Sunday, September 1, 2013

Work and the Habit of Excellence.

This is the gospel of labour,
Peal forth, ye bells of the kirk,
For the Lord of Love
Came Down from above
To live with men who work.

And this is the seed He planted,
Here, in this thorn-cursed soil;
Heaven is blessed with eternal rest,
But the blessing of earth is toil.
       -- Anon.

This weekend, we celebrate labor day. Originally a celebration of workers' rights won by the labor movement and labor unions, it is today mostly a celebration of the end of summer and a line of demarcation between the vacation part of the year and work.

Work is what we do to support our vacations. Vacations are an upper. Work is a downer. We endure our work. We live for our vacations. We concentrate on the quality of our time off rather than the quality of our work products.

It was not always so.

Benjamin Franklin valued his work so much he regarded time spent in the print shop as money. In Poor Richard's Almanac, he opined that "Early to bed an early to rise makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise," and he lived it  Work and the work ethic were important to him.

Arriving in Philadelphia with a loaf of bread and not a penny in his pocket, Franklin rose by his own effort to become one of the most successful men in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, and in the nascent United States. From the standpoint of history, we forget he had to serve an apprenticeship to become a printer. We forget the efforts he expended to open and establish his own print shop and bookstore an make them prosper. We forget the effort it took him to become well-read and educated. We remember the success and forget the efforts it took to achieve it.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on a similar theme on October 26, 1967 when he addressed the students at Barrett Junior High School in Philadelphia with the following words:

"What I'm saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures! 

Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. 

Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. 

Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, "Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well!"  

If you can't be a pine on the top of a hill, be a scrub in the valley, but be the best little scrub on the side of the rill.  
Be a bush if you can't be a tree.  
If you can't be a highway, just be a trail.  
If you can't be a sun, be a star.  
It isn't by size that you win or you fail; be the best at whatever that you are!"

Ben Franklin would have heartily approved. 

In my life, my mother's urged me to "Be the best you possible."

The Army challenged me to "Be all that you can be!"

My church preaches "Whatever you do in word and deed, do it with a whole heart, as to The Lord."

The message is pervasive. We are to seek excellence, to over deliver, to do above and beyond the minimum.

Aristotle is quoted as saying "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

We are urged in whatever we do to be excellent.

Are you being the best you can be?

Are you making excellence a habit?

Are you the best at whatever you are?

How are you doing with that?