Being on the Short List of Life

Quality vs QuantityI’m supposed to make a lot of phone calls these days, but over the past month or so I have found my most productive days tend to be the ones where I make the fewest phone calls. That’s contrary to the whole “It’s a numbers game” philosophy about sales. Then again, they say that quality is more important than quantity. We go through life wondering who they are, those nameless experts and spewers of conventional wisdom. I’ve begun to think they are space aliens (although some people have identified Them as radioactive giant mutated ants).

Quality-over-quantity is a powerful rule of thumb. It works well in search engine marketing, where good SEOs advise their clients to focus on conversions and sales rather than just boosting traffic (for clients who need sales). It works in your social life, where having a few good friends is better than having many faux friends. It works in your garage, where having a few good cars is better than looking like you run a cheap used car dealership. I once had four vehicles. I’m not sure of why, since at no time were more than two of them being used anyway.

That was when I lived in New Mexico. It seemed like I spent my Saturdays ferrying vehicles down to the gas station, washing them, and getting basic maintenance work done. And yet, oddly enough, when I started to reduce the size of the fleet, I felt like something was missing from my life. We become so used to quantity that when we finally start to get quality, we don’t appreciate what we have.

Quality might be a cute text message about cookies that comes when you’re sitting with three other people. What do you do? Laugh and joke with the decision-makers, or take the text message?

Quality might be a girl who comes up and says, “Do you dance Viennese Waltz”? What do you do? Say, “Nope. Sorry. But call me when you’re ready to Cha Cha” or do you say, “No, but if you hum a few bars I can fake it”? Take the waltz, for we may never pass this way again. At worst, you’ll look like a fool. But what do you look like when you wimp out?

Quality is a Three Musketeers bar. Quantity is M&Ms (which do melt in your hand if you hold them long enough) or Reese’s Pieces.

I’d rather be that rare individual someone stops and takes the time to say “Hi” to, than one of the faceless Everymans populating an Incredibles movie.

I’d prefer to be the kid being dragged into the lake by Grandpa Bass than the kid reading the comic (although I had a 1500 comic book collection when I was a kid).

I once met a businessman on a flight from Atlanta to New Mexico. We did the “So what do you do?” thing and when he found out I was a programmer he made some comment about how Windows was looking so great. I tried to explain that Microsoft has never provided quality, just quantity. He didn’t get it. He thought Microsoft was innovative and cutting edge. Why? Because he had been inundated with Microsoft ads that say they are innovative and cutting edge.

Repetition is often the key to success. Keep telling people how great you are and eventually you’ll have an army of drones mindlessly repeating how great you are. The U.S. drills its soldiers endlessly (when the budget is there) in the execution of their basic tasks. We have the best army in the world (or so we say). Repetition is where quality and quantity blur their distinctions.

Or, to put it another way, practice makes perfect. So I always tell new dance students when they start complaining that they’ll never get the steps and the rhythm down. “There is so much to learn,” they say. Yes, there is. And that is part of what makes it fun. Learning itself is fun, when it’s a quality experience. I think so many kids hate school (I did) because it’s more about quantity than quality. Which is not to say that teachers don’t try to make it about quality, but they are under the gun. They have to cycle their students through the system each year and start over with a whole new batch of students.

Experimental schools try to emphasize quality, but I’m not sure they get it right, either. They are under pressure to turn out graduates who can compete in the “real” world. But every time I listen to the Louis Armstrong song “What a wonderful world”, as he approaches the end of the song he sings, “I see babies cry, I watch them grow. They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know” and I think, “That’s our education system. Is life really supposed to be like that?”

I can do things today that the average Roman soldiers and Greek philosophers could not even imagine doing. And yet, would I be able to conquer their worlds or lay the foundations for a future science? My car is air-conditioned, upholstered, and has a CD-player and satellite radio. I drive around in more luxury, at higher rates of speed, and travel farther than did Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Jesus. But will I have as much of an impact on humanity as they have had?

Khan bucked the rule-of-thumb and went for quantity over quality. He conquered more of the world than anyone in history. He killed more people than anyone up to Napoleon Bonaparte’s time. And by the time he died, he had an estimated 30,000 living descendants. He was the most successful Alpha Male in human history. Supposedly 6% of all Asians today are descended from him.

It’s good to be the Khan, but the last time anyone tried to rack up his kind of success the United States intervened with a Coalition of the Willing. Mankind has learned its lesson about world conquerors (for now). The lesson tends to be, “Get them before they get the rest of us.”

So, we can no longer dream about slaughtering our way to the top. Instead, we have to work methodically on improving our skills, one dance at a time, one box of cookies at a time, one phone call at a time. We have all become players in the game of life because it’s too dangerous and risky to live life. We keep practicing for the final exam that never comes.

We’re constantly improving the quality of our lives with a quantity of experiences. So when quality comes knocking, what do you do? Say, “Good stuff but not quite what I’m looking for?” or stop and smell the perfume?

The point is that each day brings a new decision to make, even if it’s the same choice you made yesterday. You make your bed and you sleep in it regardless of whether it’s flat on the floor or high off the ground. It’s your bed and no one else can decide what to do for you.

Or, to put it another way, “I don’t know the Viennese Waltz yet, but if you don’t mind getting dizzy, I’ll be happy to whirl you around the room before the music ends and the dance is over.” After that, we’ll just have to wait and see….