Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There
Turning Old Clichs to New Maxims
By Richard Eyre
“If a Thing is Worth Doing, It’s Doing Well”
My father used to say it to me — often. And he lived it! We built a log cabin one summer. Mostly my dad built it — with what he graciously called “help” from my eight-year-old brother and ten-year-old me.
“Pull the nail out if it bends — don’t just bash it over and start a new nail. Pull it out and straighten it and pound it straight.” It didn’t matter if it was in a place no one would ever see. “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”
When my brother and I had our paper routes, the paper was supposed to be on the porch, not on the steps or in the driveway, and there was a huge difference between a “good” report card with B’s and a “great” one with A’s.
I remember once when I wanted another job besides the paper route. Dad aid, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t start something you can’t finish; don’t do it at all if you can’t do it well!”
So what’s changed? Well-built homes, good grades, and papers on the porch are all still good ideas.
What’s changed is the pace at which we live — and the sheer number of options and demands we face.
My wife, Linda, dropped off a neighbor child one day and went in with him to say hello to his mother. His mother is a busy young professional who is trying to balance her career with her household and with the raising of her three young children.
On this particular day she was working on a cake that was so fancy that Linda assumed it was a wedding cake.
“Who’s getting married?” she asked.
“Oh, no one,” said our neighbor with a laugh. “The church is having a social and they asked me to bring a cake.”
“Whew,” responded Linda. “Why such an elaborate one, with all you have to do? You must love to make cakes!”
“I hate it actually,” said our friend. “But I was always taught that if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”
The silliness of the clich in that particular situation struck Linda and our friend at that moment and they had a good laugh.
“What I should have done,” the neighbor concluded, “is bought an unfrosted cake at the supermarket, frosted it for the church social, and put it on an elaborate cake stand.”
In an increasingly complex world, some things are less “black and white” in terms of being worth doing well or not worth doing at all. There are things worth reading, but not carefully or exhaustively. There are places worth only a quick visit. There are some tasks and obligations that we ought to tend to, but with minimum effort and exertion. There are TV channels worth having but not worth watching very often. There are people we can meet without feeling that we must become close friends. There are more and more things worth doing but not worth killing ourselves over. And trying to do everything well is a sure recipe for stress.
So … there are three categories that we need to learn to recognize:
FIRST: The relatively small number of things that are truly worth doing well. A good way to recognize them is to ask the question, “Will this matter in five years?”
SECOND: There are a huge number of things not worth doing at all — and ridding ourselves of them can bring a stress-reducing simplicity into our lives.
FINALLY: There is the important-to-recognize middle category — things that are just barely worth doing. It is this third category that leads us to a new maxim:
IF A THING IS JUST BARELY
THEN JUST BARELY DO IT.
Being able to categorize the pressures, demands, opportunities, and options of life into these three groups is perhaps the most basic key to balance and the most basic escape from stress. Once these three categories are defined, recognized, and mentally used, the guilt of not doing everything perfectly disappears and is replaced by a kind of pleasant pride in saving ourselves (by slacking off on the “hardly worth doings”) for the things that are worth doing well.
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.