Thursday, March 24, 2005

Unfinished Business

My father’s workshop was never a neat and tidy place. It was not because he was untidy. He simply had more tools, supplies and resources than room to store them.

While it wasn’t a tidy place, it also wasn’t a graveyard of half-baked ideas, DIY kit-bash projects or one-off inventions. When my father began a repair job or started a task, he finished it. It also worked. Well.

He was great at creating what he needed. He designed and built a garden tiller for pennies on the dollar in the late 50s. In the 60’s he attached a vacuum cleaner to his radial arm saw and built a box in the saw’s table. It vacuumed the saw dust as he ran the machine so there never was a mess. He built a set of adjustable baby cribs in the 1970s, the like of which were not marketed until the early 90s. They were only just replaced at our home church.

If dad had a hand in it, it worked. If it was broken, he fixed it. If it was ill-suited, he morphed it.

After Viki and I married, our old black and white TV went on the fritz. In the early 70s you could still go to a convenience store and use their tube tester. When you found the offending tube, they had one to sell you. I earned my stripes as a providing husband when I fixed our TV.

I knew I couldn’t match my dad on many things but I had watched him do this job before. I did get the TV back on and my wife was proud. There is nothing like setting back and taking in the ambiance of a job well done.

I used to think the feeling of a job well-done is just in doing the job well. After a few opportunities to take in the ambiance, I think the sense of accomplishment comes not from doing the job well as much as it comes from doing it until it’s done. The difference may be lost on you. It isn’t on me. There is a special glory in persevering until the end is not just in sight but is behind you.

A wag once said, “When all is said and done, more is usually said than done.” Another childhood proverb says, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” Of all the contests in the summer Olympics, the most cheered loser is the person who comes in last place in the marathon. A gut wrenching experience and a character builder if ever there is, the marathon runner is a person celebrated not because of winning but because of completion.

On the other hand, the landscape of a fruitless and discouraged life is one littered with unfinished projects, half-baked dreams and meaningless promises of future glory and achievements.

Unfinished business is life clutter. The scourge of clutter has become a hit TV show. The TV hosts come into a home, help that week’s dubious stars to trash, barter or justify every item that takes up space in their home. It is often a cathartic experience.

But life clutter is more insidious than half-finished scrapbooks and piles of unfolded clothes. It is a life that lacks direction and priority. The unfinished projects are but “Burma Shave” signs on a highway going nowhere. They are pieces of humor and cute proverbs that eventually serve only as a shill to sell one more excuse to procrastinate.

It is a source of life pollution. The acrid smell of rotten eggs, the wrenching creep of rotting flesh or the repulsive power of a skunk’s unwelcome greeting have no equal to a life polluted with unfinished business. Life pollution penalizes the vista of hope for years to come just for being an unwitting partner.

It hinders new projects by promoting creative inertia. Nothing succeeds like success. Nothing hinders progress like a life focused on the minutia of details put off to another more convenient time.

It conditions the acceptance of mediocrity. Instead of reaching for the last detail and painting the places no one will see, the cluttered, inert and moribund life learns to accept placebos of completion. “It’s good enough for government work.” This and others may be sincere expressions and at times worthy to be used. But they prepare the fruitless for a lifetime of “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.”

It camouflages lessons that are best learned rather than repeated. This is not the life of an “also ran.” This is the life of a “never finished.” It is the life of lost opportunities. It is a life of lessons postponed, not learned. The lessons are learned by looking back after finishing, not from the sidelines as others crossed the checkered line.

Is it time to sweep the table clean? Is it time to clear the shelves of trophies others earned? Is it time to unclutter a life, clean up an agenda, place excellence above acceptance, and resurrect opportunities? Is it time to deal with unfinished business?

What was that burning desire when you purchased the sewing machine you couldn’t afford? What caught your attention in the DIY magazine that convinced you the goal was not only attainable, it was absolutely necessary? What was said in a corporate meeting that drove you to enroll in the education program intended to make a difference in your life and your family? What woke you in the middle of the night and filled your commute with dreams?

Reclaim your passion. Reclaim your vision. Reclaim your life. Finish your business. Set one priority. Decide to clear the workbench of life. You are going to focus on cleaning this mess of a life up.

Identify that one project, that one vision, that one event that will make a difference right now because you tackled it and got it done. Find the one you are closest to completing and knock it out. If it can’t be knocked out in a day or a week, cut it up and knock out one piece.

Whatever you do, get that one doable project moved off the “Things I’m going to do when I get time” agenda. Don’t let any other project get in its way.

Start measuring your activity and not your progress. The marathon runner doesn’t worry where he is on the course. He pays attention to his pace, his tempo and his stride. He knows if he pays attention to these details, the end will come soon enough.

When that project is complete, don’t start another one. Don’t pick up another pattern, another magazine or another brochure. Sit back and enjoy the view. Accept the murmurs of accomplishment your heart beats out as cool breezes blow through the newly planted flower garden. It not only feels good to finish. The view is pretty good from up there, too.