If you turn on the TV in my house, chances are that you’re going to find that the last time it was turned on, it was on one of two channels: Food Network or HGTV. Of the two, I used to be a big fan of Food Network, until the network decided that it was more interested in food entertainment than it was in food instruction. The whole reason I used to watch the network is so that I could learn to cook from classically trained, highly respected chefs with impeccable understanding of the science and technique of cooking. (Good Eats, Sarah’s Secrets, Molto Mario, etc.) I mean, I learned how to cook by watching these shows.
Now, instead of having informational and instructional television, they fill it up with Unwrapped, Iron Chef, Chopped, Dinner:Impossible, Throwdown, Food Network Challenge, The Next Food Network Star, and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Instead of teaching us how to cook, they teach us that a headband and a snooty British accent means that you have what it takes to judge a cake building competition. Instead of the Sarah Moltens and Mario Batalis, we have the Neeleys, Brian Boitano, and Sandra Lee–people who may have a personality, but can’t really teach you much about the technique of cooking because they think it’s okay to make mixed drinks out of crushed kiwi, vodka, melon liqueur, and juice from a jar of jalapeno peppers.
Side Note: If you’ve ever seen Semi-Insane: With Sandra Lee, I’d suggest you read this hysterical article. Best Line–in reference to Sandra’s Kwanzaa Cake: "It’s like being sodomized by the sugar plum fairy."
So, instead of watching Food Network twenty four-seven liked I used to, I am now a fan of HGTV (motto: Why make our own TV Shows when we can just buy them from Canada?) All of the American-produced HGTV shows are stupid competition shows or shows like Selling New York, which just follows around a bunch of agents selling ludicrously over-priced property to excruciatingly wealthy jackasses with gigantic egos. (Which isn’t surprising, since HGTV is owned by the same parent company as Food Network. Apparently, Scripps is more interested in making the food and real estate equivalents of Flavor of Love than in programming content that is actually watchable)
However, more than half of HGTV’s premiere programming is purchased from Canadian production companies. Apparently, Canadians don’t have enough to do during their frigid winters, so when they’re bored, they remodel their homes. And they’re good enough at it that they can actually teach others how to do it. Divine Design, Sarah’s House, The Unsellables, Property Virgins, and Income Property all grace major spots in the network’s prime time lineup. But the Canadian-produced show that stands head and shoulders above them all is Holmes on Homes.
In HoH, Mike Holmes is a contractor who goes into situations where contractors have given their customers the royal screw job, completely undoes the damage caused by these yahoos, and then fixes it. He helps them oot. (Get it? Oot? ‘Cause he’s Canadian? Oh, never mind.) (Seriously. Where’s your sense of humor?)
Mike’s Motto is "Make It Right." His whole message centers around the fact that, if you spend the time and money to do it right the first time, then you won’t have to go back and fix it up later. It’s always cheaper and easier in the long run to just do what it takes to make it right than it is to bandage it.
I started watching this show about three weeks ago because nothing was on and instantly I was hooked. I grew up around construction. My dad was a construction manager for most of my formative years, and I used to go to his office with him, or occasionally tour his job sites as they were in progress. For 7 1/2 of the 8 years we spent in our house in Albion, it was under renovation. So watching shows like this make me nostalgic in a way. I still watch This Old House or Hometime whenever I come across them (although I miss Joanne Liebeler).
There’s something very different about this show, though. Mike is a gruff, brash guy who can come off as pretty intimidating. But you can tell by watching him that he loves what he does, and he demands excellence from both himself and his crew. He never takes the easy way out and he never does the job half-way. Everything that he does on the show proves that he takes a great deal of pride in the work that he does. It’s inspiring to see someone care so much about the quality of their work. Inspiring and increasingly rare.
Among craftsmen, there seems to be a theme of taking pride in your work. My father, who now builds multi-million dollar buildings for a living does it. My brother-in-law, a project manager for a large construction company does it. My uncle, who also builds buildings and, in his spare time, is an excellent wood worker, takes pride in his work. My grandfather, an architect, does it. My great uncle the plastic surgeon took pride in his work. Even the cleaning woman who comes to my apartment once a week cares deeply about her work and wants to make sure that she’s done the best she can do.
This concept, however, seems to be slipping away outside of the skilled trades. For those of us who work in an office, doing the same thing day in and day out, it’s hard to take pride in your work when there’s nothing tangible to show for it. In my job, for instance, I have become a digital janitor. Among my assigned responsibilities, I’ve been tasked with cleaning up incorrectly entered data. I write my SQL queries, develop my processes, send out my weekly and monthly reports, but no matter what I do, tomorrow I’m going to walk into the office and there will be new messes for me to clean up. I’m never "done." I never have a product that I can look back on with pride and say, "I did that. And I did it right."
In the absence of a tangible, visible result of your efforts, it’s extremely difficult to take pride in your work. It’s hard to take a step back and say, "I’m proud of what I’ve contributed." And that difficulty shows regularly in the modern workplace. People try to get away with doing the absolute minimum possible. They take as many sick days as they can. Rather than doing any work and taking ownership of the problems, they delegate all responsibility.
As I’ve watched Mike Holmes and his crew looking over a complete abortion of remodeling job, nearly overwhelmed by the sheer stupidity, laziness, incompetence, and fraudulence of the previous contractors, I see them survey the situation, evaluate their options, make a plan of action, roll up their sleeves, and get to work. They don’t whine about how hard it is. They don’t attempt to cover up the mistakes and polish a turd. They make it right.
(I realize that this is a television show, and for all I know, they really could be doing a crappy job, but it’s the concept I’m going after here, so just go with me here.)
Our inability to take pride in our work shows, in my opinion, a greater shortcoming in our cultural aptitude overall. As a culture, we are increasingly unable to stick with something when it gets hard. How many people get divorced because one spouse or another just gave up instead of trying to make it work? How many people start suing anyone with a wallet when something in their life goes wrong rather than pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and making it right? How many people play the lottery hoping that they’ll hit it big instead of working hard and saving? How many people wallow in situations that they can’t stand rather than getting to work to do something about it?
As a culture, I feel as though we’ve forgotten what it means to take pride in our work. Back in the day, when you were the only carpenter or blacksmith or baker around, you lived with and relied on your customers, just as they lived with and relied on you. If you did a crappy job, word got around, and you lost your livelihood. Your value in the community dropped, and your ability to support yourself and your family suffered as a result.
Take, for example, the US auto industry. This American Life recently chronicled an auto manufacturing plant in California called Nuumi. (This was one of the most engaging hours of radio to which I have ever listened. I’d suggest you listen if you get a chance.) The Nuumi plant was widely acknowledged as one of the worst plants in all of GM’s manufacturing lines. It was inefficient, mismanaged, and full of illegal activity. Workers would drink on the job, have sex in the break rooms, and often, just not show up for work at all. Many times, the management of the plant would go to the bar across the street to find enough (drunk) people to fill in just so they could keep the line operating.
The number one rule of the factory was "never stop the line." People got injured, you never stopped the line. Engines got installed backward, you never stopped the line. Workers would watch minor mistakes go by on the line, but you never stopped the line. As a result, car after car would roll off the assembly line full of defects and mistakes. Rather than fixing the mistakes on the line or developing ways to improve performances, the workforce simply settled into an operational rut and did the same brainless action over and over again.
Unsurprisingly, most of the cars that rolled off the line at the plant were full of defects. Many of them were so screwed up, they’d have to be towed off the line and out into the holding lot for repairs. Then, they would be taken apart and fixed…often by people who didn’t actually know how to fix the problems. As a result, the quality of the cars put out at the plant was abysmal. It was the direct result of people, from the person tightening the bolts on the wheels to the head of the plant not caring about the quality of the work that they did. Thirty years later, we look at what once was the largest and most successful automobile company in the world, and they’re barely struggling to survive. What a surprise.
In the modern world of cubicles and email, we are so divorced from our customers that it is almost as if we’ve forgotten how important it is to do our job and do it splendidly. More importantly, we’ve forgotten how good it can feel when we do our job to the best of our ability. Pride in your work, once part of your "benefits package" doesn’t count for anything anymore. Our tasks have become so much less vital to our daily survival that the importance factor has ratcheted down significantly. When you’re living in Washington state, and your customer is a 14 year old boy in Switzerland who wants to download the movie Booty Call in German, it’s hard to want to put in the extra effort to do it the right way the first time. And when you live in a world where it becomes more important to report on what you’re doing than it is to actually do it, it’s hard even to find the time to do the job the right way.
As I’ve contemplated this pattern in our modern society, I’ve tried to watch those people who take pride in their work and determine how they’re doing it. I’m not talking about the people who politic their way up the corporate ladder or play all the right games to get the big salary and the corner office. I’m talking about the people who come into the office every day with, pardon the pun, workman-like regularity. The ones who do their jobs every day, and who make sure that they’ve left their work world a little better off after they were done.
I know I do my work responsibility well. But I’ve not really figured out how to do a better job of taking pride in the work that I do. What I do isn’t world-changing. I never get to interact with my customers and see how my actions affect them directly. The nature of the work I do means that, even if I’ve fixed all the problems today, tomorrow when I go to work the same challenges and frustrations will exist. I will never have some multi-million dollar building to point out as I’m driving along the freeway as being the direct result of my labors. I can’t bring someone to my office to to show them what I do. So I need to find other ways to take pride in my work.
I’m proud of the fact that, in six months, I’ve only missed 1/2 a day of work due to illness. I take pride in the fact that, if someone asks me to do something, I do it, and on time. I take pride in the fact that I show up to work on time, show up to my meetings on time, and get my job done. I take pride in the fact that I continue to learn and expand my knowledge, and that I’ve found ways to apply that knowledge which will affect the way my team does its job long after I’m gone. I take pride in the fact that I have a deep understanding of the way our systems work, and others call on me regularly to help explain functionality and test issues.
I may not be building a hospital, or bringing a family back into their home after months and years of construction nightmares. I may not have anything tangible to show for my work. But I want to make sure that, no matter what I do, I want to make it right.