Sunday, August 9, 2009

Doing a Good Job

On Friday, I did a singularly bad job (in my opinion) giving public commentary on a philosophy paper at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress at CU; yesterday, I did a singularly good job (in everybody’s opinion!) introducing our keynote speaker, Judith Jarvis Thomson, who had been my teacher when I was in college. I still had the notebook from the class I took from her 34 years ago and could share delightful insights into her formidable presence in the classroom, pithy advice on writing our papers, and even mentoring advice about how to balance work and love. The large lecture hall in which I spoke rocked with laughter at my funny lines; some people told me afterward they got tingles up their spines at my poignant lines; Prof. Thomson told me that it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said about her in her life.

Oh, it is so much better to do a good job than a bad job! I want to do a good job all the time! I never want to do a bad job ever again!

There is a danger in this attitude, of course. People who try too hard to protect themselves from ever doing a bad job may fail to take risks that would help them learn and grow. People who never leave their comfort zone will never enlarge their comfort zone. Adages like “Winners lose more than losers lose” remind us that highly successful people have spectacular failures throughout their careers – such failures are almost a precondition of their spectacular achievements. I have taped to my desk at home these lines that I clipped from somewhere decades ago: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that our aim is too low and we reach it.”

But still. My failure on Friday didn’t come because I took some exciting creative risk. It happened because I took on an assignment at which I was pretty much guaranteed to disappoint myself and everyone else; I took on a project that played to my weaknesses, not to my strengths, and I persisted in it doggedly and joylessly even when it was clear that it was going to turn out exactly as it did. Winners may lose more than losers lose, but they don’t set themselves up to lose.

From now on, I’m going to set myself up to have at least a decent chance to win.

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