“Fill Up the Back of that Shovel, Son”

Iron Spring Mousetrap Iron Spring Mousetrap – National Museum of American History Smithsonian

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door,” is a phrase I first learned in a Harding University Marketing class. The phrase originated with Ralph Waldo Emerson although Mr. Emerson’s original statement was a bit different. “If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.” In 1889 the modern mousetrap was created and patented and though Emerson had died seven years previous, Emerson was quoted as saying: “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor…”

And so the catchy phrase has turned into a metaphor about the power of innovation and how people will buy something as long as it is attractive and useful. I recently read in Professional Builder magazine about how the “best companies have mastered the best form and function with an attainable price. Many of these great companies do not represent the lowest price in their class. Apple is a master of this strategy. The company has flourished in a down economy, not by offering cheaper products, but by offering design and innovation that cannot be found elsewhere. Evidence of this innovation is my Apple IPhone 5 which my nieces discovered in my possession on a recent trip to their home in California. I entered their home with twenty pictures on my phone and left with five hundred pictures, mostly self-portraits my nieces left for me like wolves marking territory. They seemed fascinated with the phone and I kept misplacing it, only to find I hadn’t misplaced it, the nieces had stolen my technology and were taking pictures. I posted the worst pictures of my nieces on Facebook as vengeance. Melita and Bethany 1

Most of us operate somewhere between the Iphone and the mousetrap. We long to create something amazing, five hundred pictures of ourselves in fifteen minutes or a light and airy souffle’ or great architecture, yet we are bound by the reality of our resources and the time allotted. So…how do you manage your work…with furious haste or slow-burning creative passion? I started early in my career writing down tasks on a legal pad, later a Franklin Covey Daytimer. Writing by hand seems to crystallize the task, to sear it into my mind as if a wire extends from hand to frontal lobe, a way of making my work become part of my psychosomatic subconscious. This approach to work is clinical, less frantic, more thoughtful…or is it? Perhaps great work is sometimes accomplished in the crucible of disarray?

When I was a teenager working in our homebuilding business, my Grandpa Taylor would tell me to “Fill up the back of the shovel and the front will take care of itself.” The application of that maxim to my work style took hold slowly, my shovel work marked by a wild and raw energy, conveyed by a story from the killer heat wave of 1980. We were working a footer on a hilltop near Skiatook, Oklahoma. The sandy loam flew out of the foundation ditch, slung right, flung left, the blistering July air mingled with dust, caking our blushed skin, coffee-colored perspiration streaking down face, neck and shirtless torso. We were one with the dirt, and our sweat was honest and abundant, our shovels flashing sabers in the brilliant sunlit oppression that tinged the grass and trees the color of lightly browned toast that record-breaking summer. My buddy Jeff Lowry and I were the summer flunkies, the ditch scrapers, following the yellow Case backhoe, making sure the ditch was clean and square. It occurred to me that Paul Newman made hasty sport of forced chain-gang labor (though our labor was voluntary and compensated) along a Dixie county road in the in the movie Cool Hand Luke. Luke (Paul Newman) rallied his fellow prisoners to frothy frenetic pace, slinging gravel screenings atop freshly sprayed tar.cool hand luke shovels With hours of daylight left and the days allotment of road work complete, guards and inmates suddenly realized the implications of their astonishing burst of work speed, and the guards attuned to the inmates sense of camaraderie, readied their weapons awaiting an insurrection, unclear of the meaning of what they had witnessed. Having just watched the movie the night before, I implored Jeff to make haste, to be Cool Hand Luke, and so we flung dirt with magnificent obsession, wiping sweat from our faces with soiled hands, faces muddied with sweat and unalloyed effort. Motivated only by an early finish and the relief of a shady oak, we made shovel speed history. Why will inmates work furiously? And why did a couple of nineteen year old college kids work so hard for $5.00 an hour?

We all have an approach to work. Mine is colored by the patina of experience…and age. My world has been impacted by watching my Dad who is a master delegator, and my Grandpa Taylor who believed in working easy, not hard, by finding the best and most efficient way to carry out a task. So today, my work style is less dirt and sweat, more daily journal and to-do lists. My Franklin Covey Daytimer has this quote from Benjamin Franklin printed on the cover page. “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.” And so I’m fascinated by people like Gary, a carpenter who has worked for me for twenty-three years. Gary never hurries, but rarely has to rework a project. Careful forethought, a plan, execution, production, efficiency. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden advised his players to, “be quick but don’t hurry.” Wooden believed that hurry is an emotional state that breeds bad decisions, but quickness is a learned skill acquired by physical and mental training.

We live with a continual tension between creative perfection and furious haste to finish a task on time. Doing our best and understanding we don’t have time to do our best reminds me of the challenge of managing this tension between a work of art and a work of production. For instance, I’ve proofread this piece five times, and could keep honing, but at some point one must have confidence to present their work even if it is imperfect, unless of course you are the Admiral of the U.S. Nuclear Navy.

Former President Jimmy Carter tells this story about an interview with Admiral Hyman Rickover, head of the U.S. Nuclear Navy: “I had applied for the nuclear submarine program, and Admiral Rickover was interviewing me for the job. It was the first time I met Admiral Rickover, and we sat in a large room by ourselves for more than two hours, and he let me choose any subjects I wished to discuss. Very carefully, I chose those about which I knew most at the time—current events, seamanship, music, literature, naval tactics, electronics, gunnery—and he began to ask me a series of questions of increasing difficulty. In each instance, he soon proved that I knew relatively little about the subject I had chosen. He always looked right into my eyes, and he never smiled. I was saturated with cold sweat. Finally he asked a question and I thought I could redeem myself. He said, ‘How did you stand in your class at the Naval Academy?’ Since I had completed my sophomore year at Georgia Tech before entering Annapolis as a plebe, I had done very well, and I swelled my chest with pride and answered, ‘Sir, I stood fifty-ninth in a class of 820!’ I sat back to wait for the congratulations which never came. Instead, the question: “Did you do your best?’ I started to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ but I remembered who this was and recalled several of the many times at the Academy when I could have learned more about our allies, our enemies, weapons, strategy, and so forth. I was just human. I finally gulped and said, ‘No, sir, I didn’t always do my best.’ He looked at me for a long time, and then turned his chair around to end the interview. He asked one final question, which I have never been able to forget—or to answer. He said, ‘Why not?’ I sat there for a while, shaken, and then slowly left the room.”
Ephesians 2 10

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One thought on ““Fill Up the Back of that Shovel, Son”

  1. Pingback: Redeeming Our Work

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