot (aka cattle farm). This southeastern corner of California is so hot that we used to work from 4am to 1pm in order to avoid the worst of the 115 degree days. All of the men working on this feedlot were Mexicans, and as a kid with blue eyes who’s first language was not Spanish, I was quickly relegated to the worst of the jobs. I will spare you the stomach-churning details, but suffice it to say that it was not enjoyable work.
Still, I kept my head down, and did what was asked of me. After about a year, the other men working there began to recognize that I was a hard worker, and began inviting me to their mid-day meal, which occurred so early in the morning that most people would consider it breakfast.
One morning, I was sitting there eating carne (steak) from a small steer that had been bit by a rattlesnake and died the day prior when the manager approached me. He asked me who, out of his team of about thirty guys, should he select to assign a special job to. I knew this was a test, and my mind immediately began sizing up my co-workers, trying to decide who was the best, the smartest, or the most dedicated. After a minute I had my answer, a hard-working man who showed up on time and never complained. To my surprise, the only response I got from the manager was to shrug and walk away. I quickly got up to follow up.
“How would you pick?” I asked, jogging to catch up.
“You see that man over there?” asked the manager, pointing to a man so lazy that he was actually napping in the dirt underneath the shade of a bush. I was incredulous.
“Him?” I asked, the shock evident in my voice. The manager stopped walking and faced me.
“Do you see all of the tools and inventions we have around here?” the manager asked, gesturing to the pulley systems, siphons, and other complicated, impressive Rube Goldberg-like inventions that made all of jobs easier, “Those were all created by him.” he finished, gesturing back to the snoring man in the dirt. “He is so lazy, that rather than put in the effort to do a job manually, he will think creatively and figure out a way to make it easier for everyone. He is the only one I want solving my problems.” As my manager began to walk off again, he said “You are a very hard worker but if you combine that with thinking like that guy, you’ll do well in life”.
I have told this story countless times, whether speaking in front of a thousand people or on a one-on-one basis. The lesson for me was critical and it’s about having a deadly one-two combo. Work Ethic AND Working Smarter. Most people think having one of the two will suffice. Don’t fool yourself, having only one of the two will not cut it. Doing both all the time is an ABSOLUTE must and there is no substitution.