Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Face to the floor at push-up number 15, I hear Candice Olson remind her assistants near the end of the family-room renovation on her TV show that finishing a project is in the details.   I sit back on my heels in a cat stretch, and turn my head to the television.  I’m hooked now.  How felicitous—a statement about details as I mull over a blog post-in-progress on that very subject.   What can I pick up from Candice Tells All on the subject? 

Candice and her team make decisions about the details that will harmonize this family room with the adjoining modern stainless steel and white kitchen and lift it from the ordinary.  I watch, push-ups forgotten, as they place a host of items around the room:  a gray and white rug in a bold pattern; two cube stools made from recycled coffee bags;  cushions, some with jewelled lines; storage baskets.  The accents so carefully chosen to complement provide the panache.

My husband is preoccupied with panache, too, at the moment.  He is putting in place the touches that would make our back yard even more inviting for the superannuated teachers and their significant others, fifty in total, attending the group’s year-end barbecue we offered to host this year.  “So many details,” my husband exclaims, the morning of the fateful day, as we wade through the final checklist.  He has high standards for hospitality.  Set up the speakers and the technology for the musical entertainment, sweep the deck, move some patio chairs to the deck to provide extra seating, trim some trees, reposition the table and umbrella onto the grass from the patio,  refresh the white vinyl bench cushions, sweep the patio, fetch the long tables from the neighbor’s and set them up, pin tablecloths to them, uncover the barbecue and make sure the roasters and the BBQ tools are handy, install other borrowed tables and chairs, spray for bugs, prepare a supply of wood for the fire(s), post signs for bathrooms.  We work together and alone, in a fragile pas de deux.

I step back for a minute to admire the yard.   Swept deck.  Check.  Sparkling deck railing.  Check.  Sufficient  chairs.  Check.  Tables.  Check.  My eye moves up.  Oh, no!  Murky glass panels on the windbreaker that shelters the patio.  Not quite noon yet—there’s still time.  Lucky for me, the glass panels are relics from the boards of our demolished hockey arena.  The scuffs and scratches here and there are not only hockey history; they camoulage any streaks that might result from a hurried clean-up.  Fast forward an hour.  Step back again.  Wow.  At least, it makes a difference.

The devil is in the details, as always.  Or, God is in the details, the former saying’s precursor, I learned.  No matter, the reality is there—the challenge and the spirit come from attention to detail.  In everything.

I recall my twelve-year-old son’s frustration with the practice required to develop a clear and soft Alberti bass in a sonatina destined for festival performance. 

“Do I have to?“ 

“No, you don’t.  It’s a choice.  Have you enjoyed the trophies and the scholarships?   Just realize that if you don’t pay attention to the details, another pianist will.  The awards will go to the person who is meticulous.”

Exceptional results in any area grow out of attention to detail.   Scientists monitoring complex experiments, engineers and contractors overseeing mega-projects, performing artists, educators planning lessons.  “Success is the sum of the details,” maintained Harvey S. Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire Company.  I can’t disagree.

Attention to detail takes time.  In my experience, the initial phases of a project progress very quickly.  At the piano, I can get a handle on a new hymn in about an hour.  If I want to sing along, add another few hours. To take the piece to another level—refine the phrasing, fine-tune the rhythm and add the emotion—I need days, sometimes weeks, however, and often, a few trial runs with an audience.   In the back yard, once the lawn was raked and mown and the furniture vacuumed, the yard already looked wonderful.  But it didn’t match my husband’s vision.

Masters of a craft and people passionate about something have a vision they want to attain.  They have the tenacity, discipline, and perseverance necessary to invest the time and energy required to achieve it.   A growing sense of what could be possible continues to motivate them.  They don’t need someone to pat them on the back or pay them compliments, although they aren’t averse to praise and recognition.  Self-satisfaction is enough.

My husband had a vision of what he wanted the yard to look like for the year-end get-together.   To realize that vision, he needed to look after a myriad of details, details he selected.   Although he enjoyed the compliments he received as the evening progressed, his desire to create a memorable experience for guests motivated him much more than any external evaluations. 

That’s why it’s critical to teach children how to recognize excellence and how to strive for it.  They need to learn how to monitor their own progress toward their goals, and to rely on other people for knowledge and feedback rather than for external evaluations of their performance.   They need more data, more descriptions of their performance, more models of excellence, and fewer generic appraisals of their achievement.

I know that meticulous attention to detail leads to success.  I also know that obsessive attention to detail can lead to frustration and even paralysis.  How to harness the benefits of detail and avoid the pitfalls?  I reflect on that in the next post.

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