Sweat the Details

February 29, 2012

Late last night I received an email from Paul in St. Paul. (Yes, really! How cool would it be to be "Paul from St. Paul"?)

Paul asked me if I agreed with what has become one of those quintessential American adages you run into everywhere: You can be anything you want to be. Now, his question is really loaded and almost any answer is bound to get me into trouble. I'm not afraid to answer the question (I've spent a good deal of my life "in trouble" so the prospect of being there just feels like home). However, I want to save this really juicy trope for a later post when I have the time to devote my whole attention to it.

Right now I want to respond to something I've heard many times before, and that I encountered numerous times in my blog reading this morning.

Paul, who is out of work and looking for a job, said he had been reading the blogs of several experts on the subject of career recruitment. In other words, people whose writing was intended to tell him how to get a job.

One of the expressions I encountered repeatedly in my reading this morning, and which I've heard a lot in recent years, was "Don't sweat the details!"

Where do these people get this crap? By "these people" I'm referring to the hordes of self-appointed "experts" who clearly have not had a thought that was truly their own since...when? Ever? They seem to be prodigiously copying from one another because I ran across phrase after phrase repeated almost identically from one bloviated article to another. The least you would think they could do is think for a moment about what they were saying.

They don't seem to be willing to think about what they say, so let's do it for them. First, what does "sweat" mean to us in this context? We would probably agree that it means to pay attention. It used to mean, and still does sometimes, to get nervous about something because most of us have that human tendency to perspire when nervous. But here it just means pay attention to.

And what about details; what are they? Most simply, they are the elements that make up wholes. Of all the "wholes" that might be relevant to a job search lets consider just two: the résumé and one's interview attire.

The effectiveness of, and response to, a résumé are heavily influenced by the attention to detail in its composition and makeup. Here are some details that dare not be ignored: spelling, grammar, diction, syntax, typos, format (margins, header, footer, etc.), quality of the paper (if printed, which it usually is), cleanliness (no coffee stains), and freedom from any other detracting marks or factors. If you are looking for a job and presenting a résumé, you would be wise to "sweat" these details. (You don't have to be able to define syntax–I couldn't–to know how to put together proper sentences in your native language. If you don't, get help.)

Interview attire is another detail-laden form of self presentation that dare not be not-sweated. Shoes should be clean and polished. Suit or dress should be clean and relatively wrinkle free. (And odor free. Lots of people seem to be unaware that clothes worn too many times without cleaning give off an odor that offends others.) Hair clean and presentable. And on and on.

For most of us it is only the attention to detail, not not-sweating-it, that leads to success. Unless of course you are a genius and firms will put up with almost anything to get you on board.

Or maybe not even then. Here's what Richard Branson, head of Virgin Airlines and considered by many to be an entrepreneurial genius, says about it: "... the only difference between merely satisfactory delivery and great delivery is attention to detail."

Probably the par excellence exemplar of attention to detail was the late Steve Jobs of Apple Computer. He was legendary for his attention to the minute details of Appleā€™s products. If anyone at Apple had said don't sweat the details within his hearing he probably would have fired them on the spot.

Or take farming. Margaret Harvey and her two sons run the most successful dairy farm in Scotland. In an interview she repeatedly made the point that they have succeeded where others have failed by paying attention to detail in all aspects of herd management.

Google "attention to detail" and you will come up with countless success stories extolling the virtues of paying attention. Google "don't sweat the details" and you will come up mostly with self-appointed experts and authors who have never really achieved anything notable on their own. One wonders where they got the chutzpah to tell others how to succeed at anything.

It is true, of course, that paying attention to details is, well, hard. That's why so many people contentedly accept as valuable the advice to not sweat the details. But reality advises otherwise: The way to get ahead, to get what you want out of life, is by paying attention to as many details as is reasonably possible without unduly obsessing on the lesser ones.

One last point: please don't confuse details with small stuff. The "small stuff" of authors like Richard Carlson is not the same as "details." Ignoring details will forever keep you from enjoying whatever you consider the opposite of "small stuff." Getting the most out of life does not mean freedom from effort.