Lessons from Summer Vacation and Emptying the Dishwasher

I don't expect folks to come to this blog for career advice, but some lessons learned watching two of my kids avoid chores over their summer break fostered some thoughts worth sharing.

I don't know about your kids, but when it comes to mine and chores, the two who were home this summer will argue for 20 minutes to avoid 5 minutes of work. They're great kids-don't get me wrong-and excel at school and other endeavors, but seem allergic to helping out at home. Of course, they're 13 and 11, and at that age, I was pretty much the same. Maybe it's hereditary.

Anyway, my revelation came when I asked them to empty the dishwasher. They, of course, did the minimum, which was to empty the dishwasher, ignoring the accumulated dishes in the sink and on the counter, but meeting the letter of the job. They had emptied the dishwasher. 

My definition of emptying the dishwasher is to empty it, and then fill it with all waiting dishes. That's my minimum. How I do it, of course, is to empty the dishwasher, fill it with the dishes and then clean the sink, counter and entire surrounding area. That's just me; I can't stand a dirty kitchen and give me the latest Reacher novel on my iPod and I'm happy to do light chores, especially after a day of intense compression-related geek work.

Of course, if either of these two kids actually did that, I'd probably faint on the spot. Now my 18-year-old (actually an exchange student who was with us from 2008-2009) would often wait until we were all asleep, then clean the entire kitchen, top to bottom, dishwasher and all. My wife called it a visit from the house-cleaning fairy, and it never failed to blow us away because it was totally unbidden and far exceeded any expectation that we had.

Pulling all this together, it's clear that for every job, there are (at least) four definitions. The lowest level is the mininum that you can claim that satisfies the requirements. The next is what your boss or client defines as the minimum. The third is what the boss or client really wants. Beyond that is a level of performance that goes far beyond any expectations, like a visit from the house-cleaning fairy, or the "ten-wow" level that I talk about here.

Ever since this dishwasher revelation, before beginning any job or task, I think about these different levels. Intuitively, we know that if you stop at level one, you're not on the fast track to anywhere. So I try to define what comprises levels two and three, and attempt to live in the upper range of that zone. Sometimes, I shoot for level four, and aspire for jaw-dropping performance. True, there are always time constraints or other checks and balances, but I find looking at any task in this light helpful, and sometimes going beyond expectations takes less time or effort than you might think.

As I told my 13-year-old on a recent night-time drive between New York City and Washington DC (just before she fell asleep, or perhaps just after), success in any job or task requires an understanding of what's expected. Not just the level-one stuff, which is typically pretty well delineated, but the usually unspoken levels two, three and four. Between you, me and the lamp post, I certainly didn't have that understanding in my first few jobs, and it was a critical deficit. Fortunately, it's never too late--or too early--to start thinking about it.

That's it. We now return you to our regularly scheduled compression-related content.


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