Almost every professional coach will tell you that success in most fields depends on a combination of knowledge, skills and attitude. In an article in The New Yorker Magazine , physician and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee described the first (knowledge) as “knowing what”, or the theory and the concepts that underlie the discipline or field of practice; and the second, as “knowing how”, or the application of these ideas in the real world. But the third — attitude — is that undefinable quality that adds something extra to the effective application of concepts to a task, making the difference between someone who can do a good enough job, and someone who is able to add value.
Attitude is a complex thing, and I’m not about to get into an academic or scientific definition. I’m referring to attitude on an everyday, common sense level, as a way of thinking, a mental approach that shows itself in how we deal with people, tasks, and life in general. We know that attitude can influence the decisions we make in life and how we handle relationships. But it also can also influence the way we relate to aspects of our work.
Knowledge and skills are the tools we require to do a job, but it is this third ingredient that determines the meaning and satisfaction we derive from the work we do, apart from sensitising us to the finer details of our work. A surgeon might master the intricacies of a complex procedure and have deep knowledge of the anatomical and physiological processes that underlie the functioning of the body, but unless he/she appreciates the value of an individual life and everything it represents, the surgery can become just a mechanical operation — almost like an engineering feat! Similarly, an engineer who is designing a suspension bridge across a river brings something extra to it (and takes something extra from it) if he/she appreciates the fact that it is a structure that will connect communities and ease travel for people on either side. A copy editor who is sympathetic to a reader will take care to ensure that a text flows well and does not contain errors. A hospital orderly who knows that a clean room will make a patient much happier will be less frustrated by the repetitious nature of the job.
Imagining one’s work in relation to the world gives it more meaning and suddenly makes the details (the quality of steel for the bridge, the care with which a suture is fashioned, the correctness of punctuation, the quality of mopping) more important.
How does one develop such a mindset, one that connects us to the work, and the work to the world? Is it even possible for all kinds of work? I believe it is. If you get into the habit of thinking of the consequences of your work for the people you are doing it for (even if it is an assignment for a boring old professor), you may think about your work differently. It takes the focus away from what you might get out of the work (which is often the source of much pressure and tension) and in the process, free you up to actually pay attention to the details and do a better job!
The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. email@example.com