The Bottoms of Plates


The Bottoms of Plates

October 9, 2016
1 Comment

I remember visiting some friends when I was in college. They were three women sharing an apartment, and two of them were gossiping about a third roommate’s meager housekeeping. As they complained, one said to the other “…and she never even turns over a plate to wash the bottom!”

My face must have reddened with the shame I instantly felt, as a vision filled my mind:  My own cupboard full of stacked plates whose bottoms I had never washed. The thought had never occurred to me.  That conversation has stuck with me all these thirty odd years.

Ever since then, whenever I am faced with a job, a task, a project or even a choice, and I see the possibility of taking a shorter, easier route, my mind immediately plays that line in my head like a mantra. “She never even turns over a plate to wash it.”

46115785 - young woman hands with nice manicure washing dishes in the sink in the kitchen using sponge with soap foam. close up view.

We live in a very casual, unpolished world.  The advent of mobile technology, casual Fridays and greater informality everywhere has had a sort of erosive effect on all aspects of life and work. As a result, discerning when to raise the bar on our own behavior has become both a greater challenge and a bigger opportunity. Doing the bare minimum has become so commonplace, that it is exceptional to witness really genuine excellence.  Generations before us have had numerous ways to describe excellence: Going the extra mile; Dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s; Going above and beyond. That drive to ensure that there are no loose ends or half-finished details has historically been admired.  Today, we seem to have forgotten our earlier veneration of those traits. In our push for efficiency and convenience, we have become a culture of “good enough”. And you may say “So what?  Why worry about the bottom of plates? After all, no one sees them.” But the completion of tasks beyond “good enough” and the performance of actions that add dignity and order or that restore ease, or make other peoples’ lives more pleasant and easy could be seen as acts of instilling integrity. I don’t mean integrity here as a moral phenomenon, but as a structural one. When integrity is intact, things are whole, structurally sound and solid.

The difference between good enough and excellent matters; it alters who we are and how we exist in the world, and allows for the possibility of bringing the extraordinary to each instant. In our lives we are given the opportunity hundreds of times a day to be ordinary or to be excellent. We have this choice in everything we do. We have the choice when we decide how to drive, use our cell phones, speak to our neighbors, engage in social media, address our teams, write our emails, use public transportation, behave at a trade show, complete a project, wait in line and every other action and conversation you can imagine. We can choose whether to avoid speaking on our phones in public or to annoy others with loud cell phone conversations on speaker. We can choose whether to compose text messages using complete sentences or without punctuation or capitalization. We can choose whether to get to work early or race in the door at the last minute. We can choose whether to use our indicators before turning or not, and whether to return shopping carts to the store or leave them strewn in a parking stall.  Every one of these choices conveys something about us both to the world and to ourselves, and every one of them either adds to the presence of integrity in our surroundings, our community and our work or fails to do so.

Consider that your leadership does not begin with your title or your subordinates, or with anything having to do with your job. Your leadership begins with the way you walk out of your house and the way you answer your phone. It resides in your expressions of polish, high standards, grace and excellence. Bringing that grace and excellence to every moment alters life. The freedom I feel when I walk my shopping cart back to the store, knowing that I have saved someone a trip and that I have added to orderliness in the world is inspiring – to me. Whether anyone witnesses it or not, it confers upon me an experience of being a leader, and leaves behind me a particle of courtesy and service.

Try an experiment. For 48 hours, try to do everything you do with the highest level of grace and excellence that you can imagine – for 48 hours, do complete work and restore integrity everywhere. By complete work I mean doing whatever it is with the greatest degree of excellence – leaving nothing undone or partly done, and nothing mediocre or just good enough. There will be places that are invisible to you, just like the bottoms of plates were invisible to me. But keep a mental inventory of all the places where the most comfortable, easiest option falls short of complete work, and refuse to stop there. Whether it’s making your bed even though you live alone, or filling your gas tank even though you could eke out another 20 miles – make the choice not to take the easy route. Ask yourself “what is the greatest level of polish I could bring to this?” Notice how your conversations shift as you speak to merchants with that question in mind, or how often you catch yourself and put away your phone when someone deserves your undivided attention. Notice when you find yourself reflexively placing your feet on the back of a theater chair, but instead opt against it. Choose the thing that requires more grace, more excellence and more complete work.  What leaders have that others often don’t is profound integrity; that includes an instinct for what constitutes the extra mile – and a determination to travel it. Look for the extra mile instead of the short cut. You will benefit through the deepening of your sense of true mastery and integrity –elevating your life and your work. And in doing that, you will alter countless moments for others as you go through your days.


Imagine how regular performance coaching could help you up your excellence quotient. Contact me for information about a complimentary initial consultation.


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