There Are No Little Things

04.02.2012 | Kari Day

We all have something we think we’re good at – our work, parenting, a hobby, driving – but how do we really know if we’re achieving our best? Professionally, there are the external rewards, of course – a client landed, promotion, a deal closed, a bonus earned – but do these things truly reflect our aptitude at a given task or set of tasks?

A few months ago I read a great article that talked about benefits that coaching can bring to professionals, even experienced ones (and we’re not talking about “life coaches” here). The author, Dr. Atul Gawande, is a staff writer for the New Yorker and a Harvard-trained surgeon (he’s also written several insightful books, including the incredible “The Checklist Manifesto”). The article describes Dr. Gawande’s own experiences with enlisting a “coach” – in his case, a retired surgeon and past instructor – to observe him during surgery.

What struck me about this article was that the coaches didn’t focus on results. Instead, they focused on the little things individuals – a surgeon or math teacher, for example – can do to enhance their performance. Even the most introspective and attentive among us, Dr. Gawande argues, could benefit from an experienced practitioner nudging us toward better work. It’s individuals doing the little things well, he points out, that collectively lead to positive results.

He describes, for example, how the famous UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, would show his team how to put on their socks. Failure to properly put on your socks, Coach Wooden argued, would lead to blisters. Blisters would lead to poor individual performance. And poor individual performance would lead to poor team performance. In one of Dr. Gawande’s coaching sessions, his coach found that the patient had been draped in a way that limited his assistants’ ability to help him. The result, though not catastrophic, had been to limit the effectiveness of the entire team.

Success is directly tied to the little, seemingly meaningless tasks that encompass our work. With experience, we learn to tie these tasks together in ways that work for us and that, hopefully, produce the desired result for the whole. Dr. Gawande’s article reminded me that all of us, even surgeons, can benefit from a course correction now and then, and that there really are no little things when it comes to your particular vocation.

Or driving.


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