One of my guilty pleasures is watching certain sports in the Olympics, especially swimming, but also at least a little bit of volleyball, either indoor or beach. What struck me after watching parts of several matches was that what decided the outcome of those matches wasn’t which team had the most powerful serves or the best strikers or blockers, but who had the best diggers and setters, the men or women who got in there and did the hard and dirty and largely unnoticed work that took the edge off the power serves and set up the thundering spikes.
Metaphorically and practically speaking, the same is true in most human endeavors. It’s the effective gruntwork, the unseen set-ups, the unnoticed research, the careful checking and cross-checking that lead to success.
In writing, for the most part, it’s not the brilliant phrases, the basic plot, or the non-stop action that defines a really good book, but rather the expertise in all the other aspects of writing, such as the setting, the characterization, the dialogue, the subplots, and the tiny details that link everything into a seamless unity.
In politics, it’s not the brilliant speech-making or the lofty rhetoric that defines an effective lawmaker, but the skills in crafting a measure so that it will pass all the tests of legality and Constitutionality, of building effective support among both members of one’s own party and of the opposition, of doing enough research to be able to answer every possible objection to the proposal, of knowing the subject well enough to be able to explain the issue and the solution to everyone from grade-schoolers to those with doctorates, and to do so without being condescending or arrogant, and then having the perseverance to do it all again and again in order to get the job done, all the while not alienating the voters and raising enough money for the next campaign.
In business, success isn’t measured just by having the lowest prices, the best profit margin, the most efficient production process or the most productive workers. Long-term success also requires continual innovation; understanding of not only where markets are, but where they will be; an ability to discover and assess outside factors that will affect society and thus industry; and mastery of all the little details behind each of these.
My wife, the opera and voice professor, also has a listing of the details that most young singers either ignore or shortchange, including: improper posture, because that makes effective breathing almost impossible; poor everyday speaking and pronunciation, because that carries over into singing; failure to learn the musical rhythms of a song before memorizing the lyrics; lack of adequate keyboard skills; and a whole host more.
In short, all those unsexy, grubby, painstaking, unglorious tasks that are seldom, if ever, recognized are what lie behind success… and that’s something that fewer and fewer young people are taught and shown every passing year, as well as something that far too many voters fail to take into account when casting their ballots.