Colleen Bennett - Sotheby's International Realty

History Shows Trifles Make for Perfection

January 15, 2009
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by Peter Bennett

michael-phelpsWhether you believe God or the devil is in the details, you’re going to have to sweat the small stuff to be a winner in this world.

Taste of Asia La Verne

Swimmer Michael Phelps knows that mere “trifles” made him perfect at the Beijing Olympics. In his miraculous hundredth-of-a-second victory in the 100-meter butterfly, the seventh of his eight gold-winning performances, hadn’t  he trailed Milorad Cavic by a half a body length with 25 meters to go, and wasn’t he still in midair when Cavic was at the finish. Only after Omega’s official timing system was slowed to a thousandth of a second was Phelps’ improbable result confirmed.

Back in the states, Phelps reviewed the race over and over in search of that slight edge that had put him over the top. Then he saw it, in the last frame. Cavic had lifted his head ever so slightly before touching the wall, in effect, slowing the Serbian swimmer’s momentum like a speed bump, while Phelps’ head surged straight ahead. After years of swimming miles of monotonous laps in pools, it was a tilt of his opponent’s head — a microscopic detail – that had made Phelps an Olympic legend.

Victory and success are always in the details, with the seemingly least consequential often carrying the biggest impact. Dissatisfied that the cheeks of Snow White appeared too pale in a three-minute sequence with the seven dwarfs, Walt Disney ordered his artists at great expense to go back and add blush to thousands of frames even though they had already spent six months on the scene and the film was soon due in theaters.  Premiering December 21, 1937, Snow White, then known as “Disney’s folly” for its extravagant (expensive) attention to detail, earned a whopping $4.2 million in Great Depression dollars, providing Disney with a financial bonanza and proof that audiences would support future full-length animations.

Like Disney, Robert Woodruff knew details add distinction and desirability to your products. President of Coca-Cola from 1923 to 1954, Woodruff built the Atlanta-based soft drink company into an international powerhouse. Success didn’t occur overnight. It was the result of small advantages combining over time to create market dominance. Until 1931, Santa Claus was portrayed as a tall, scrawny and sartorially indistinct figure. Then working with illustrator Haddon Sundblom, Coca-Cola turned St. Nick into a pleasingly plump and jolly grandfatherly type, sporting back boots, a shiny, wide belt and dressed in Coca-Cola red. Woodruff was fanatical about turning small matters into big advantages.  He established a soda fountain school where soda jerks were taught to serve Coca-Cola at 34-degrees Fahrenheit, insisting “it’s got to be cold if it’s going to be sold.” Servers were also instructed to serve the beverage in specifically designed bell-shaped glasses made with special six-pronged forks furnished by the company.

Standardization at Coca-Cola was also the result of slavish attention to the smallest detail, from the company’s trucks and logos down to its uniforms. Standards never slipped with Woodruff at the helm, an early believer that success in “retail is detail.”  A legendary story of Woodruff told how he visited a substandard bottling plant choking in dust, broken bottles and spilled syrup. An outraged Woodruff told the plant manager to clean up his act or hit the road. When the manager replied the effort would be futile because the plant would look no different the next day, Woodruff stared the man down and bellowed, “You wipe your behind don’t you!”

Skip over the details, and you risk losing everything. Few investors questioned Bernard Madoff, who masterminded a self-admitted $50 billion Ponzi scheme, on how he could consistently produce returns of 10% or better when the overall market was tanking. Former Fort Lee, N.J., Mayor Burt Ross, who reportedly lost $5 million in Madoff’s investment fraudulent fund, said, “I thought, ‘Who am I to question?’ This guy has a formula involving computerized trading … It’s like Coke. We’re not supposed to know the formula.”

Yes you are. You’re supposed to ask questions down to the smallest detail until you know enough to make smart, informed decisions. Ask even more questions of so-called experts, so you’re not lulled into a false sense of security. Overlooking a single detail can not only wipe out your life savings, it can kill you. Called in to help save President Garfield who had been wounded by an assassin’s bullet in 1881, telephone inventor Alexander Bell rigged up the world’s first crude metal detector to try to find the metal slug. But the device failed because Garfield was resting on a metal frame-supported bed, which fooled the instrument’s electronic signal. Bell, nor anyone else, thought to move Garfield, a trivial but lifesaving detail. As a result, Garfield likely died not from his gunshot wound, but from blood poisoning caused by the probing, germ-riddled, bacteria-infested hands of his doctors. By contrast, Andrew Jackson lived with a duelist’s bullet lodged in his chest for almost 40 years, including two terms as president from 1829 to 1837. Thankfully, the metal detector had yet to be invented.

Outcomes hang on details and the slimmest of margins. One vote kept Aaron Burr from the presidency in his 1800 campaign against Thomas Jefferson. One vote spared Andrew Johnson from losing his presidency at his impeachment trial in 1867. A rubber seal doomed the Challenger space shuttle in 1986.

Details make the difference. How can they make a difference in your life? Start small, naturally. Details apply to every facet of your life. Look at the world of investing, for example. Receiving an 8% or 9% annual return on your money might not seem like a big deal until you compare different rates of returns by using the rule of 72 (simply divide 72 by your percentage rate to find how long it takes to double your investment). At 9 percent (divide 72 by 9), it would take eight years to double your money. At 8% (divide 72 by 8), it would take nine years to double your investment. A year is a big difference!

Apply a detailed approach to everything you do, because how you do anything is how you do everything. Regularly balance your checkbook so you won’t exceed your balance and incur costly bank fees and penalties. Promptly return phone calls. Google or MapQuest where you’re going before you set off down the road. Show up early rather than late. Driving directions aren’t that important to you? Think again! World War I and its estimated 59 million casualties might never have happened if a confused chauffeur had taken a minute or two to find out where he was going one June morning in Sarajevo in 1914. After conspirators’ initial grenade attack on the royal motorcade failed to kill the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand en route to a city hall reception, his driver accidentally retraced the same perilous path he had taken to the affair. Meanwhile, conspirator Gavrilo Princip, having grabbed a sandwich, thinking the assassination had failed, couldn’t believe his good fortune when the regal procession passed in front of him a second time. Stepping toward the curb, he coolly fired two shots, killing the Archduke and his wife Sophia, which set in motion a series of events that forever reshaped the 20th Century.

The grandest projects depend on the success of the smallest components, the mustard seeds. If you hit .275, you’re a utility player in Major League Baseball. If you hit .300 over your career, you’re headed to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame. The difference between hitting .275 and .300 is collecting one more hit in 40 times at bat. What tiny thing can you start working on today to improve your success ratio? Convert a tiny turning point into a learning point, and soon enough, they’ll add up to a big plus for your career.
 
Reducing what seem like insurmountable mountains to molehills is easy if you understand that the grains in an hourglass pass one grain at a time. Didn’t Einstein show us that anything can be chunked down? So, release your energy on the big tasks. If you improved your systems by just 1 percent a week, by the end of the year, your efficiency will have improved by 50 percent – a huge return on your investment.

There is no doubt that paying attention to small matters can make a big difference in your life. Just try not to waste energy on tiny distractions that keep you from seeing the big picture. Focus on the stuff that matters. If you’re about to lose your head at the guillotine, instead of pleading with the executioner to spare the painful boil on your neck that’s been ailing you, plead for your life.

Like Michael Phelps, stick your neck out for the right reasons.

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One Response to “History Shows Trifles Make for Perfection”

  1. Great story on how the little makes much!

    You mention … “the seemingly least consequential often carrying the biggest impact.” I am reminded of Gilbert M. Grosvenor — first a picture editor in 1954, then editor of National Geographic magazine from 1970 to 1980, until he was president of the Society, the fifth generation of his family to serve in that position.

    In an interview on the News Hour in the mid-eighties, he was asked by Jim Lehrer what was the most difficult decision he made at the helm of such a prestigious publication? He responded: The decisions to slowly peel away the white filigree on the cover of the National Geographic magazine.

    Garrett

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