When I began working at my first job out of college, I knew I didn't want to spend my whole career there. I was a college graduate (that means something, right?) working at a climbing gym, part time, teaching seven-year-olds how to climb at about $10 an hour.
I had no idea what I wanted to do next. A few weeks in, the company began preparing the space next to ours for a HUGE expansion; this climbing gym was to become (over the next nine months) the largest climbing gym in the nation.
I got to play a role by asking the COO if I could help on the expansion. He gave me a task, and left for the day. I had about 90 minutes before the construction site needed to be empty and locked, so I figured I'd just do the whole task before it finished.
My task was ripping about forty five concrete bollards out of the ground and stacking them near the front of the warehouse. Each one weighed at least ninety pounds, and was sitting on a rebar post buried in the concrete. To get each one out I had to lever each one back and forth to loosen it, and then use a wedge of wood to lift the rebar out of the ground.
Imagine you have a really drunk friend standing in front of you, and if you shake him hard enough, he'll sober up. That was basically what I did, for all forty five. It was hard work, but I finished just as we had to lock up the space.
I later found that this was basically a test to see if I could finish a project without someone breathing down my neck. I passed.
Working hard matters
For the next nine months, I replicated this pattern over and over, sacrificing my time, rest, and at times my safety to complete the expansion. I considered my high level of dedication to the goal to be the skill that I could bring to the table. I wanted to perform well and use my skills, and my skills were manual labor and simple craftsmanship. I heard from many different people that I was the hardest worker they'd ever met, and I earned the respect of almost everyone I worked with.
I thought this was all good, and I aspired to reinforce all of these perceptions. I worked extremely long weeks, I could go weeks without taking any days off, and I thought this was good. I had hopes to move up in management when the opportunity arose, and I wanted to be the obvious choice.
The only thing I knew how to do was work hard.
I worked hard to satisfy the needs of construction, I worked hard to satisfy my other responsibilities, teaching classes, managing staff, and manning the desk. I would get to the gym and work construction from 6am to 6pm, then teach a class and close the gym at 11pm. Twelve hour days were nice, because they were shorter than most.
A revolution in my thinking occurred after the expansion finished. I realized that just working hard may make me stand out, but it doesn't really matter. An entry-level programmer gets paid far more than a skilled and trustworthy janitor. The programmer builds things that did not exist, and solves problems that no one else has solved. I wanted to become more like a programmer, and less like a janitor.
Working hard doesn't matter that much
I used to think of my job as something that I would do with excellence, and I did it with excellence. Over a few months, I started seeing my job (and its responsibilities) as a platform I could use to identify and then solve business problems. I started looking for processes that were cumbersome or annoying. I looked for ways the gym could offer a better product. I looked for ways I could help grow and develop our staff.
The more I looked, the more I found. I was soon aware of dozens of problems, and I could think of potential solutions to many of them. I could, with only a little effort, be known as the guy who identifies and solves problems.
So I did.
- I changed the staff listserv, so the staff could use it without bothering those who did not want the emails. Traffic on the listserv blew up, while unwanted emails dropped to almost zero.
- I designed and taught a new class to help lead climbers learn to belay with professionalism and confidence; that confidence and skill enables their climber to push themselves in a way they never thought possible. Not only were they safer climbers, they were instantly improved climbers, because they overcame significant psychological barriers.
- The gym director spent a lot of time writing the schedule every week; I found a tool that could cut those 24 man-hours down to less than 8 man-hours, while improving the quality of the schedule. I did proof-of-concept with it, and pitched it to the director and CFO; that software is now being used throughout the company.
- I helped institute a rope-tracking system, so we could take old ropes out of circulation without trying to guess which ones they were. I helped improve the process used to cut new ropes, so staff could do rope cutting in batches, and reduce the time spent on the task by more than half.
- I tracked usage patters (using about 4000 data points) of the most popular service the gym offered on weekends to learn how to improve the service; I learned which staff moved relatively quickly through their customers while delivering amazing customer service, and which ones could learn to do it faster. I learned that when the staff felt like it was really busy and clients were going to be angry, it wasn't actually so bad. I helped bring a little bit of peace to our staff during peak hours because of that information.
- The gym new how to bring in new customers, but did not know anything about why customers were leaving; I started digging into the process; I stopped working there before I could go deep into that project.
I still worked hard, but I no longer tried to differentiate myself by going to great effort; I simply aimed for great effect. Every single one of these improvements was hidden to me until I started thinking about solving problems.