Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Small Things Worth Sweating

"Don’t sweat the small stuff" is a cliche that for the most part is correct. Oftentimes, we do fixate on silly details. However, sometimes details are larger than they appear.

In his autobiography, Amos Oz describes a scene from his childhood in Jerusalem in the 1940's. In Auster’s grocery shop, there would be passionate discussions over which cheese to buy: should it be the kibbutz cheese, or the cheese from the local Arab villages? Yes, there’s a duty to support the kibbutzim, for ‘charity begins at home". On the other hand, you may not discriminate against outsiders, for "one law shall be for you and the stranger in your midst". So a trip to the grocery could turn into a heated debate’s choice of cheese.

Incidents like the "cheese debates" are an essential part of Jewish culture. One of the hallmarks of the Talmud is attention to detail. A classic example of this is a discussion about the obligation to dispose of bread before Passover. The Talmud ponders the following questions: A mouse goes into a room with some bread, and later leaves with some bread. Can you assume it took out the original bread, or perhaps this is a new piece of bread and he left the original behind? What if a white mouse goes in, but a black mouse comes out with bread? What if a mouse goes in with bread, and a weasel comes out with bread? Finally, the Talmud declares "teiku", it has no definitive answer!

This attention to detail is more than academic. Details make a big difference. Small gestures express larger commitments. A suitor’s rose is more than a mere rose; in the right context, a simple rose represents profound love.

I once read about an executive who immediately threw out any CV’s with typos. This may seem harsh, but it is appropriate. Looking for typos in a CV is not nitpicking. If an applicant is truly interested, his CV would be flawless. On a CV, presentation equals commitment.

Indeed, the very fabric of society is formed by small details. When Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York, he began to combat crime by concentrating on the presence of squeegee men. On busy corners, men would rush out at red lights to wash windshields and then intimidate the drivers for spare change. While they had been ignored by previous administrations as a mere annoyance, Giuliani realized squeegee men played a key role in the perpetuation of crime. By tolerating the minor infractions of the squeegee men, the police department fostered a culture of lawlessness. The squeegee men gave the city an ambience of disorder, a place where anything goes. By cracking down on these minor infractions, Giuliani transformed the culture of New York.

We should never fixate on petty details. But there is small stuff worth sweating, little acts of commitment that make a big difference.

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