I remember my first job in great detail. My dad would drive me to work, saying, “Come on, let’s go to Cracker Cheese.” You’ve probably never heard of Cracker Cheese, and that’s because the real name of this place is Chuck E. Cheese’s, but for some reason my dad could never say that. He called it Cracker Cheese, Chicken Cheese, he even called it Cream Cheese, but never Chuck E. Cheese’s. Whatever you call it, it’s a place where a kid can be a kid. Unfortunately, I never went there as a kid. I only went as a teenager, and only to work.
I was well liked by the managers because of my good attitude, so they quickly promoted me to the kitchen, and I started making pizzas. The good news: more money, and no more beatings from kids. The bad news: this job was way more complicated, and I was terrible at making pizza. I thought I was going to get fired. This is where I thought my positive, friendly attitude had backfired: it had handed me an opportunity I clearly wasn’t ready for. Because I got this new job based on personality and not skill, fear set in. I got the job, now what? I don’t know what I’m doing. But I ended up learning something in that kitchen I’ve been following ever since. To excel at any task, even very complicated ones, you need to follow the basics. The first thing I noticed about the world of pizza making was that all new employees had something in common: their first few pizzas always sucked. Even if someone had made pizza at home a million times, their skills never translated well in a really big kitchen. We made them slowly, and they looked ugly. But eventually, our skills improved until we became pizza-making ninja masters, quickly creating pizzas that looked and tasted great. This really showed me that, a skill will always improve with time but a bad attitude will only get worse. Sometimes a bad attitude has to do with personality. Sometimes it has to do with an inability to follow the basics. I noticed the guys who came to work late and cut corners got worse in those behaviors the longer they were employed. Their pizza-making skills improved, but that didn’t matter because they were unreliable. Yes, they were good while they were there, many of them better than I was, but there was no guarantee of when they would get to work, if they showed up at all. Of course this behavior inevitably got them fired no matter how good their skills were. Eventually I was promoted to team lead of that kitchen. That was the first of many promotions in my life. I got it not because I had the best pizza skills on the team but because I was the most reliable. Too many people spend their time worrying about being great at great things and forget about being great at the basics.
When I managed a team at one point in my career, I was always shocked by how many people missed deadlines they themselves had set and agreed to. After a deadline passed, I would call them to ask for whatever report I needed and was barraged with a slew of excuses. I never accepted any of the excuses, not because I was unreasonable, not because I really needed what they were supposed to do by a certain time, but because we had an agreement, and I was hearing the excuses only after the deadline had passed. If I had gotten a call even five minutes before the deadline explaining the situation, what was being done about it and what the new deadline was, it would have been more understandable and manageable. I’m not saying all projects have to be completed. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we’re given a task that simply can’t be done. But it’s up to us to make that known as soon as we see a problem. The same rules apply in our personal lives. How many times do we hear about problems between friends or family members simply because someone didn’t do something they said they would do? This seems to be a root cause of so many recurring fights between parents and their children, between spouses and between friends. How many times have we heard or told someone, “You said you were going to take out the garbage,” “You said you were going to clean your room,” or “You said you were going to call me”? Whether we’re talking about a big corporation or a family member, nobody likes to be misled, and nobody likes someone they can’t rely on. One of the greatest tools you can use to your advantage professionally is your calendar. Without one, it’s not possible for you to remember all the deadlines you need to meet or all the calls you need to make. The minute you have a project, designate a spot on your calendar when you know you can work on it; then you don’t need to think about it or worry about it again until it’s time to do so. When the time comes, complete the task as planned and promised. Likewise, if you need information from someone and they say they’ll get back to you, put a reminder in your calendar to follow up with that person. You can even do this in your personal life. I have an aunt who always got mad at me because I kept forgetting to call her. I finally started taking my own advice and put a reminder in my calendar. It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done for our relationship. I do this with friends’ birthdays, too, and I even leave myself reminders if someone is starting a new job and I want to send them a nice note on their first day. Tracking your obligations will help you meet your goals. It’ll also relieve a lot of stress, for three main reasons. First, you’ll be less likely to miss deadlines or important dates because you won’t be caught off guard. Second, you’ll get into far fewer confrontations with colleagues or loved ones because you won’t be missing deadlines or important dates. Third, you won’t need to worry about projects or special events until the allotted times in your calendar. We spend so much time worrying about being great at great things. But to be great at great things, or awesome at being awesome, for that matter, we first need to be awesome at the basics. Learn to excel at the basics, and you will excel in your career, as well as in your personal life. Here are four great tips to help you strengthen relationships with your boss, co-workers, family and friends:
- Show up on time. Whether it’s a business meeting or a get-together with friends, when you’re late, you’re saying, “My time is more important than your time.” It’s a sign of disrespect.
- Show up prepared. Sometimes taking 10 minutes before a meeting to look over your notes can make all the difference in the world.
- Be accountable. Do what you say you’re going to do within the time frame you agreed to or give a reason why it can’t be done. If something changes and a deadline can no longer be met, reset expectations as soon as possible. Don’t wait for the deadline to pass.
- Use your calendar to your advantage in both your professional and personal life.
I actually honed my skill at the basics as a kid at Halloween each year. Everyone loved Halloween when they were young. Who am I kidding? I still do. But when I was a kid, it was different. To me and my friends, Halloween wasn’t about fun or costumes or playing around. It was about one thing and one thing only: free candy. It was the one night of the year when all kids were created equal. Candy was out there waiting for everyone. It didn’t matter how much money your parents had, because the candy was all free. The only thing that mattered was how many houses you could hit on that one magical night, and we were ready to hit as many as physically possible. So we trained for Halloween the way athletes train for the Olympics. While other kids were busy doing whatever it was kids did, we were busy planning a strategy for maximum neighborhood candy-grabbing. Back in the day, parents didn’t really go out with the kids to trick or treat, at least not our parents. Because of that, there was always the danger of older kids roaming the streets to take your candy. So in addition to planning the best street routes, we planned for candy muggers. Our tactics were to stay in well-lit areas, always be on the lookout for danger and have safe houses for shelter if we ran into trouble. Our plans were very basic but very effective. In all of those years, no one collected as much candy as we did. And as many times as would-be candy thieves tried to steal from us, no one ever succeeded. The fact is, whether you’re trying to conquer life, conquer a career, make a pizza or get your hands on as much Halloween candy as possible, respect for and mastery of the basics is your path to awesomeness.