Ever wondered about the nature of work that donkeys do? It’s tedious, repetitive and not the most enticing. And yet, it needs to be done. What’s the rationale?
It’s through tedious work that we start ingesting the depths to build anything good. The attention to detail that comes as the by-product of such tedious work sets the founding stone for creativity, and all things enticing.
Think about a college student who gets her first internship at an investment bank, when she is all of 20. She goes starry-eyed, expecting to work on her first principles of finance, and participate in transactions that rock the front pages of the Wall Street Journal or The Economic Times. And yet all she’s tasked to do for the first 5 weeks of her internship are just 2 things: a) check the page number on every slide of PowerPoint presentations that her team puts together b) correct spacing errors on Word memos that her team authors. Yep, that’s right: check page numbers, and account for missed or extra spaces, for 5 whole weeks.
Around 8 years ago, Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of Chobani, a leading Greek yoghurt brand, spoke about his managerial style in front of a young, curious audience. Oftentimes he’d go to the Chobani factories, pick up random samples of their best selling 5.3 oz yoghurt, and check for a red line that ran across the circumference of the packaging. He’d do this for 100s of samples, checking for the redness of the line, and the consistency of its width. Mind you, this had nothing to do with the taste or the hygiene of the yoghurt itself. He was only focused on the packaging. And he obsessed over that darned red line.
Why did he do that?
Hamdi knew that if his employees cared about something as innocuous as the red line on every Chobani product, the taste, the hygiene and everything else would check off. In building a culture that crazed over every minute detail, he unleashed the power of tedious work: a strong foundation on which the firm could experiment, take risks, and construct creativity.
Going back to our 20-year old college intern, it’s around week 6 and she’s now adept at her tedious assignment. She hates it but can now notice any formatting errors in PowerPoint and Word documents with near precision. It’s at this juncture when her manager entrusts her with a more interesting task – she’s asked to audit financial models made by her team. And guess what happens? More often than not, she starts with the formatting, and if she finds errors there, the odds are high that the model itself does not work. Her eye for attention to detail became a strong foundational companion, as she is tasked with more complex and enticing tasks through her internship. And beyond, as she progresses in her career.
One could say that the intern’s experience holds true for several aspects of our lives as well. Let’s start with academia. How often do we come across tedious things that we resist? And yet these tedious things often become the reason why we graduate towards the more ‘fun things’. Think about coding. Or algebra. Or English.
Next up, self-transformation. I find listening to my breath particularly tedious. You do it for a few seconds and then your mind’s off somewhere else until you bring your focus back to your breathing. But isn’t listening to one’s breath, the prelude to better listening in general, which subsequently lights the embers of empathy?
Entrepreneurship values the same virtues of tedious work. Obsessing over the most innocuous aspects of a business’s value proposition, at a basic level, showcases depth in one’s understanding. And from such depths, emerges the raison d’etre of the business itself.
While the donkey itself has earned a poor rap in society, the nature of donkey work itself necessitates some applause. Doing that tedious work for hours to an end is potentially boring, and even painful. Yet, it unquestionably primes one in their pursuit of excellence across several vectors: academia, self-transformation, or even scaling a Greek yoghurt business.