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Lessons from Old Guys and Young Ladies

I come from a scouting family. Dad was the Cub Master and then Scout Master. My two brothers and I were very active in scouts; all of us are Eagles. One of the things we did every year was work parties at the various Council camps. These are work weekends to get the properties ready for the summer camp season and there was always a good group of teenage friends to do projects with and many of the dads would come along to help out as well. But the two groups were different.

For my friends and me it was a competitive weekend. Who got up earliest, who did more before breakfast, and who had the best story to tell about getting something done for the camp. And breakfast was always loud for us. We’d get in early, eat fast, and get back out to finish our projects. The “old guys”, the dads who were all somewhere in their late 40s and early 50s (not so old now from my current perspective of nearly 60) had a different pace.

None of them did much before breakfast except drink coffee and chat quietly among themselves. The unusual one who did get up early was the one who made a huge urn of coffee. They ate slowly and while we rushed off to the next project, they’d linger over one final cup. But then they’d disappear. Even at lunch we didn’t see them very much. One of them would drop by the dining hall to collect sandwiches and soda for the rest of them, but soon he’d disappear again.

After our lunch, and having had a busy and tiring morning, we’d often go have some fun. Most of us would go to the waterfront to practice canoeing or sailing. Some would rig ropes and climb or rappel. And by dinner we’d had a full day of accomplishments and skill practice we could be proud of. Firewood was stacked, buildings were clean, frame tents were set up. All the things which needed to be done were done. And as we finished dinner, the old guys would trail in, late again. We thought they had wasted the day doing whatever they did, and we continued to crow proudly about how we had set up camp for the summer. They would listen, nod, and keep drinking coffee.

And it usually wasn’t until later in the season when we noticed what they had actually accomplished. They might have rewired a whole building. Demolished and rebuilt a pole barn or storage facility. Built a new latrine facility to upgrade from pit toilets to running water and indoor plumbing. We thought we were doing the heavy lift by cutting firewood and setting up tents for half a day. They built infrastructure and kept the foundation of the camp from crumbling with an actual full day’s work. We thought getting up early and running hard until we were tired was enough. They would get up fully rested and with a plan and they’d execute that plan until the job was done.

I remember teasing a group of them one morning as they sat and chatted with my dad. After some of my snide remarks about “burning daylight” one of them looked over and said: “Kid, there’s nothing you can do at 6:30 in the morning that I didn’t already do at 4:30 the day before.” Dad looked at me with a go-away-now expression, and I did.

There’s always been a lesson here, but it took me decades of early mornings and driven schedules over 27 years of government service to understand what it is. These days I’m a late riser. And early risers still crow about how much they get done while I’m sleeping. What I’ve finally learned is I get a lot done while they’re sleeping too. They get up early and go to bed early. I go to sleep late and get up late. They work while I sleep in the morning, I work while they sleep in the evening. But there’s another thing which makes us different.

I have no need to accomplish something early in the day in order to feel like a success. And that’s what I most often see with those who advocate for an early start to the day. It’s less about the crack-of-dawn time and more about “starting the day right”, essentially, doing something early and quickly to give you a sense of accomplishment, something to give you “control of the day”. I understand the point and agree that for some this sense of accomplishment is necessary. It certainly felt good to me when I was a young man. But now I’m not. And the need for a “quick win” in the morning is replaced with something deeper: Discipline.

It's a lesson which my youngest child, a daughter, has confirmed several times over the last five years. When she was 21 she was hired by one of the top chefs in the world to work at one of the best restaurants in the world - Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago. She started as a line cook and by age 23 she was a senior Sous Chef, one of the top people in a Michelin Three-Star restaurant. And she didn’t do it by getting up early, making her bed, getting in a morning workout, and notching a start-of-day activity to give her a sense of achievement. Instead, she did it by getting up at 9:30am, being at work by 10:00am and staying until the work was done . . . at 2:00am. Then getting back home to sleep so she could do it again the next day. Or rather, later that same day. She’s had a remarkable career and she’s only getting started because she stays firmly rooted in reality.

She succeeds by staying focused on meeting exceptionally high standards, by being determined to be the best she can be, and by working harder than everyone else in an extraordinarily high-pressure environment. And when it was hard (it was always hard) she dug in harder. She doesn’t use gimmicks to get motivated or to create an artificial sense of accomplishment. She goes to work. And she has great confidence that accomplishment will come during the day because she knows what she’s doing, and she knows where she’s going. She’s never used artifice or a “life hack”. She simply sets goals and follows through until it’s time to set new goals. She has discipline. I couldn’t be prouder of her.

Isn’t it interesting there’s so much advice out there about the importance of being mindful, of taking time for yourself, and the disciplined pursuit of your goals, but most of the recommendations are to end your day this way? The old guys taught me being mindful, taking time for yourself, and being disciplined are for the beginning of the day, not the end. And none of them started the day with a gimmick to make themselves feel good. Just like my daughter, they knew feeling good would come with the sense of fulfillment at the end of the day, when the work they had decided to do was done. No gimmick needed, all you had to do was stay focused on task.

The impact on me of finally having learned this lesson has had an interesting and measurable result. My days rarely “get away from me” as I’ve become more purposeful, more disciplined, and more confident that I’ll chose to do what I’ve committed to doing each day rather than chasing shiny objects. I choose what I’m doing, and I exercise discipline to get it done. The real problem which comes with “make your bed and gain a sense of accomplishment” is that it gives you permission to chase shiny objects for the rest of the day. You’ve already done something, so you don’t need to worry about doing anything else. What the old guys taught me, and my daughter confirmed to me, is if you make decisions about how you’ll spend your time and then use focus and discipline to follow through, you can do remarkable things. If you do some pro-forma activity to create a “sense of accomplishment” then that’s what you’ll have: a pro-forma sense of accomplishment. But you may not have many actual accomplishments. It’s like the slogan “fake it until you make it”. Faking it makes you fake. What they taught is Be Real; Be Intentional; Commit and Follow Through.

And the interesting thing is, if you went into their bunkhouse, all the beds were made. But it’s not because they needed a sense of accomplishment to start the day. It’s because taking care of their gear was their lifestyle. What they accomplished day in and day out, every day, was based on goal-oriented behavior. Decision-making and goal setting supported by focus and discipline.

As they sat finishing their morning coffee, they weren’t worried about the day slipping away, they were carefully considering exactly what they were going to do as soon as they stood up. And when they stood, they didn’t sit until dinner. Confidence. Intention. Discipline. These will get you to success much faster and more durably than gimmicks related to doing little things in the morning to make you feel good about wasting the rest of your day.

What you do when you get up is much more important than what time it is when you get up.

So get up when it makes sense to you. And once you’re up, act with purpose.

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