During mundane moments, I came to understand that excellence wasn't about being perfect or about being nice so people would like me. On the contrary, sometimes it meant defending someone against vicious gossip or saying no to a colleague who asked me to lie about his overtime hours. I also realized that there were some people I couldn't be excellent to, like the account manager who regularly screamed at his staff. There were other people no amount of excellence could save, like the typist who would rather be treated as a victim than receive any kind of help.
Eventually, I would carry my sign to more than 100 jobs in Boston and Boulder, Colorado, at universities, high-tech companies, museums, manufacturers, publishers, environmental research organizations, and even a wildlife rehab center. My tasks included FedExing socks and underwear to a corporate spy whose business trip was unexpectedly extended and feeding warm milk from eyedroppers to newborn squirrels. After a few years of temping, I branched out. First I wrote two books on what Buddhists call right livelihood—earning a living without doing harm—hoping that others might benefit from what I had learned. Next I offered employment workshops through university extension programs and community centers, where I intended to present practical information but somehow ended up teaching excellence as well. Meanwhile, in my personal life, I attended to my relationships with renewed commitment. I listened more fully and was more readily available to friends and family than I'd ever been before. I was given the opportunity to test this commitment when my best friend and my father died within the same year and I was called upon to devote full-time hospice care to them both. I was there until their very last breaths—my most profound experience with excellence yet.
I finally met my writing goal and am no longer temping, though we are all temps in one form or another, since nothing really lasts forever. Still, my practice of excellence endures. Now, instead of a sign, I carry excellence within me as a mantra, as a presence. Excellence has the most impact when I first focus on my own peace and happiness, and then send it out into the world.
Deborahann Smith is the author of Temp: How to Survive and Thrive in the World of Temporary Employment and Work with What You Have: Ways to Creative & Meaningful Livelihood (both from Shambhala).
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