The sign on her desk was modest, the words deceptively simple. Fifteen years and 100 temp jobs later, Deborahann Smith tells what she's learned from her excellent adventures.
It began 15 years ago with a sign reading "Be excellent to each other," which I printed from my computer in Gothic type and taped to my workspace. I was about to launch into a series of temporary jobs to supplement my freelance writing income. My plan was to temp for a few months, save enough money so I could stay home and write for a while, back and forth, my intention being eventually to write full-time. As is often the case with best-laid plans, however, I soon discovered an unexpected goal within my temporary career: the pursuit of excellence as a way of life.
The phrase on the sign was borrowed from the silly eighties movie Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. I hoped it would remind me to be helpful, apply myself fully to every task, and be kind to even the most unpleasant individuals. I also secretly wished people would see the slogan and take the words to heart. My fellow temps were skeptical. "People treat temps like dirt," they scoffed. "You'll be lucky if you can maintain excellence through your first assignment." They had a point: I was likely to meet challenges. Nevertheless, I rolled up my sleeves and went to work.
The sign made its debut at a corporation that designed robots (affectionately called "the girls") for the food-packaging industry. Dubbing myself Robo Temp, I typed, filed, and amused my coworkers by invariably responding "I'll tell your fans" when they announced their departures for lunch. No one seemed to notice the sign until several days into the job, when I set up a videotape for a troubleshooting meeting. The tape showed "the girls" malfunctioning—throwing chocolate chip cookies at each other instead of neatly filing them into their respective boxes. "Hey," I heard a software engineer exclaim as I left the room. "They aren't being excellent to each other!" "Yeah!" someone else shouted. "Be excellent to each other!" Later someone left a box of the girls' cookies in the break room, accompanied by a note: "For the team. Thanks for your excellent help."
Not everyone embraced excellence with such enthusiasm. Some people ignored the sign (and the intention). Others were short-tempered, despite my best efforts. But, for the most part, my colleagues responded positively to kindness. They grew radiant when I told them their jade earrings made their eyes look beautiful or when I complimented them on a haircut. They took pride in their work when I admired the brilliant organization of a paper they'd written. They opened up more to others when I inquired about their weekend and actually listened to their responses. When I smiled, they smiled back.
On one occasion, being excellent even helped redirect the career of an unhappy administrative assistant. After overhearing her on the phone with her daughter, I asked if she had majored in child psychology, since she seemed especially gifted at dealing with children. Several weeks later, she came to thank me for my observation and to say goodbye: She was leaving to open her own day-care center.
As a longtime Zen student, I had been taught to appreciate small, mundane moments—moments opportune for practicing excellence in the workplace. For example, seemingly endless sit-at-the-receptionist-desk moments prompted me to be aware of when someone needed a sympathetic ear. Humdrum xeroxing moments were great for noticing harried coworkers who might appreciate assistance in meeting a deadline. Oh-so-yawnish envelope-stuffing projects were ideal times for spotting bottles to be carried to the recycling bin and spiders that needed to be taken outside in paper cups.
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.