How to Excel at Something Simple (Like Portable Storage)

The Portable Storage industry is simple.  You take a big metal box, and move it to a place where you can charge a customer money.  That’s it.  
But, somehow, there are people and companies that consistently stand out above their industry peers.  Those who you can rely on for a high level of service and exceptional output over and over again.  How can one put themselves in that category?

To Better Understand Portable Storage, Let’s Look at Sushi

Another simple industry: you take a piece of raw fish, put it on some rice, sell it to a customer.  Yet, there are those who excel in this simple field as well.
The other night, my wife and I went to see Anthony Bourdain here in Minneapolis.  During the Q&A session the former chef stated his favorite meal was sushi.  More specifically, that after a meal at Jiro Ono’s Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant in Tokyo you could “put a bullet” in the back of his head and he would “die happy.”

What Makes Jiro So Special?

How does the way Jiro puts fish on rice differ so greatly from his peers?  He buys his fish from the same market as everyone else, and his restaurant is next to a subway station, with only ten seats.
What Jiro does, every day, is work hard.  He’s engaged to the point of waking up in the middle of the night with new sushi ideas.  Every day he tastes the fish over and over again.  If it’s not up to his standards, they won’t serve it.
Jiro and his team have relationships with vendors not because they are the cheapest providers of goods and services, but because they are experts in their fields.  Their rice vendor will not sell the type of rice Jiro buys to other customers, because it won’t do them any good.  They don’t know how to make it correctly.

The Importance of Details

When an apprentice comes to learn from Jiro, he teaches them everything he knows, but expects them to live up to his standards.  Nothing mediocre can be put on a plate.
In the documentary film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi(available on Netflix and well worth your time), one such apprentice is talking about making egg for sushi.  He believed he was prepared for such a simple part of the sushi making process, and thought he would be fine.  For three to four months he made his egg, and had it thrown out by Jiro.

No good, no good, no good.

Due to his experience and knowledge, Jiro can identify components of critical importance that may seem trivial to some, but in his mind will reduce the quality of the user experience.  After 200+ failed attempts, the apprentice finally satisfied Jiro’s threshold for excellence and was told “now, this is how it should be done.”
The apprentice was so happy, he wept.

High Standards Aren’t Enough, Consistent Effort and Engagement is Critical

Anyone who has read Matthew Syed’s brilliant book Bounce, or is familiar with the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour philosophy for Outliers, can tell you that engaged effort over time is what makes someone great at something. 
Mozart and Glenn Gould weren’t magically born great pianists, they just had their ass on the piano bench for hours and hours, day after day, year after year (part of the reason Glenn Gould played with such strange form was that most of his hours of practice were without teachers to tell him the “correct” way to do it).
There are stories of Glenn Gould “pounding” on his piano keys until the wee hours of the morning, of Larry Bird being the only person on a basketball court practicing his jump shot in the rain, and Bill Gates sneaking into the computer lab before the school day started.  Putting in time and effort when others are not.
But there are certainly sushi chefs that wake up every morning and go to the same market as Jiro, and spend the same number of hours preparing their rice and smoking their fish.  Why aren’t they as good?
Matthew Syed uses the example of driving in his book.  If someone spends an average of seven hours per week driving their car, they should have 10,000 hours in fewer than 30 years.  By the time we hit 50, most Americans should be expert drivers… but instead of being engaged on the road, we turn on the radio or make phone calls, diluting the impact of our experience on our driving ability.

Stay Engaged at Work

The same can be said about work.  If you’re flying through the more menial components of your job (listening to music or daydreaming about your next vacation) your time spent is really not making you better at what you do. 
As Jiro taught us with rice, the details matter a great deal.  If you are not actively engaged and focused on improving something every day, you’re not going to become great.  You may be very good, but never great.  And, as the apprentice who wept after finally meeting Jiro’s standards might tell you, trying to be great at your job is not an easy task… but well worth the time it takes.

The Secret to Being Great

So, to summarize, all you really need to do to be great at something is work really hard at it for a long period time (decades, really), making a concerted effort to become better every day.