One thing I often heard from my dad growing up was, “If you want an easy way to do something, give it to a lazy person.” He usually said it right after I proudly demonstrated I had figured out an easier way to do something. This, of course, annoyed me to no end.
“Or maybe if you want to do something better you just give it to a smarter person,” I protested.
“Possibly.” Dad was pretty non-committal when I challenged this. Which I did. A lot.
“Possibly? I think you’re just mad I came up with an easier way to do it. It took brains, not laziness.”
“Sometimes the easy way is not the smart way. It might be, but it’s not always.”
“That doesn’t make sense! I think you’re mad I might be smarter than you.” You know that look you get from your dad when you’ve gone too far? Yeah, I got that look.
“You’re certainly not smart enough to know when to shut your mouth.” True, but I was smart enough to know not to respond.
When I was younger, I never followed Dad’s logic on this. As far as I was concerned, the smart way and the easy way were synonymous. I thought you should always figure out the easiest way to do something. As with many things he taught me, I wouldn’t fully learn the lesson for many years.
My first job out of college (even though college took me a long time) was at a company in Nashville that has since been bought and sold a few times. My job title was Customer Service Representative Assistant and one of my responsibilities was sorting and preparing work for my CSR’s accounts. We used a ticketing system to route work through the plant and my job was basically to enter the information correctly and make sure it went where required.
I hadn’t been there very long when the system we used changed to an older system that was actually somewhat simpler to use. One thing that made it simpler was that what we called “masters” could be created. These masters were templates that contained all the relevant information and you only had to choose one then change a few relevant details. It was much quicker than creating each ticket from scratch. You could still manually do it, but it was very time-consuming.
One morning, the system malfunctioned. The ticketing system worked, but all of the masters disappeared. All the templates were just gone. Most people in my department sat around since there was no way to enter the work. The thing was, of course, that there was a way to enter work, it would just take more effort than we were accustomed.
I absolutely hated work sitting on my desk, so I began to painstakingly create the tickets manually in the system. It took about five times as long to create a single ticket, but I plodded on. After I had a few tickets entered and sent into production, my manager came over.
“How are you entering work without the masters?” he asked.
“Well, I’m just manually making each ticket.”
“Why? That takes too long. You can just wait for them to fix the system and enter them later.”
“Yeah, but I’m not doing anything else and this way my work gets in. It’s a lot slower, but I’m getting it done.”
“You don’t have to do all that work though. It’ll be faster when the masters are back.”
“But I’ll have these tickets already done at least.”
“Whatever floats your boat, I guess.”
He walked away and I went back to slowly reducing my pile. After the first batch, I discovered an incredibly useful feature of the terminal emulator they gave me to use. I could record a series of actions and keystrokes! That meant I could set up several tickets that were the same and only have to really enter one of them. I already had my work divided just like that, so I was soon able to enter the work much faster. It was still slower than normal, but an improvement.
By mid morning (the time I was usually done entering all my work), the problem still hadn’t been fixed, but I was halfway through my tickets. My manager, who dropped by all morning, came by yet again.
“Are you still doing all this manually or do you have the masters back?”
“Manually, but I used this macro feature to record a ticket and it makes it faster, at least until I have to change the routing.”
“Do you realize you are the only one putting in work right now?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Why are you doing it the hard way? Why not wait?”
“Because all these tickets I’ve put in are already in production and I have that much less to do later.”
“You really don’t have to work this hard. Just wait until the masters are fixed. Then you can put all this in.”
“Are you telling me I shouldn’t enter the work?”
“No, no, no. I don’t mean that. I just mean you don’t have to work this hard.”
That was the moment I realized what Dad tried to teach me over a decade before. The easy way was to sit around and wait for the computer issue to get fixed. The easy way was to do nothing but wait. The easy way was to do what everyone around me was doing. The smart thing in this case was to do it the hard way, to go the long way around just to get it done. The smart thing was to do the work that needed doing, whatever it took.
“Well, unless you tell me to stop,” I said, “I’m going to keep going.”
I did keep it going and I finished long before the problem got fixed (and hours before everyone else finished). That lesson from Dad shaped me even though I resisted it and didn’t even realize I learned it. Thanks to Dad, when I needed to most, I took the hard but smart way. Months later it probably helped save my job during a huge layoff, but in that moment I was satisfied simply to know Dad would be proud.