As children, we often disregard the lessons our parents try to teach us as nothing more than silly phrases devised to get us to do our homework or get to bed on time. Now that we’re older, however, we can recognize that these phrases hold valid and often crucial pieces of advice.
When I was young, my mother would often tell me that “idle hands are the devil’s tools,” a phrase that originates from St. Jerome, and was later famously echoed in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as he says that “the devil finds work for idle hands.” It’s likely that children are less fearful of the devil than the prospect of raking leaves or taking out the trash, but the point was made. St. Jerome, Chaucer and our parents were trying to tell us that inaction, or the learned habit of underperforming, is very often the root of our unhappiness. When sales are slow, or we lose a big account, our natural tendency is to wallow. Our ‘woe is me’ mentality demotivates us. There’s no time to take action, we’re too busy feeling sorry for ourselves! Rest assured, this will not lead us towards happiness or success. As an adult today, you need to be an active participant in both your life and in the business world to see the results you are looking and hoping for. This means staying accountable for your successes and your failures. If you’re looking for a win, then it’s up to you to make it happen. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. Start writing, start calling, start knocking on doors. Kick the door down and change the momentum of your own life. I tell my family, friends, colleagues and anyone who will listen that to take your business to the next level, you have to “go up, grow up and blow up.” The level of effort we give determines the level of success we get, and this is all within our control.
…but hold on a minute. It’s equally important to remember not to rush through tasks in the hopes of finding that elusive success we’re all looking for. Here, we can recall the old phrase “haste makes waste,” meaning if you work too quickly or impatiently, it’s easy to make a simple error and ruin all your hard work. While this phrase is not contradictory to one about ‘idle hands,’ it certainly shows us how going to an extreme on any side can lead to trouble.
There is a difference between being persistent and overly rushing things. It’s interesting to note that this phrase comes from John Heywood’s renowned book of proverbs, which criticizes rushing into marriage. We can certainly draw some parallels to rushing into a business partnership or opportunity as well. Not letting haste make waste means that it’s imperative to identify your passion, take your time to think about what you want and make sure you are on the path to getting where you want to go. It means you’re living and working with intention, rather than rushing into things and making a mistake that could easily have been avoided. Going too quickly means you’ll likely spend extra time correcting the little things that went wrong along the way. It means taking calculated risks after thoughtful consideration and research. It is much more time-effective to pay full attention to a task and ensure it is done correctly and completely. It also proves to those around you that you care about the work that you are doing and can be relied on to continue to complete quality work.
What we need is to find a happy medium. Only then can we find a balance between our personal and professional commitments and live a purposeful life of contentment.
Staying busy and avoiding ‘idle hands’ helps create a strong work ethic. It conditions us to study hard, work long hours and stay engaged. Success requires action: your passion must match your commitment. But success also comes from experience and it takes time for us to realize that it is equally important not to compromise the quality of our actions. For some of us, this means proofreading our work more carefully. For others, it means hiring a lawyer to carefully review the terms of a contract before rushing to sign. Spending a few extra minutes or paying a few extra dollars for insurance is always worth it. We need to be purposeful, we need to be planful and we need to take action to reach our goals. Once we find that sweet spot, there is no cap on the level of success we can reach.