There’s a line in an old country song that earnestly exhorts people to “do what you do do well.” There are two possible interpretations of this advice. One is that you should do only what you do well; the other is that whatever you do, you should do it well. The former interpretation can be dismissed as an effective means of achieving success because doing only what you do well would mean never broadening your horizons by trying new things, thereby seriously limiting your potential. So the latter interpretation, that whatever you do you should do it well, is the one that will enable you to achieve success.

           The line in the song is a lyrical way of saying that you should make the most of your abilities by always doing the best you can, with what you have, wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing. Not only will this approach work wonders in achieving success, but a job well done is one of life’s most satisfying experiences. Think about it and you will be able to come up with many examples of the gratifying feeling of knowing that you’ve done something to the very best of your ability.

             Here’s a way to test this theory. The next time you’re faced with a boring chore or an aspect of your job that you don’t particularly enjoy, instead of letting up and just going through the motions, say to yourself that just this once you’re going to execute the task to the very best of your ability. No complaining. No loss of concentration. Just dig in with enthusiasm and do it better than you’ve ever done it before, all the time considering possible ways to improve your effectiveness and efficiency. The result will amaze you. Use this approach with everything you do and over time the results will be positively staggering.

             Consistently making the most of your abilities usually means the difference between standing still and achieving success. But, what’s required to make the most of your abilities? First, you must continuously add to your store of knowledge and arsenal of skills, which is why, in this context, the line in the song cannot possibly be interpreted as meaning do only what you do well. But there’s more to making the most of your abilities than just becoming educated and skilled. This is where making an extra effort comes into the picture.

            Hard work without ability is a shame, but ability without hard work is a tragedy. You’ve all seen examples of it. There are the athletes with tremendous skill and ability, yet they never win a trophy nor do their teams ever win a championship. It’s usually because these particular athletes don’t consistently perform up to their potential and therefore never make the most of their abilities. In some cases, because they don’t try to stretch their skills, their skills actually diminish instead of becoming sharper; by not using it they lose it.

            Then there are the bright, young employees who don’t put in that extra effort and don’t get promoted, such as the technician who didn’t keep up to date with changing technology so someone else became department manager; or the lawyer who didn’t develop his communication skills, so he didn’t make partner. There are the students whose marks remain short of what they could be because not enough notes are taken; or

            If notes are taken they aren’t reviewed, so scholarships are missed and grades failed simply because they don’t try hard enough.

            Speaking of students, you’ve probably seen people achieve success beyond what the level of their formal education would suggest they were capable of. These are people who seem to have done extraordinarily well on so-called natural ability. It’s often been said that natural ability without education will often result in more success than education without natural ability. Maybe so, but it’s rare indeed for people to achieve lasting success without a concerted effort to make the most of their abilities, whether “natural” or acquired.

              Many years ago there was a cartoon in Ripley’s famous Believe it or Not series depicting an ordinary iron bar worth, at the time, about five dollars. The cartoon went on to point out that the iron bar made into horseshoes would be worth about twice as much, or $10. Made into sewing needles it would be worth $3,285. If it was turned into balance springs for watches it would be worth a quarter of a million dollars, 50,000 times its original value! Of course this analogy for the uses of an iron bar is no longer relevant, but the cartoon’s message still holds true. Abilities are just like a tangible raw material; they’re worth only what you do with them.

            By now you should have gotten the message that hard work is a key ingredient of making the most of your abilities, but there’s still more required. In the long run it’s going to be the quality of your work, not the quantity, that’s going to determine the level of your success; and the quality of your work is affected as much by your attitude as it is by the level of your knowledge and skill, maybe even more so.

            There’s a story I came across a few years ago that illustrates the importance of attitude in the workplace. It involves two truck drivers, both of whom spent the day picking up cans of milk in the countryside and bringing them into town for the milk to be processed. One was a young driver, seemingly bored with his work and consequently usually crabby, widely disliked, and often in trouble with management. The other was an older driver who seemed to be always in a good mood, was greatly respected by everyone and was never in any trouble with his bosses. One evening after parking their trucks the younger driver asked the other how he always seemed to have a positive attitude. The older driver said, “You went to work this morning, but I went for a drive in the country.” In the right job with the right attitude, hard work doesn’t seem like work at all, and quality is more readily achieved.

             Quality is never an accident; it’s always the result of thought and effort. Whatever you are, be a good one. When you’re average, you’re as close to the bottom as you are to the top; so always strive to get better. It’s equally important to remember, though, that you don’t have to be the very best at something in order to be successful at it. As some poet once said, the woods would be a quiet place if no birds sang but those that sang best. But you do have to do your best, and keep in mind that “good enough” is forever the enemy of “best.”

             Making the most of your abilities is usually the link between wanting something and getting it. One of the best ways to prepare for the future is to make the most of your abilities today, which, as we’ve just been discussing, means having the right attitude. People who consistently do a good job every day tend to get promoted, even if you are in what seems to be a mundane job. When people think that their work isn’t important, quality deteriorates. But if a job wasn’t important it wouldn’t exist. All jobs aren’t equal, but they’re all important in some way in the overall scheme of things. Treat your job as if it’s important and others will begin to think that it is as well. Your attitude and performance will be noticed and appreciated by those that matter.

            Finally, you can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do; you build your reputation by getting things done. People tend to judge themselves by what they think they can do, but others judge them by what they actually accomplish. People will forget how many tasks you started, but they will remember how many you finished, especially those that you did well.

            If you want to reach your full potential you have to make the most of your abilities by always striving for quality and constantly looking for ways to do things better. Whether you’re delivering newspapers, running a Fortune 500 company, or doing anything in between, remember that Easy Street is a dead end.