Doing Things Carefully


Doing Things Carefully

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My brother Dave has the attitude. I first noticed it twenty years ago when he showed me the boat he’d built. What a beauty! Every piece of hand-shaped wood was just right, and he’d given the boat many coats of spar varnish. This brought out the richness of the wood’s grain and color to the point where it almost glowed. Then there were those zillions of gigantic tomatoes that Dave grew on just three tomato plants; much care and attention to detail there, too. Now I see it in almost everything Dave does. It’s even there in vacuuming the living room carpet and doing the dishes.

I once got a chance to watch him handle dishwashing away from his home turf. We’d had a big family meal, and Dave and I had volunteered to do the dishes. Dave was to wash; I was to dry.

I watched him size up the situation. I imagined him saying to himself, “No, there’s no double sink here, and no dishpan … rinsing will be a bit of a problem. Not much counter space on the left, but a good dish drainer … it’ll be okay if Cop dries fast enough. Hmmm, not much counter space on the right either … ah, but with the dirty dishes stacked over on the table I can move a stack or two at a time.”

There were great piles of dishes to deal with, and good conversation had already started to filter in from the living room. There was every reason to approach the task with minimal attention and a get-it-done-quick attitude, but this wasn’t Dave’s style. In the end, things did move quickly, but with much attention to detail, too. After half filling the sink and adding detergent, Dave began washing. His eyes seemed to hang on each dish, glass, and fistful of silver. As his left hand clutched the object, the cloth in his right swished, and swirled, and homed in on problem spots. Then the cloth would drop. Hot rinse water would gush from the tap for a few seconds while the left hand turned and twisted. That hand would then plunk the object onto the drainer. I tried to be fast and attentive in my drying, but I was able to get by without nearly as much attention. Dave had left me no dirty spots to deal with.

Careful attention raises the quality of what we do without necessarily slowing us down. If you take re-doing time into account, it probably takes less time.

I asked Dave to tell me what was behind his careful approach to doing things. He had several interesting things to say. First, he made it clear that maximizing quality is his first priority. When many of us face a sink full of dishes or a room that needs painting, getting the job done in minimum time is our first priority. Instead, Dave focuses on doing it right. To him the time it takes is secondary. The challenge is to do his best. “I don’t put a time frame on things. That isn’t important. Whether I’ve done a really good job is. The final result is what’s important to me, not the time I spend. I want to do whatever I do in a quality way.”

Part of doing a quality job, he feels, is thoroughly sizing up the situation before you start. When he and I did the dishes, it simply meant spending thirty seconds looking around the kitchen, assessing the task and the available resources, and then pondering possible courses of action until the clearly-best way of handling things became apparent. In this situation all the necessary information was right there, but frequently it’s not. For many people — especially men, I’m sorry to say — ego gets in the way at this point. Not being able to say, even to themselves, “I don’t know,” they fill in the blanks with guesses or unchecked assumptions and charge into action.

Dave does it differently: “I’ve discovered that you go to people who have the answers. People love to be asked to share what they know. Doing this minimizes screwups. It greatly improves the odds that I’ll get it right.” Dave calls it information gathering. He reviews the options, gathers information, and researches the situation in detail. He pre-plans and doesn’t necessarily take the first option or solution that presents itself.

The North American tendency is to divide the world and our individual lives into the important and the unimportant. Having made this neat division, we then pay much attention to the first and as little as we can get away with to the second. As I understand it, it’s different in Japan. The Japanese don’t slice the world up into important and unimportant. And the Japanese pay much attention to detail. To them, everything is important. They immerse themselves in the activity of the moment, whatever it may be, and treat the task at hand with care and attention.

I talked about careful doing with a friend who has lived in Japan for many years. “The Japanese have a word for it,” she said, “mame [mah-may]. It means someone who does everything meticulously. In fact, the attitude ‘Whatever you do, is worth doing well’ pervades Japanese culture.”

She went on to say that the level of the work doesn’t matter; as many cleaners or brass polishers approach their work this way as artists, engineers, or business executives. She also shared with me a French saying that fits: “Il n’y a pas de sots métiers. Il n’y a que de sottes gens.” There are no stupid jobs; only stupid people.

In conclusion, then, what can we say about the value of meticulous attention? First, there are fewer screwups. If we think about the major disasters in our lives, can’t we attribute many of them to not paying enough attention to something? When we habitually pay attention, things go more smoothly.

Second, paying attention keeps us where the action is: the present moment. Now is the only time in which living can happen. When we pay attention to the activity of the moment we are alive. We feel good about what we’re doing. When we don’t pay attention, life passes us by.

Third, paying attention trains us to pay attention. The more we do it, the easier it is to do. Attentiveness breeds attentiveness.

And finally, when we pay attention to what we are doing, we are filled with a satisfaction that just isn’t there when we deal with the bits and bubbles and dirty jobs of life with half a mind. When we pay close attention, quality goes up — the quality of what we do, what we make, and perhaps most important, the quality of our life experience.

Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:

“Whatever you do is worth doing well.” How well does that attitude suit you? Do you endorse it thoroughly, partially, or not at all?

Work from examples in your life and observations of others. About what sorts of activities are you most mindful, most presently and immediately engaged, most meticulously careful?

Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions?

Text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom. Originally posted on

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