As far as I’m concerned, there are two types of people in this world: those who pay attention to detail and those who don’t. Unfortunately, it seems that the latter far outnumber the former, and the chasm grows wider as I grow older. The disparity is such that I am beginning to believe that those with attention to detail are the ones with the problem. Yes, I am about to opine on the virtues of paying attention to detail—despite the fact that Richard Carlson told us “don’t sweat the small stuff” in his best-selling book of the same name.
First, a disclaimer: I am a type-A, anal retentive, obsessive-compulsive, perfectionist. I have been for as long as I can remember. Therefore, attention to detail comes as naturally to me as breathing, blinking or hitting a golf ball with a wicked slice. However, I am not suggesting that these are the qualities that are sorely lacking in society today. A simple appreciation for details will suffice. After all, it’s the finer points of life all around us—the seconds, the pennies, the numerals to the right of the decimal point—that make life (and us) interesting and unique.
The rise of the machines
I blame technology for the rapid decline in attention to detail. Technology has accelerated our lives and our communications beyond belief. We have become accustomed to speaking in 140 characters or less. Even that is considered verbose by some—have you ever seen a conversation between two teenagers over SMS?
I remember when you would mail a contract to a customer, and then wait for it to be signed and returned via U.S. Post (or overnight delivery if it was towards the end of the month). Mail gave way to fax machines, and fax machines have been made obsolete by scanners, e-mail, and online document sharing services.
Pagers—once revolutionary for their ability to elicit a return phone call within minutes—are now museum pieces. Even answering machines/voice mail are seen as archaic—why should I have to leave a message; why didn’t you just answer the phone that I know is strapped to your hip?
Spelling, punctuation and grammar are casualties in this war on the details—partly due to the aforementioned technologies that have condensed our communications, but largely due to software from Microsoft and others that attempt to do the job for you, which gives many a false sense of security and results in a plethora of errors.
Math is another casualty, which is understandable considering that most people have a mobile phone with greater computing power than the supercomputers that sent Apollo 11 to the moon. Who needs to learn multiplication tables and long division with that kind of calculating power in your back pocket? [Dripping with sarcasm]
Attention to detail endures
If that is why we are the way we are—and everyone’s doing it—what’s the big deal? Why not go with the flow and jump on the bandwagon of imprecision and generalities? The answer is simple. Despite the fact that it may be considered “acceptable” by most to split your infinitives, dangle your participles, round up (or down), cut corners, and clock out at 4:59pm regardless of whether or not the work is done, the fact remains that—with very few exceptions—the most successful people throughout the ages are those who paid careful attention to the details. The fact that you are reading this blog indicates that you want to be wildly successful, not mediocre.
In his best-selling book Good to Great, Jim Collins tells the story of world-class triathlete Dave Scott who would rinse his cottage cheese every day in order to wash away any extra fat, hoping this would give him a slight advantage over his competition. There was no evidence to support that this practice worked, but that did not matter to Dave Scott. He had the discipline and will to attend to the smallest details in his quest for success.
In the Spring of 2014, Admiral William McRaven gave the Commencement Address at the University of Texas at Austin. A Navy SEAL who organized and executed the operation that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, Admiral McRaven knows a thing or two about attention to detail. In his inspiring speech, he extols the virtue of making your bed every morning:
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
Do details matter? You bet they do. Whether you’re seeking a slight advantage or developing a habit of doing things the right way—accurately, precisely—attention to detail is an attribute of successful people and should be part of your DNA as well.