Saul’s Laws:* #11. Expectations

Sunday, September 13, 2009

*See the Preface to the “Saul’s Laws” page at the WordFeeder.

As you know from Saul’s Law #10, “Life is short,” my father paid a lot of attention to time. What else is there, after all, but time. The universe may be infinite in its scope and history, but we’re not. We’re not.

Thinking about time and how little we have of it, he began to realize that we – particularly the more motivated among us – tend to chronically overestimate how much we can accomplish on a given day and in our lifetimes. It was, we concluded, quite possibly what made us special, as individuals and as a nation: a natural tendency to underestimate the difficulty of doing things, but with the determination to accomplish them anyway.

Unfortunately, while biting off more than we can chew may be an admiral trait historically, on a day to day basis, it can be very stressful – but that wasn’t my father’s primary concern. The real problem was that having too much to do would diminish the quality of the work we did. Bright man, wasn’t he, particularly given that he came to this conclusion decades before the term “multi-tasking” was originated, before personal computers, the Internet, cell phones and 24 hour 300+ channel cable TV. It’s not an illusion. Today’s world is more time consuming, more distracting than it was when I grew up, and in my father’s time before me.

To not do something well, not so much perfectly although that would be nice, but to not do it as well as you could was wasteful – part and parcel of failing to live up to one’s potential. Why was that so important, living up to one’s potential? Because that initiative was how we, personally and as a society, and as a species, moved forward. (Yes, my father and I had some weighty conversations on our way to Baltimore on Sundays when the Colts were playing at home, and when we were building stuff in the basement or trolling for rockfish off Thomas Point.)

And so, to minimize the stress in our lives and protect the quality of our work – personal relationships included – my father created Saul’s Law #11 on expectations: “On a daily basis,” he advised me, “focus on accomplishing only a relatively few, perhaps only two or three significant tasks. You’ll be lucky to get those done, but if you do, you’ll feel good about it. …and make sure,” he added, hearing her doing stuff in the kitchen upstairs, “that one of them has something do with your mother.”

Take this post, for example. What are we talking about? Six paragraphs, 500 or so words. Between the season premiers of “Bones” and “Fringe,” the e-mail I just had to answer, the deli thin sliced honey roasted turkey and Swiss sandwich and the mayonnaise I had to wipe off my keys – two hours later, and I’m done. Perfct. Not so much as a typo. Pretty good, ay Dad? (Maybe I’ll read it over during the Today Show and post it in the morning.)

My father also taught me that Hersey’s Kisses taste better when they’ve been in the refrigerator.


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