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The Countryman: Fully engaged vs. check the box

Bob Neal

Bob Neal

She glided on the balls of her feet, head cocked forward just a tad as if to give her eyes a nanosecond edge in sizing up what was happening.

As a shot went up, she moved to where the rebound seemed likely to come. Often as not, if there was a rebound, she was there to snag it. When she dribbled the ball up the floor, she watched the play unfold ahead of her. She knew, perhaps helped by eyes that were out front by a nanometer, just when to pass to the teammate most likely to score.

Watching Olivia Zurek play basketball for Bates College -- she graduated in 2005 -- I remember thinking that she was never caught off guard, never failed to see a pass or a rebound coming. Fully engaged.

Marvin bent to his work, aging eyes pressing closer to ensure a clean, quick cut that began the preparation of another Turkey for another family's Thanksgiving. He made up to 340 clean cuts a day, up to five days in a row.

Almost never cut himself. Almost never put a bird into unnecessary pain. Fully engaged.

At a funeral in Farmington, the team at the Wiles Remembrance Center was on its collective toes. The packed hall had room for one more chair. A Wiles man said, "I'll set a chair up for Bob right over here." He didn't know me but had read my name as I signed the guest register so he could address a person, not a stranger.

At each step of the funeral, a Wiles guy was on cue. Time for memories? Explain the drill and hold a microphone for people to speak. Time for the family's private prayers? A Wiles man fetches the priest, who had been waiting in a side room. At the end, from long practice, Wiles folks move us through the line, keeping just enough people on line to remind us to console but not to stay all day, stay a little longer. Fully engaged.

As a fan, I thrill at athletes fully engaged. As an employer, I was pleased by crew fully engaged. As a mourner, I am consoled by a mortuary staff fully engaged. Malcolm Gladwell has written that becoming expert at a job seems to take about 10,000 hours of working hard at it, no matter the job. That equals five years full time. All of these fully engaged people surely put in way more than 10,000 hours getting to the highest level. Still, they go to the task at hand each day fully engaged.

The other side. A missionary told our congregation that the country in which he lives is Christian. Then, he added, "but, most are check-the-box Christians. They say Christian but they don't do much with it." We live in a world that too often just checks the box.

Professors dust off old notes, reread them to a new class. Bureaucrats stamp a form and check out the wall clock. Store clerks answer a question you didn't ask but for which they have a programmed answer. Investigators ignore reports of guys with poor English skills asking for lessons in flying planes. Not taking off or landing, just flying. Going through the motions.

So, the question for today is what accounts for the difference between fully engaged and check the box?

Certainly, it's not money. We all had teachers we admired, even worshiped, from whom we learned a great deal of what we needed to know and of the skills we would need for life. Whom we visit again and again years later. Those teachers were worth much more than they were paid. They were fully engaged. But we all also had other, perhaps more, teachers who just went through the motions. In many cases, they taught so badly that we don't even remember their names. But the fully engaged teacher and the going-through-the-motions teacher are paid on the same scale, taking into account only seniority and college courses completed, not teaching quality.

Love may help. Olivia Zurek obviously loved basketball. Marvin Storer loved working on the farm. In neither of those love matches, though, was money key. I cannot speak for the Wiles crew, but I imagine they love their work, as well, despite its sad nature.

Still, one need not love the work to be fully engaged in it. I had a friend who was fully engaged when her employers sent her to sell at a farmers market. But she didn't much care for it. She greeted shoppers, started conversations, offered help, schmoozed. I knew her well enough to know that she wasn't just trying to get through the day. She wanted her bosses to succeed, even though she didn't love selling. Now that she has her own farm, she finds other ways than the markets to sell what she grows.

One common thread I believe I've seen among the fully engaged is that they thrive on the wee details of the job, paying them close attention. As a writing teacher, I was at polar opposite from my colleagues. I taught students to sweat the small stuff so the large stuff can take care of itself. Concentrate on how to spell, how to punctuate, how to write concisely. The structure will come. Trendier teachers taught to sweat the large stuff so the small stuff can take care of itself.

The fully engaged I have seen appear to sweat the small stuff. Did Olivia Zurek find 10 wee joys in grabbing 10 rebounds in a game? Or just one big joy in the final count of 10 boards? Did Marv get his satisfaction in successfully starting each Turkey almost painlessly toward someone's table or just in the day's total? Do the folks at Wiles get their satisfaction by sending each mourner home as comforted as possible? By now, you probably know the answers.

Finally, are people more fully engaged when they can leave work at work? I can't say for sure. Our farm manager seemed very good at leaving her job at the farm. She was an outstanding worker and manager, but when she hopped into her pickup at the end of the day, her mind shifted to getting supper, working in her garden and the like.

Still, from time to time, she would suggest we tweak the operation a bit, the very suggestion telling me that she had been thinking about work when she wasn't at work.

Olivia Zurek was an All-American in 2005. Being fully engaged at basketball may have helped her into her career. She's a geriatric psychiatrist in Providence, R.I. Marv is done with Turkey farming but still runs his handyman business. I expect the Wiles crew continues to be fully engaged when the sad need arises.

I marvel at those who are fully engaged. Someday, maybe I'll figure out what drives them. Or, perhaps more important, what keeps others from being so driven. If you figure it out, hire yourself out to some Human Resource department. Your ability is as good as money in the bank.

Though given to day dreaming, Bob Neal strives to be fully engaged in whatever he is doing.

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1 Responses »

  1. Sometimes we forget that worthwhile things take effort, discipline, focus, and practice.

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