Friday, February 26, 2010

The Personal Strength of Thoroughness - The Devil Is in the Details

Every now and then, while reading a book, I’ll come across a typo. It’s a rare thing, so I suppose I should give the publishers credit for attention to detail. Also, typos are relatively trivial compared to the content of the book. And I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest proofreader. Far from it. Still, it’s a big turn-off whenever I see a grammatical error or a misspelled word. It makes me wonder if there are other mistakes in the book.

So whenever my company publishes anything, we proofread it repeatedly. Does that mean we’re obsessive about details, or just thorough?

Back in 1972, when I was doing research for my dissertation on American fiction-writer John Cheever, I felt that I needed to read every story and every novel he had ever written—plus all the books and articles written about him. It wasn’t an overt requirement, but I felt that it would be a mistake to overlook any of his works. Fortunately, the Duke University library had a massive fiction collection; but they didn’t have Cheever’s first book of short stories, The Way Some People Live, published by Random House in 1943. So I ordered it from a rare book store.

When the book arrived, I was delighted that the dust jacket was still intact. I was surprised to see that the inside blurb referred to a story published in a magazine I hadn’t heard of before.  The magazine had published that one issue and then was discontinued. The Duke library didn’t have a copy, but they located one in the Harvard University library. Apparently, it was the only copy in existence. I felt that I had to read the story, so I traveled by car from Durham to Boston and presented my letter of credentials from Duke. They located the issue in their archives, and I made a copy of the story.

As a result of my fetish for details, I was certain that my bibliography was complete. Later, because the list was comprehensive, it was published. And nearly 40 years later my bibliography is still a standard reference for Cheever scholars.


Detail by detail, your vision will become real.

My wife, Kathleen, used to be a commercial banker, and she developed a habit for doing “due diligence”—about nearly everything. Every time we travel away from home she creates a folder packed with information about the airline, rental car, hotel, interesting venues and routes of travel. It’s all there, courtesy of the internet. It’s amazing how trouble-free our trips are!

She’s also the document reader in the family. Before we bought our home in the Texas Hill Country, she studied the land survey and discovered that a small part of the driveway was inside the county easement. Further checking revealed that the county had the authority to make us move the driveway at some future date. It was unlikely that this would happen, but there it was—an unpleasant possibility. So she got the contractor to obtain an exception from the county. End of worries.

Her desire to do background research paid off well back in the stock market boom of the late 1990s. One day I purchased a highly-touted tech stock because its price was climbing rapidly. Concerned, Kathleen obtained and studied documents about the company. What she learned was that the structure was so convoluted that she couldn’t tell who owned it or how they would make money. Faced with these facts, we decided to sell the stock at a profit. Several months later, the company collapsed and the stock lost 99% of its value.

A success for us, but several years later I met a man who lost a lot of money by hanging on to that stock. The lesson: do your homework. You can’t control what you don’t understand. If something has the potential to do you harm, you’d better check it out. It’s usually not easy to get all the facts, but you should make the effort, even if you have to work to get them—and use what you learn to make your decision. That way, you won’t be taken by surprise. You don’t want to be blind-sided by dangers you assume aren’t there.


The best way to ingrain the lessons of thoroughness is to be thorough. I recommend this exercise:

1.    The next time you’re about to purchase something that costs more than $100, gather data for at least four options.
2.    Get detailed information about capabilities, features and costs. Be thorough.
3.    Arrange the information in a matrix to facilitate a comparison.
4.    Include qualitative or subjective considerations.
5.    Compare the options and make your decision.

*     *     *

Consider the facts, for they will prove your opinions.

“Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains.” - Thomas Carlyle 

"Beware of the man who won't be bothered with details." - William Feather

THOROUGHNESS - Why the Compassion of 10 Missionaries Went Wrong

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

1 comment:

Beth said...

Before my husband, Buck, retired from corporate life, he was public affairs director for a major corporation and also chairman of the board of a local bank. He was known as the man with the "silver bullet," a person who could accomplish things "mere mortals" couldn't. Some few colleagues from the home office were even vaguely suspicious of his successes, implying there might be some underhanded or tricky aspect to his victories on behalf of the company. I remember saying to Buck once, "If they could observe you closely, as I do, and see your methods, they would understand that the "trick" is diligence, old-fashioned hard work,refusal to accept failure, and refusal to quit until all obstacles are moved aside and the task is 110% complete. That's your trick."