Notes from Napa

Friday, September 15, 2006



Anyone who’s ever run a business, worked for a living, or attempted to provide a service knows that this question is the heart of any successful enterprise--and conversely, it is the cause of numerous disagreements that result in the severing of relationships. “What do you mean?”, you say. We tell our kids to “do their best”--ergo, only one’s “best” is good enough--fair enough. But what if one’s “best” will take 30 days of work (8 hours per day) at $150 per hour, and the one asking for the service can only afford (or is only looking for) a $500 answer? One’s “Best” must be tempered with good judgment. This happened to my friend. He runs a large company. He called up his law firm and asked for an overnight opinion on a legal matter. What he got back was reams of paper and a $14,000 bill. “What I wanted was the two grand answer--not every variation on every theme”. When we were in New York doing television commercials, clients invariable wanted different production values for different prices. The Fall “Ford Truck Month Sale”, was not expected to be as elaborate or cost as much as a Ford spot that was going to run on the Super Bowl. As a creative director, the maxim was simple. Three ingredients go into the production of each spot--Time, Quality, and Price. If you (Mr. Client) can give me any two of those variables, I can tell you what the third will be. You want it in a hurry at top quality--the price will reflect that. Lower quality with ample time for production, would mean a lower price. Even the deepest pockets couldn’t insure high quality, if enough time weren’t permitted. And so on. As families we all wrestle with this concept constantly. Checked out your kid’s room lately? How clean is clean enough? Of course they would have picked up those socks, but what about piano practice?--which they would have done if they didn’t have that test tomorrow--which they would have studied for if they hadn’t had a game that evening--which they would have gone to if they hadn’t been on that field trip. You get the point. Now each kid knows the rules. He needs to keep the room clean, right? But how clean? He also knows that each week he only has so many hours each day to pick up that underwear, see his girlfriend, goof off with his pals, go to dances, attend Scout meetings, practice his sport, take piano, hit the books, work at his job, go to mass, and attend dreaded mandatory “family functions”. Isn’t even the most organized kid asked to serve too many masters? Each master begins slowly to suck more blood. “Your room must be cleaner”, says Dad. “Play with your brothers and sisters”, says Mom. “Study harder or you’ll flunk”, says the Science Teacher. “You’re always with the guys”, says his girl. “You’re always with her”, say the guys. The demands become an onslaught. “Don’t forget the scout overnight”. “You’ve got to spend more time on that key of C”. “It’s your grandmother’s birthday, that’s why”. “The team travels to Tim-buc-tu and will be back around midnight”. “Miss another day of work and your fired”. My favorites are the parents or teachers who hide behind this one, “It’s her choice”. Or, “I gave him a choice, and that’s what he chose.” It’s a nice sentiment, but complete balderdash. How’s a child who’s never taken Algebra (for Example) who’s never been to college, who’s never been a Senior, who’s never won a championship, who’s never flunked, who’s never graduated--supposed to decide between studying for Algebra, practicing with the team, or working on his Merit Badge? It’s the 90’s they tell me. Kids are different. Somehow, I feel kids are still kids--that it’s us who are different. How do we find balance? Can we? The system wouldn’t work if each teacher gave each child 21/2 hours of homework each night. It wouldn’t work if each Dad had each kid do 21/2 hours of chores each night--or if each clergy asked 21/2 hours of social service each day. The pursuit of excellence is an awesome ideal. But how do we get these competing forces to back off and work with one another so the child isn’t overwhelmed? If we parents demanded 20% less cleanliness, would that be clean enough? Do we need as many games as we play? As many field trips? As many practices? As many courses? As many extra-curricular activities? What would happen if each were cut 20% or 30%? Would the plays, performances, games, scholarship suffer that much? I know. My friends say, “Hey, it’s better that they’re in activities than smoking their socks behind Taco Bell”. If that’s our only choice, yes. But is it really “either/or”? (to be continued)