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The 70% Solution

Early in my career I got the opportunity to build something a lot larger than I had previously tackled. It was the addition of a post and beam home to an existing 50s ranch house. Later on, I built several more Yankee Barn Homes; but this first one was a big bite for a small guy!

I had known the owners Jack and Phoebe, for several years, first working with them doing program development at Wainwright House in Rye, New York, and later building my first ever deck at their lovely Palmer Point home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut.

While contracting the barn home, I had a chance to observe Jack and Phoebe transition from their earlier professions as corporate executive and non-profit director to what they would eventually call “the third half of life.” They were not retiring – they were shifting gears; and this project gave me the wonderful opportunity to step up to the next level of my career. Good mentoring does that – when you see talent, support it.

One day toward the end of the project while putting the last cedar shingles on the south-facing wall, I watched Jack – barefoot, in shorts – sitting beside the recently finished pool speaking on the phone. He was obviously doing ”business,” but seemed so relaxed and in charge of his world. I thought, “This is what success looks like.” Later that day, sitting in those same chairs poolside sharing a beer, enjoying the fruits of our effort I asked him,

“If you could put a battling average on your success what would it be?”

Batting averages are based on a percentage of clean hits. In the baseball world a 300 batting average or 3 hits out of 10 at bats is a great number. I expected Jack to say something like, “Oh, I guess I’d say 900 or so…” meaning he got it right during his career globetrotting for Mobil Oil almost all the time. Without hesitation he said, “700”.

If we are honest with ourselves as human beings we recognize that the steepest and most effective learning method (sometimes known as karma) gives us an endless opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

At the time, as a young man driven toward success, I worried over getting things right. As a carpenter and a builder I was hyper aware of the high standard craftsmanship demanded. Some days the cuts are perfect and some days they are not. I was trying to get a feel for how good I could be if I kept trying. In the craftsman’s world I thought anything less than 90 or 95 percent was unacceptable; at any moment a master carpenter could come by and stand in front of my work and say, “Not good enough Nick!”

So here I was, sitting mano-a-mano with Jack and he said of his life’s work,

“I struck out 3 times out of 10.”

I’m sure like all of us, Jack had sleepless nights worrying over his next challenge, holding himself accountable to his truth.

This was a seminal moment of my life. I’m not ready to give my personal batting average a number yet. I am now about the same age as Jack was then. I can still see the older man he was – sitting comfortably by the pool at “our” house – sharing little bits of wisdom with the still-wet-behind-the-ears-me.

Oh heck. I guess I’ve been a pretty good slugger when I had to be. And, by my measure, “700” is a great number. I’m still swinging, Jack.