Doing a little more is not always doing your best

Right after the 2010 back-to-back blizzards on the East Coast, I drove from Washington to Philadelphia to join friends and family to celebrate the life and work of a beloved friend and mentor.

I filled up the tank before departure and headed out in what was still a tense, white-knuckle drive because of the icy conditions.

The event was filled with endearing and moving testimonials. The forum gave all of us another opportunity to reflect on how precious life is and reconnect with what really matters most.

I returned to Washington the following day, driving nonstop and filling up the tank again in the same station near my home. This time, I noticed a sign at the pump asking drivers not to leave their cars unattended and not to top off the tank.

I went to the convenience store and casually asked the clerk if it would not be better for the business to let customers top off their tank. I thought that if everybody would squeeze in one more dollar of gas, sales would increase.

The clerk corrected me on that point. He told me that topping off your tank is not good for anyone. It is a waste because too much gas is spilled, it is bad for the environment, it is dangerous, it risks the potential of fire and it could actually kill someone.

I realized then that trying to pump just a bit more, just a few extra drops, could lead to devastating consequences.

What is true at the pump is also true in life. Too frequently, we try to top off our own tank. We add one more meeting to our schedule, we write one more e-mail, make one more call, we drink one more cup of coffee, we see one more client, we put in one more hour of work before calling it a day.

We take on these extra chores for many reasons: We want to please, to maintain the reputation of “hard worker,” “multi-tasker,” a person with many hats. The pressure to conform is great. Staying late, working 10-12 hours a day, can mean higher status in certain organizations and be the path to promotion. Our egos can also get in the way; after all, we can handle more, and our culture is overrun by the sentiment that more has to be better.

Enough is really enough. Gas pumps have an automatic shut-off to prevent us from overflowing the tank. The “click” we hear is fair warning. The “click” in real life takes its form as stress and burnout, leading to health conditions, accelerated aging and damaged relationships. These are all signs that we have not stopped pumping. Even at this point, some of us continue to go back and pump some more.

Unfortunately in life, we not only top off the tank, but too often use the “wrong gas” as we pursue goals that lack meaning. We may even get lost and veer off from our true direction. We are so busy “driving,” and perhaps even making “good time,” that we no longer stop and think about where we are going. In this mind-set, efficiency trumps effectiveness, and a higher standard of living trumps quality of life.

Ask yourself: Are you topping off your life’s tank? If you’ve heard the “click,” what have you done about it? Have you noticed any spillage? How do you know? Is the spillage affecting anyone other than yourself? Your family? Coworkers? Have you left your car — your life — unattended?

More is not better. Do not wait for the “click” of excess to recalibrate your life. Trust you will have enough to get where you must go. It is in trying to get a bit more of what you already have or what you no longer need that you may end up losing it all.

J. Gerald Suarez is professor of the practice in Systems Thinking and Design and a fellow of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He also works with professionals as an executive coach.

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