Excellence Is Found in the Margin

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By Chris Field, MBA

That steaming cup of coffee sitting on your desk or kitchen table tells a story. What secrets can be gleaned from this simple daily dose of life-giving caffeine? Have you thought about how much excellence resides in that single cup of java? Is there room in it for more? While you love coffee and want as much as possible, if you overfill  the cup, hot coffee will cascade down the sides when you pick up the mug and spill all over your hand, the table, and your clothes.


Your cup will overflow and you will get burned if you leave no margin.


So there has to be some room left in the cup. Room for cream or sugar and for stirring. And then even a bit more space to take that first sip you've been craving since you got out of bed. There has to be some margin to make the magic happen. The difference between a cup of straight black coffee and a cup of WOW! is found in the margin—and more importantly in what you do with the margin.


Similar to an overfilled cup of coffee, our professional and personal lives are also close to overflowing. Many of us are constantly chasing the dream of trying to have it all and we believe that our goals are attainable if we just work harder or take on one more task. We encourage our children to become involved in almost every opportunity that comes up at school because we don't want them to miss anything. Perhaps tuba lessons will lead to Carnegie Hall or our elementary school child should receive professional coaching to enhance his or her prospects of an athletic scholarship after receiving a trophy on the 8U team.


Yet with all this busyness in our lives, I fear we have lost the desire to excel in any particular activity. We do many things, but are we doing them well? Or as country singer George Strait observed in song, "there's a difference between living and living well."


The secret to living well, or excellence, can be found in being the best version of you and can be illustrated by the coffee mug. The excellence in our coffee cup, in our professional life, or in our personal life, is found in the margins—what we do with that bit of difference between the coffee and the rim of the mug or between living and living well. The margin is where the magic lies. It's where our creativity flows, our being is developed, and our inner self is nurtured. The special thing to consider with this illustration is that we can control the margins.


Think about your day at work. Is your schedule so crammed and are you so busy getting things done that you don't take time to plan, prepare, and grow? There needs to be some margin in your day. Time to sit back and reflect on what needs to be done. Do it first thing in the morning. Prioritize your activities for the day. I use an ABC system of prioritizing activities that works well for me. Use to-do lists, whiteboards, notebook calendars, or whatever works for you. The key is to take the time to add some margin in your day to help you prosper.


What about preparation? Whether for the practitioner's schedule of patients or for a resident planning his or her career, preparation is key. Poor preparation leads to poor performance. To the person just starting out: Heed this advice. Take the time to learn your craft. Don't try to be all things to all people. You are in school, or training, or an internship to learn. That is your priority. You will have a lifetime to work and be busy after you graduate. However, you may never get another chance to establish a solid educational and experiential base from which to build your career. Although you are busy with many things and many demands on your time, make some margin. Leave room in your schedule to not just complete the internship but to complete it well. Complete assignments with an eye toward gleaning every possible ounce of knowledge out of the opportunity. Seek out the challenging tasks, tasks that may be more time consuming but will ultimately provide the greater return in overall knowledge and experience. By managing your margin, and thus investing time in yourself, you can turn an okay internship into a WOW! internship, one that will set you apart from many of your peers.


For those of you who are already practitioners, preparation is still vitally important. Do you just see patients or do you see opportunities with patients? Opportunities to change their lives, opportunities to make a difference. I challenge you to consider your caseload for today. If there is no margin in your day, it is a safe bet to say that you are probably just seeing patients. That's not necessarily bad, but excellence is found in the margins. If you guard your time, value it, and utilize it in such a way that you have time to prepare for each patient the way you would want your practitioner to prepare for you, then you will "see" patients differently. You will review your dictation from the last visit, perhaps remembering that the patient had asked you a question that you were going to research for him or her, order in that device to trial that may be a better option given the individual's situation, or simply have everything prepared and in order. Your patient's time is also valuable. If he or she is forced to wait while you try to track down a device that was supposed to have been ordered but you didn't verify was on-hand prior to the appointment, you have transformed the appointment from an opportunity for excellence into an opportunity for failure. Preparing for patients by allowing margin, prepares you for excellence.


Next, let's talk about growth as a person and a practitioner. How do you see CEUs? Are they a necessary evil that governing bodies force us to take to remain certified or do you see them as opportunities to learn new information, practices, or procedures? Do you immerse yourself in your field, taking every chance to read more, watch instructional videos, listen to podcasts, and share and interact with colleagues? Or is this too time-consuming, too much trouble? You have a business to run, and you don't have time for that—there is no margin.


How about growing personal and professional relationships? There is a wealth of information on this topic, and if you have the desire to learn or grow this aspect of your life help is available. One thing I can contribute after many years as a professional is to listen actively. Listening this way takes time. Busy people may think they don't have time to engage in a conversation with a coworker or patient. Do you greet interruptions when someone appears at your office door with your head down and a "yeah, what?" That type of response will not help foster the team environment you have been spouting off to your staff about. On the home front, think about how many times your mate or loved one will hear that type of response before they conclude they aren't important to you. If you're so busy that you don't have time to relate to people, you haven't made any margin. Your coffee mug is overflowing, and you will end up getting burned.


What about planning, preparing, and growing your practice? This will not happen unless you purposefully set aside time, make some margin, to allow you to focus on this practice you have worked so hard to create.


Has your business lost its excellence? Has it lost what it once had that made it unique because you have become so busy with busyness that you have failed to focus on excellence? Have you filled the metaphorical mug of your business so full of black coffee that there is no room for the extra good stuff that makes it great? Greatness can only come if you make the time. For it is in the margin where excellence is found.


Chris Field, MBA, has worked for Boas Surgical, based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for over 15 years. He serves as the treasurer of the Pennsylvania Orthotic and Prosthetic Society and was named the CFO of the Year by the Lehigh Valley Business Journal in 2014.