When my three siblings and I were children, Mom and Dad took us to dinner at the historic Griswold Inn in Essex, Connecticut. The place was bustling, as always. Young members of the wait staff hustled from table to table, tending to their patrons.
After a few minutes, an older gentleman, dressed in wait garb, approached our table, introduced himself, asked us how we were, and inquired if any of us would like drinks of any kind before ordering our meal. Mom and Dad ordered cocktails. My siblings and I ordered soft drinks. The gentleman excused himself to submit our orders.
As the gentleman left our table with a relatively slow but deliberate gait, my Dad smiled. Knowing he wouldn’t have made fun of the waiter, I asked why. Dad said admiringly, “The gentleman who just took our drink orders has forgotten more about waiting on tables than any of the younger people in here will ever know.” And, so, was born my respect for a job — any job — done well.
Soon after my Dad passed away, I saw an article headlined, “What the Shoeshine Guy can teach us about doing a job well.” There it was:
Have you ever seen a Shoeshine Guy who wasn’t smiling … who didn’t take extreme care in his craft and pride in his product? I’m always amazed at the meticulousness, the attention paid, and the time spent on each pair … there’s something in the process that provides satisfaction.
Of course Dad taught us to polish our shoes. He was a Marine. He taught us you don’t apply shoe polish with a brush. That’s why God invented fingers. He taught us you don’t worry about blackened fingers. That’s why God invented soap. He taught us you don’t stop brushing, by hand, until you can see your reflection in the leather. That’s why God invented horsehair.
Most important, he taught us wearing those well-polished shoes — doing any job as well as we did that one — was as much a sign of regard for ourselves as it was for the people who’d know we’d done that job, any job. That’s why God invented respect.
Needless to say, we resented him for it, for imposing that discipline on us. Fortunately, he lived long enough to see us become men, to understand we’d learned what he taught us, to know we revered it and understood its indelible value.
Having a father like mine made me driven, idealistic, and perfectionistic. It’s been said of me more than once: “O’Brien is not a team player.” I know I can speak for my siblings: They’d take that judgement as a compliment, as do I.
If the team has lost its focus, its purpose, its unity, and its direction — and if the job at hand will suffer as a result — we couldn’t be less interested in the team. We’ll put the job before the team every time. We won’t look back. We’ll regret nothing.
We compromise. But we mind the clock. There’s only so much time. If you don’t aspire to do the job you have at any moment to the best of your ability in every moment, you’re cheating something or someone. That is NOT why God invented respect.
Every moment is a gift. Do what you do fully, in every moment. And do it well. Nothing, no one, and no job lasts forever.
Rest in peace, Dad. Thank you. Whatever I do next, I’ll do it well.