Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sweating the Details

It's 4:30 PM. Just having reviewed our list of songs for the night's performance, Iris and I walk out of the suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, Las Vegas that is serving as the band's green room. We head down the hall to our room on the thirty-eighth floor, unlock the door and drop our stuff on the bed. Time to get ready for our first gig in Vegas and we still have a lot to do.

My phone announces the arrival of a text message. As I search for my glasses (eventually finding them dangling from the collar of my t-shirt), Iris grabs my phone and thumbs open the message. It's from Mark Kaufman and it says, "Call Me: It's URGENT!"

Iris thumbs the call button by Mark's photo and flips on the phone's speaker as his number rings.

"Hey, where are you guys?"

"Mark, I told you, we're in Las Vegas."

"I know that, but where in Las Vegas?"

"We're at the Four Seasons Hotel. It's down a the end of the..."

"Where at the Four Seasons Hotel are you?"

I look at Iris who looks back at me knowingly.

"We're in our room on the thirty-eighth floor, number 38227. Ummm... where are you?"

"We're in our suite on the thirty-ninth floor, room 39224."

"We? Uhhh... we'll be right up."

Iris and I look at each other and then at the pile of stuff on our bed and then at the clock and then back at each other. We head out the door and up to the thirty-ninth floor.

I knock on the door and am greeted by Renee Manning, Mark's friend and singing instructor from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. We hug and then proceed into the suite where we find Renee's husband Earl McIntyre (who's a great trombonist and also an instructor at the Conservatory) and, of course Mark, who waves at us grinning but is now busy chatting on his cell phone. Earl shrugs and says, "He's spent the last hour trying to get on line without being charged another fifteen dollars for a day's Internet connection. So, we've been waiting for him to figure it out."

We leave Mark to his iPhone as Renee and Earl explain how Mark had called them that morning saying, "Hey, let's fly to Vegas and see Mark and Iris. Pack stuff for a couple of days and I'll pick you up."

As I listen to their story, my eyes wander over to Mark who's gesturing to his phone and I say, "So, let me get this straight. Without a second thought, Mark bought last minute round-trip tickets from New York to Las Vegas and rented a suite at the Four Seasons, but is now concerned about spending fifteen dollars on an Internet connection?"

Renee and Earl look at each other and then back at Iris and me and we all smile, "Yup, that's Mark!"

Over the last couple of days, I've been curious as to why so many people I know seem to be getting dumber. Last night, after a phone call from a friend whom I'm helping to get back into programming, one whom I thought would be well on his way by now, but who still seems to be struggling with basic concepts, I commented to Iris, "Didn't he used to be smarter?"

Iris' responded, "No, you just always think that people are smarter than they really are."

"Maybe", I thought, "but I'm not sure."

There was something in what she said that resonated, but it wasn't quite in tune. I don't believe in notions of fixed IQ or some intrinsic capacity for thinking. I see being smart as something that you either do or don't do, a skill, not a talent, muscle to be developed or to atrophy. Sure, there are things that come more easily to some than others, but that's a starting point, not a limitation. Yet most people (maybe everyone but me) see intelligence differently, as though it's something you're born with, something you have or you don't.

Then I thought about Mark abandoning his role as carefree millionaire to spend ninety minutes trying to save fifteen dollars or my would-be programmer friend who's missing out on opportunities because he's still hedging; he "really wants to do it", but his head isn't really in the game. And it occurred to me that it's all about priorities; the devil's in the details and being smart (at least one component of it) is about knowing exactly which details matter.

I use the word exactly deliberately. I believe the person who "appears" to be smartest is the one who is able to quickly sift through all the choices, all the data, all the opportunities, all the priorities, and pick out the ones that contribute meaningfully to her achieving what she wants to achieve without including any that don't matter and without missing any that do.

Being smart is the opposite of the Watson computer program that recently beat several Jeopardy champions by relying on an exhaustive database of trivia; being smart is about making decisions with the least amount of data possible. Being smart is about freeing your mind (and freeing your time) from the clutter of useless (or less than useful) information, activities and priorities (no matter how important they may feel, no matter how much sentiment they hold), and focusing on exactly that which will help you get where you want to go. Being smart engages the blocking and tackling of thought: focus and clarity.

Alternatively, being smart could simply involve adjusting your goals to your priorities.

It's hard to pull off being a flamboyant and carefree millionaire, when you spend 20% of your time in Vegas stuck in your suite trying to avoid Internet service fees. You can't become a kick-ass software guy while reading the want-ads for management positions. Healthy kids don't spring from stockpiles of supplements when you have a sentimental attachment to treats and simple carbs. Pick and choose exactly that which contributes to your goals and you'll appear to be a genius; for all intents and purposes, you will be.

Anyway, that's my theory this morning. What's in your clutter?

Happy Saturday,

1 comment:

  1. LOL - what an extrodinary example (and yes: I have seen Mark in similar situations)

    At times I get cought in providing people with that which they are asking for - rather than reflecting on what they need and give them another suggestion.
    - and right now I try to reflect on what signifies situations when I do it and when I don't.

    Love Joy


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