7 Lessons From Trash Day

Sanitation workers are the unsung heroes of your local neighborhood. Most of us tend to take our garbage men for granted as they do their work, and when we do notice them it’s usually when we slowly open a weary bloodshot eye, stirred from our oblivious slumber by the mechanical groaning of the steel beast prowling the neighborhood.

That was me as I woke this morning and dashed out of the house in my underpants. I had suddenly remembered a trash bag with shattered glass and I didn’t want anyone getting cut by a shard.

“Hey, be careful, there’s a broken mirror in that one,” I said to Rudy the garbage guy.

“Your face did that?”  He let out a laugh.  Then as my groggy brain processed the zinger Rudy morphed into a Santa-on-steroids-on-Christmas Eve and in a blur of rapid-fire motion he grabbed each big white sack and sent the whole half-dozen sailing into the waiting maw of the truck as if it were a sleigh.

“Wow, don’t you get tired doing that at each house, block after block?”

“Ain’t no use in complainin’ when ya got a job to do, man.”  He flashed a smile.

“Isn’t that a song?”

Rudy shrugged, “Wha? I dunno,  that’s just my motto.”

A motto we can all take to heart.  Rudy has a positive upbeat vibe as he carries out his daily duties emptying trash cans and he could teach Oscar the Grouch a thing or two about attitude. In fact, we can all learn a few things from industrious folks like Rudy so let’s see what you can salvage out of these lessons:

1. Know the essence of the job. These days many people and organizations seem to over-think what they do. “We provide photographic image solutions,” a camera company logo might say. And they have huge departments and myriad levels of people busy determining what those solutions are. But your local trash collector knows exactly what his job is, how he’s going to do it, and why its important to get it done at the appointed time. Break your job down to its essence and figure out what problem you solve or what you create. (Need help defining your mission? Try this free tool.)

2. Work with purpose. The more effectively you work the quicker the finish. Rudy and his crew know this.  You don’t see them calling a meeting or strategizing a new approach after every block. Also I’ve never seen them playing with iPhones on the job, they hit house after house with energy and focus.

3. Get out of your office. By way of their jobs, sanitation crews know every part of the communities they service. But a desk or office can be a convenient excuse to sit inside. Opportunities, though, tend to be out there and no matter what your job is it can help if you take a cue and canvass your neighborhood for new ideas and new contacts. Find new ways to break out of your routine.  Drive a different way to work. Get lunch at a new shop.

4. Look for treasure in trash. There are folks who make it their business to cruise the streets the night before junk day to look for anything of value that can be transformed in cash. There’s that show “American Pickers,” and I heard there are people who sift through the trash of celebrities looking for stuff to hawk on eBay. You can try that. You can also look for the cast off unfinished ideas of others and try them anew your way. Ask a more successful colleague for prospecting lists or the names of clients he no longer really wants. The trash of others truly can be your treasure.

5. Take out your own garbage. Forget the messy desk or office for a moment. What about the trash littering your head? Take an inventory of the unwanted baggage cluttering up your own headspace and make a decision to throw it out.

6. Don’t procrastinate. The one thing about sanitation work is that if the job doesn’t get done people notice, and quick. Remember, the longer you put off any unpleasant job on your to-do list, the more it’s going to stink.

7. What was your dirtiest job? While I’ve never been a sanitation worker, I once had a job in a restaurant where the duties included hauling the nightly trash across the parking lot to the compactor. I can still remember those awful, nauseating, leaky bags. The diners inside probably never gave any thought to what happened to their stuff when they threw it out. Somehow it was magically taken care of.

If you’re toiling in an under-appreciated dirty job, congratulations, you are learning the fundamentals of business. If you once had a job like that, be proud and think of the lessons it taught you. And and if you’ve never done a dirty job, well, then maybe— if you’re lucky— it’s still waiting for you.

Why You Need to Be “The One”

Four simple, yet profound, lessons from an ancient philosopher still ring true today.

“Of every hundred men, Ten shouldn’t even be there
Eighty are nothing but targets
Nine are real fighters…We are lucky to have them…
…They make the battle.
Ah, but the One, One of them is a Warrior…
…and He will bring the others back.”

–Heraclitus (circa 500 B.C.)

These powerful words are widely attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Nothing of what he wrote survives, so we have to rely on other philosophers who quoted him. While the “Warrior” Heraclitus refers to is presumably an armed combatant, his observations apply readily to the battlefield of the business world today.

“Of every hundred men, Ten shouldn’t even be there”

We’ve all known and worked with people like this. You wonder, “How the heck did he get this job?” or “Why is she still here?” There are many reasons but they are not worth some pre-Socratic contemplation. The incompetent have always been in the workplace— at all levels— but their days are numbered.

“Eighty are nothing but targets…”

Organizations are filled with many good people, hard working, and dutifully putting in their time. Unfortunately, they can be oblivious to changes taking places both inside and outside the company. They are often the ones trusting safety in numbers, banking on the ax falling on someone else. If you are among their ranks and tempted to keep your head down and nose clean, don’t count on this approach to keep working. Your only ally is the luck of the draw, and Lady Luck hasn’t been too kind lately.

“Nine are real fighters…We are lucky to have them……They make the battle.”

The fighter is who we want to be, perhaps who we imagine ourselves to be. These are people willing to take chances and look for new opportunities. They’re in the game, working smart and hard, and getting demonstrable results. The company can’t grow without them. But it can and does replace them, either when they fall or when their usefulness ends.

“Ah, but the One, One of them is a Warrior…and He will bring the others back.”

The One. That one. The person who doesn’t just inhabit his job but makes his role come alive. While he might be irreplaceable he knows that he can be replaced so he is constantly updating his skills, reading, keeping up with trends, always with an eye out for storms and opportunities on the horizon. He knows a moving target is tough to hit. He has an engaging, positive outlook even when the going gets tough. He helps pull others up, even as he plots his next foothold on the corporate edifice. He knows being The One is not easy, and there are never any guarantees.

Heraclitus believed change to be the sole constant of the universe. The One is always preparing and adapting to it. Perhaps it’s time to focus on becoming “The One” at whatever it is we do. Or else we might wind up as Heraclitus himself did. Angry, bitter, and wandering the rock-strewn badlands of his ancient world, eating grass.

The Forgotten Founder

In Memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his countrymen the Decisive Battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General. —”Boot Monument,” Saratoga, New York

On the Fourth of July we celebrate the birthday of the United States and reflect upon the amazing pantheon of Founding Fathers. There’s George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Sam Adams, Richard Henry Lee, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and the many brave signers of the Declaration of Independence.  Men who risked it all to throw off the yoke of oppression.

But usually absent from our thoughts is the name of a man whose revolutionary accomplishments are no less worthy but forever stained by an act of betrayal.

Major General Benedict Arnold.

Arnold’s name today is synonymous with “traitor” and thrown around as a schoolyard taunt. But Arnold the American general is a man without whom American independence quite possibly would never have happened.

Arnold was a man with deep business and family roots in the New World. He was a Connecticut merchant and pharmacist and the great-grandson of a Rhode Island governor.  When the Revolutionary War broke out Arnold—a militia captain and patriot—distinguished himself with acts of cunning and bravery at Lexington and Concord and the surprise capture of  Fort Ticonderoga. The British found Arnold a worthy adversary and he quickly rose to become George Washington’s most valuable general and trusted friend.

Hailed as the “Hero of Saratoga,” Benedict Arnold was a commander who garnered the respect of his men by leading from the front lines, having his horse shot out from under him and his leg shattered by a bullet. Arnold’s fearlessness and strategic mind turned the tide of the Revolution and convinced the French to join the cause—a singular event that helped the Americans ultimately win the war.

Today, there are but a few remnants of Arnold’s battlefield prowess. There is the Boot Monument at Saratoga that attests to Arnold’s bravery, and a plaque in the West Point chapel recognizing him as one of America’s greatest generals. But on both, Arnold’s name is purposefully absent. That’s because he conspired to turn his command—West Point itself—over to the British in exchange for the rank of brigadier general, and £6,000.

Historians have long considered the reasons for Arnold’s treachery; that his accomplishments went unrecognized by the Continental Congress; other officers were given the credit for his actions; coveted promotions went to more connected native sons; or perhaps even the influence of the loyalist sympathies of his young wife.

Had Arnold not made the decision to switch sides, today he would be venerated along with the other Founders. It has been proposed that history might even have regarded him as an equal to Washington himself.  Arnold’s visage would probably be on our currency, and we might be shopping for bargains on his birthday.

In  war and in business and life you have to take risks. Sometimes big risks. You have to decide which side you’re on, often in the thick of it, without knowing the outcome or the ultimate consequences. It’s the chance you take when you get off the sidelines and jump into the fray. You make friends, and enemies. Arnold paid a steep price, drawing the ire of a new nation, losing a legacy of greatness, and never fully gaining the trust or respect of the British. He died as a far lesser man.

It’s a lesson worth considering in a world that places increasing emphasis on short-term gain and personal interests, and less on loyalty and honor.  A lesson indeed.