When you dry-mix cement to stucco a house, you have to pour cement into a mixing tub, add water, and repeatedly pull a garden hoe through the thick sludge. The dry powder will seem to gulp down the water without ever forming the correct consistency for stucco, no matter how much you add. What’s more, gripping the garden hoe will cause your hands to get stuck in that position, all while the hot sun is baking your forearms.
The smart people who stucco houses for a living find someone to mix it for them, while they nail a chain link fence to the house, bind a scaffold, and scrape cement over it onto the house. It’s far more straightforward work, but it’s still difficult to do well. So why do we take the long way around, even in fields where we’re far more than weekend warriors?
The Blue-Collar Work Ethic
The blue-collar work ethic is different from—and in many ways far superior to—the typical white-collar work ethic. Contractors rarely waste hours in meetings talking about what needs to be done: instead, they meet briefly with their crews to settle how and what they’re going to do that day. Just as importantly, most blue-collar managers or supervisors work in the same place and towards the same outcome as their crews; they don’t need an office in a downtown high-rise.
The blue-collar work ethic also makes productivity the standard. The most important work gets done, regardless of how unpleasant or difficult it might be. Even unusually tough or complex tasks get done, often because a manager, supervisor, or owner steps in to remove obstacles to productivity. You don’t generally find people who work with their heads, hearts, and hands living in their inboxes. You also don’t see them browsing the internet when they should be working. They know that both necessities and luxuries— food, water, shelter, HBO, high-speed internet, DoorDash, and Botox treatments—require hard work and discipline. And so they complete meaningful work each day, gain satisfaction from completing a hard day’s work, and then let it go, knowing that they’ll have plenty to do tomorrow.
The White-Collar Work Ethic
White-collar work, including sales and sales management, is more like mowing an endless lawn: whenever you complete any single task, someone backfills your queue with one (or half a dozen) more tasks. Similarly, as what Peter Drucker calls “knowledge workers,” salespeople have more autonomy than most blue-collar workers. A concrete mixer on a work crew can’t just choose to do something else instead, but a salesperson can (foolishly) choose to avoid their critical work in favor of easier or more pleasant tasks that have little to do with their outcomes.
The white-collar work ethic might be summed up as an attempt to do good work, even difficult good work, but one often sabotaged by too many internal and external distractions, too little effort on critical tasks, and too much time spent navigating your own company and the never-ending requests for your time and attention.
Turning Your White Collar Blue
Be honest with yourself: you could benefit from working harder. But you should also work smarter, not by trying to hack your work with shortcuts, but by being smart enough to prioritize the work that produces the results you are responsible for delivering. Let’s call this your “mixing tub.” (By the way, when I was planning this post, I couldn’t remember the term “mixing tub,” so I texted my friend Larry. Many years ago, Larry convinced me to spend part of a summer helping him put stucco on houses, so I figured he’d remember. Alarmed, he asked if I was trying to mix concrete again, so I had to reassure him that I was only writing about it. Evidently, tapping a keyboard is the only way I should work with my hands!)
Turning your white-collar work blue means keeping your focus on that tub by doing one thing at a time, fully completing a task before you move on to something else. You will know you are successful when you can look back at your day and point to the tasks or projects you actually completed (or at least moved forward in some significant way), proud of what you have accomplished. Meaningful work requires exertion and effort, both mental and physical. Whether you’re applying stucco or juggling spreadsheets, put forth your best effort and don’t stop until the job is done.
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