You hear it all the time, “he/she is a natural.” “The kid is an expert at 22.” “They did [insert climb/performance/activity] with excellence beyond their years.”
No doubt, the world of both climbing and music (both performance oriented activities) have seen increasingly amazing performances from a wide cast of participants in recent years. Younger people doing harder and harder things, and this post is not to downplay their achievements. To be transparent, their achievements make me honestly question how I have spent me time, and what I hope to accomplish in the grand terms of my life. In the greater lens of life beyond sport and music, I believe firmly that real excellence is usually harder won than some youth would have us think.
This week in the home performance contracting world, once again I bit off more than I could chew. Our belief as a company is that your home is a system, and all the parts and sub-systems have to work appropriately for the system to deliver real performance. I estimated what it would take to insulate the thermal mass element at the UM Dining Greenhouse project- and my estimate came up well short. As a project manager, you’re job is to know how things go- but I’ve still got a lot to learn. Ultimately my team picked up the slack and I still have a hard time letting people people help me (something else I’m looking forward to learning). It happens, and as our master carpenter likes to remind me- “mistakes are the fastest way to learn.” He’s been in this business, learning systems and making mistakes for almost 40 years. Just because it looks simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.
I have high standards for myself- most of my friends and family believe these standards are often too high, and they are probably right. I think most of us want to believe that we are good at what we spend our time doing. That if we are working hard, we must be working well, and that we can achieve “mastery” or “excellence” in everything, and quickly. My experience is to say- no. Mastery is the result of many mistakes, many failures, and many attempts.
I am willing to say that while working harder is not always an indication of progress, failing often might be- so long as you don’t miss the lesson. Humility is a gift, mistakes are opportunities, questions are invaluable. Don’t miss the chance to pick yourself up and keep going.
Excellence is earned.
“I will not make excuses, I will make corrections.” (Gym Jones)
Someone told me today that they wanted to get better at public speaking and asked for my advice. I thought what I had to say was worth sharing here:
“Connect with your passion in whatever you are talking about. Bring whatever you have to say back to your passion- if its invasive species, or vegan gourmet, or energy efficiency, connect to that. If you are talking about something really esoteric or far from your passions, find a way to joke about it, or something about it that you genuinely want to learn more about. If you find yourself in the unfortunate place of talking about something you really don’t know anything about, own that too- get vulnerable and admit your ignorance, there are few better ways to make friends.
People connect via authenticity, vulnerability, and humor- if you can use one of these, you win. Also, practice. It sucks and it’s hard, but speaking is really one of those things that only happens when you put yourself on the spot and do it. Take every chance you can get to speak in front of people (it’s scary), and make a deal with yourself that you won’t back down from an opportunity. It gets worse, then better, and then- it gets fun.”
Next Friday I’m looking forward to giving a presentation about my professional work to a group of architects in Helena. I am a little nervous about it. The vulnerability tactic is definitely my plan, but I also respect what I have to say, so I hope I can speak authentically. I mildly expect my audience to eat me alive (architects and contractors in the construction industry tend to be at odds with one another). I can’t hide the fact that I’ve only been at this contracting gig for a year (holy crap, it’s been a year)- so I intend to own it, and while usually presenters are on the spot to teach something, I’m thankful that I tend to walk away having learned something.
It is important to remember that the most important, special, things tend to happen in just their own time- and that time has been the last 9 days.
This past weekend I was again at Prairie Heritage Farm to slaughter turkeys for Thanksgiving. You’ve seen the pictures from last year, so I’ll spare the gory details, and if last weekend wasn’t one to celebrate my anniversary in Montana, this one certainly was.
There’s a feeling I get being out there, on the high northern plains. The openness of the land and the warmth of its people remind me why the hard, unglamorous work of farming is what has shaped many of the richest, and most fulfilling parts of our culture. Jacob and Courtney seem to draw a particularly beautiful crew of people each year to help with the grisly work- I was particularly privileged to enjoy the company of my new friend Katie for the drive from Missoula to Power, and our shared work slitting throats together. We had glorious weather, and spectacular new facilities for the slaughter- making this year less about “getting through it”, and more about “doing it right and having fun.
The introspective observations:
- As much as I enjoy my time on the farm, I don’t feel compelled to farm- but I do feel compelled to empower other people to farm.
- The hard and unglamorous work of farming often mirrors the hard, unglamorous work of contracting- and I like that.
- Being around this group of people made me start to seriously think about my own aspirations in participating in the sustainable food system. How can I participate more?
The practical observations:
- People always look funnier with turkey blood splattered on their faces.
- Turkey farts smell really bad, and are hilarious.
- There is such a thing as “sipping Tequila.”
It was a special weekend, and no doubt I got what I came for.
A few other highlights from the last 9 days:
- I had a hilariously good time as a guest soloist with the Dodgy Mountain Men last Thursday night as Missoula said goodnight to our beloved Top Hat (until spring of 2013). Thank you gentlemen, and I look forward to more songs soon.
- Despite a year of injuries and training focused entirely elsewhere- I still put 10 more pounds on my best-ever deadlift last Tuesday night.
- Last Sunday I took the first few steps on the next BIG adventure. Stay tuned.
Safe to say, I will have plenty to give Thanks for at the table this Thursday.
I answered a call from the office this morning in the cold, damp crawlspace that I’ve spent most of this week in. My colleague asked how it was going- I replied, “if you had told me how much stuff I would screw up on this job before I started, I wouldn’t have believed you.” I realized over lunch- I must be attending the school of hard knocks.
When you are 6’1″ tall and working long days installing ductwork in a 4′ tall, 4,000 s.f. crawlspace, knocking your head into a floor joist every once in a while is to be expected. Along the way, this project also managed to knock out my design skills, planning ability, and a good portion of my self-esteem.
My position is as a project manager, responsible for everything that it takes to make a job happen (including making a profit!). In this case (and with a lot of help!), I met the client, wrote the proposal, designed the system, ordered the material, scheduled the job, and installed the system (with the install team). The process is far more integrated than most other firms, but we believe that leads to higher quality, better performance, and greater profit. I’m new to the job, and new to contracting, and none of the above really has all that much to do with my past experience, which involved managing very different types of engineering projects.
We aren’t quite done yet, but we are almost all the way there. Fair being fair, I made no truly major, work stopping mistakes, but every day there have been significant errors that have come to light- some piece of gear I didn’t order, some task I didn’t follow through on. When you are actually trying to build a functional system, every error is glaring. Day 1, we ran into all sorts of issues- shipping delays, forgotten plans, miscommunicated orders. On my first day of my first big job, I figured I could shrug it off and keep going. Day 2, missing fittings and layout changes, ok nothing fatal, but that’s low style Skander… Day 3, order of operation, co-ordination failure, error tracking nightmares. The mistakes kept coming, almost to the point of humor and pretty much my worst nightmare from a project management standpoint. Suffice to say, it has been a valuable education in hard knocks.
For everything though that went wrong, none of it seemed to impact the amount of satisfaction I got out of getting to install something that I designed. It reminds me of one of my favorite NY Times pieces. I have an incredibly forgiving and good natured boss working with me (but letting me take responsibility for the mistakes) and helping look in the mirror at my work. We joked about the fact that I have a degree in science from an expensive private university, and yet the real bread and butter of business and design still involves getting down in an unfinished crawlspace and knocking your head around. It’s been a hard week so far, but also supremely satisfying. I’m taking tomorrow off, but back again on Friday to wrap things up, stay tuned.
“The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love), pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.” (Wendell Berry)
Do the humble work.