In the blog post "What makes you great at your profession?" I pointed out the importance of asking a fundamental question on what makes one great at your profession to improve. However, there is a negative side to being obsessed with being great at your profession. Again, I will use the modern classic "Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro as an example.
As I pointed out in the blog post, "What makes you great at your profession?" James Stevens gives a lot of thought to what makes one a great butler. He came up with two attributes: dignity and attachment to a distinguished household.
I wrote this blog post because there is a price one pays to be great at something. We always focus on the gain and not the loss of being great. But as you will see from reading this post, you always lose something to gain something. And sometime trying to be great at something can have deleterious effect on you personally, professionally and/or financially.
With Stevens, two monumental things are happening at the same time. One, he is about to lose Miss Kenton. Second, he is going to let his employer disgrace himself by being a Nazi sympathizer.
Stevens' employer has been hoodwinked by the Germans about their true intentions. He is hosting a meeting between the British Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, and the German Ambassador where a decision will be made. That decision will involve the British Prime Minister to appease Adolf Hitler and allow Germany to occupy part of Czechoslovakia, known as Sudetenland if, in return, Hitler promises to preserve peace but not invading any countries.
For Stevens, two monumental things are happening at the same time that is going to give him regrets later but is completely oblivious of it as it is happening. He can't see anything besides what he is conditioned to see happening.
James Stevens is about to lose Miss Kenton forever. She informs Stevens that she has received a marriage proposal. Miss Kenton is trying to gauge whether Stevens has any romantic interest in her. She tells Stevens on two occasions that she has still not made a decision. Stevens doesn't say anything to make her not accept the proposal.
Miss Kenton tries one more time to make sure that Stevens has no interest in her by asking, "But I can see you are very unhappy about my going out tonight." Stevens is focused on being a great butler for the big meeting that will be taking place in the mansion. He does not say anything to prevent Miss Kenton from accepting the marriage proposal.
When Miss Kenton comes back from her meeting, she wants Stevens to know what happened as she asks him, "Are you not in the least interested in what took place tonight between my acquaintance and I, Mr. Stevens?"
Stevens shows no interest as he replies, "I do not mean to be rude, Miss Kenton, but I really must return upstairs without further delay. The fact is, events of a global significance are taking place in this house at this very moment."
Stevens is only focused on being a great butler by maintaining his dignity and doing his job well, so his employer plays a significant part in serving humanity. To Stevens, Miss Kenton leaving him for another man is insignificant.
Stevens leaves Miss Kenton to attend to his butler duties when he runs into Mr. Cardinal. The latter is a young man well acquainted with Stevens. Mr. Cardinal is a godson of Stevens' employer. In his meeting with Stevens' employer, he learned the significance of what is taking place at the mansion. He tries to convince Stevens to do his part to save his employer from being duped and disgraced.
Like Miss Kenton, Mr. Cardinal gives Stevens several chances to save his employer from ruining his reputation as a Nazi sympathizer.
Mr. Cardinal asks, "Stevens, do you know what is happening at this very moment as we sit here talking?"
Stevens has no curiosity at all about the significance of what is taking place. He just wants to be a great butler.
When pressed further by Mr. Cardinal, Stevens replied. "It is not my place to be curious about such matters, sir.'
Mr. Cardinal asks if he has seen how his employer has been hoodwinked by the Germans for the last three to four years regarding their true intentions. To which Stevens replies, "I'm sorry, sir, I have failed to notice any such development."
Stevens could not save Miss Kenton from leaving him, nor could he save his employer's reputation. He was oblivious to what was happening that evening. From Stevens's viewpoint, he was very pleased with how everything turned out. He maintained his dignity and served his employer well so his employer could do his part in "helping" humanity.
So my point in using this example is to show that being great at something is fine, but it has the potential to create blind spots that could make you vulnerable to losing something else. There is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to being obsessed with greatness.
In closing, I want to use a real-world example in Deborah Birx, President Trump's White House coordinator for the pandemic response, that shows when one is obsessed in serving one's employer, it can produce catastrophic result. In the Op-Ed in Washington Post by Matt Bai titled "The Birx dilemma is a lesson for the ages," he writes that appeasement "doesn’t work for nations facing down aggressors. It doesn’t work for a political party that’s been taken over by a nativist bully. And it doesn’t work when you’re serving a president who demands unyielding loyalty and a willful disregard for the truth." The catastrophic result, according to her that more than 400,000 people didn't have to die from Covid-19.
Deborah Birx had earned her stellar reputation as doctor who was involved in the global fight against AIDs. Because of her greatness, she was picked to advice President Trump. And that's where she developed a blind spot in protecting him over the American people. Though she may try her best to salvage her reputation, but most irreparable damage has been done.
Sooner or Later, we all will face this dilemma like James Stevens in "Remains of the Day," and Deborah Birx in real life. How will we handle it?
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