Did you know the exam to become a London cabby might be the most difficult test in the world…demanding years of study to memorize the city’s 25,000 streets…plus the location of 20,000 points of interest? You have to be able to calculate the most direct route between any two addresses anywhere in the entire 113 square mile metropolitan area within seconds…without looking at a map or consulting WAZE. Then, after showing yourself to be a geographical brainiac, you have to demonstrate your proficiency in a potentially endless series of one-on-one oral exams. It is said that mastery of all these facts is so intense, it physically alters the brain of those who qualify.
I thought about these guys after a particularly bad week dealing with people who were just not doing their job well, if at all. That includes the plumber who kept me waiting four days for a water heater after promising its eminent arrival each morning. The aggressive saleswoman whose dishonest over-the-top flattery aroused a level of discomfort in me I thought I’d overcome decades ago. And the young girl behind a counter at the mall with the talent to simultaneously stare right at me and ignore me…reminding me of a comedian’s line I heard recently, “Blink if you’re here against your will.”
I’m so used to contractors not showing up when they promise that I’ve come to believe there’s an unheralded time zone…contractor’s standard time…that any guy I hire, adheres to. We don’t flinch when people sacrifice the truth (“These shoes are definitely your size…they’ll stretch, you’ll see”). I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’ve found those efficient at doing exactly what their job description demands are the PSEG customer service people who deal with my issue over the phone…albeit after twelve minutes of penance listening to Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.
Maya Angelou said, “pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” Illustrating her point were the chefs I watched prepare our dinner in a favorite Japanese restaurant last weekend. I watched the two men cooking behind a counter for a few dozen customers. The menu had 20 items on it. That meant all night long they effortlessly kept track of hundreds of pieces of food, each subject to different timing and technique. It was a demonstration of total mastery. This wasn’t their job…it was their life. Their work was their whole being.
It got me to thinking of who else I’d consider masterful at what they do. There was my daughters’ high school teacher, Mr. Ron DaMaio, who taught my girls more about self-esteem, courage, and good heartedness than their parents. He treated all his students as if they already were who he wished them to be. I’d include the nurse in the chemo room who I watched administer to eight patients, gliding from one to another monitoring…taking blood…distributing snacks…and with her smile and kindness, lowering the anxiety level of everyone in the room. And I’d add my sister Karen, a speech therapist who spends hour after hour joyously “playing “ with three and four year olds, until, in record time, they no longer stutter.
In my own work life, as a writer and a teacher, mastery is an elusive goal. Just as I’ve never heard anyone say, “I happen to be an incredible mother,” I don’t think there’s a writer arrogant enough to believe her words reveal her to be “an excellent writer.” Whatever meaning and success I find in my work is a direct result of how diligently I apply myself that day. And the next. And the next. With the years I’ve learned my greatest rewards are measured in the positive effect I’ve had on others. And after a really good day, I’ll bet the high I feel physically alters my brain a little too.