Career Learning: Sundaes, cookies and a sharp ax

“If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.”
- Abraham Lincoln

One sign of our times is to get things done as quickly as possible. We’re all guilty of succumbing to “instant gratification society.” Gone are the days, apparently, when quality mattered. When customer service was more than an outsourced phone call. When going the extra mile and adding value were the rule rather than the exception.

When was the last time you invested extra time preparing for a meeting or finalizing a report? If you had eight hours to work on a report for your boss or instructor, would you spend six hours researching the topic, having experts proof and edit it, collecting additional information for follow-up … in other words, developing a plan to exceed expectations by providing those rare “value-added extras”?


Twenty years ago, I read a book by Arizona State University business professor Claude Olney, Where There’s a Will, There’s An ‘A,’ in which Olney recommends treating everything we do as if we were making an ice cream sundae for ourselves.

When others make us a sundae (metaphorically speaking), he says, they give us a single scoop of plain vanilla in a paper cup and pass it off as sufficient. He contends that we need set an example and make it a habit to provide everyone and ourselves with two heaping scoops of chocolate-chip ice cream in a frosted crystal goblet, with lots of Godiva chocolate syrup, mountains of whipped cream, sprinkles, two cookies and a cherry on top!

If you give yourself and others that sort of attention to detail in your education, your career and your life, great things will happen.

Think about how well you prepare yourself before every professional interaction. Think about how sharp your ax is and how well you have garnished your sundae. In another life-altering classic, Mark McCormack’s What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, attention to detail is the ONLY way to be. Act like everything you do will be reviewed by your company’s board of directors, he says, and if you slack ever, for any reason, you’ll never stand out and will get eaten alive.

A good friend and former colleague was hosting a company presentation about something mundane, but she had to do it. About 30 of us were in the room, and the only person even remotely interested was our boss. Some folks from another internal department had joined us. My compadre – let’s call her Mary – really sharpened her ax before this meeting.

She delivered a top-notch presentation that engaged us all and helped us realize that this topic was not only interesting, but also pertinent at a level we never realized. And here’s the kicker: She baked cookies – from SCRATCH! The cookies were melt-in-your-mouth, Heaven-on-Earth delicious, and wrapped and tied with bows.

A guest from the other department took a sample home and gave it to a friend. This friend was a venture capitalist looking to make an investment in the food industry. Long story short, Mary is now running a multimillion-dollar cookie company out of her basement and is loving life.

Abe knew it better than anyone: You just never know where a sharp ax will take you, and homemade cookies won’t hurt either!

troy-behrens-sm.jpgTroy Behrens, Ed.D., is executive director of SMU’s Hegi Family Career Development Center. He writes “Career Learning” for SMU Parents online.

Send your career questions to tbehrens@smu.edu.

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