Attention to detail
Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.
— Leonardo Da Vinci
As a superfan of the technical side of Formula One, there’s an incredible amount to learn about the importance of attention to detail. Being an excellent craftsman is as much about engineering as it is about attitude. It’s equally about losing (and learning) as winning.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff brought a team through one of the most dominant decade-long reigns we’ll probably ever see in motorsport. During their eight years as Constructors (team) champions, they won seven of every ten races they competed in. You can learn a lot about the importance of the little details from a man who leads 1,800 people in a cutthroat industry that, today, rewards relentless hard work, efficiency and organisation more than most. An excerpt in the Harvard Business Review explains his views on why the details matter:
“Wolff is a self-admitted stickler for even the smallest details. He told me that when he first visited the Mercedes team’s factory, in Brackley, England, he walked into the lobby and sat down to wait for the team principal he would come to replace. “On the table were a crumpled Daily Mail newspaper from the week before and two old paper coffee cups,” Wolff recalled. “I went up to the office to meet him, and at the end of our conversation I said, ‘I look forward to working together. But just one thing—that reception area doesn’t say “F1,” and that’s where it needs to start if we want to win.’ He said, ‘It’s the engineering that makes us win,’ and I replied, ‘No, it’s the attitude. It all starts with an attention to detail.’” ... This mindset has contributed to the emergence of an organization that is obsessed with excellence—one that constantly aims to raise its standards and set the benchmark within its sport.”
What is arguably micromanagement prevails on this occasion. Occupying ourselves with granular levels of detail requires balancing between avoiding procrastination—being fixated on things that don’t move us forward—and sinking into burnout territory. Naturally, hard work causes us to fluctuate between the two, but learning how to positively respond to either a little bit of focus or too much of it can make an enormous difference.
“People who excel tend to obsess over the details. People who struggle also tend to obsess over the details. The difference is what they focus on. Minutiae vs polish.” said James Clear. I know what it’s like to achingly spend too much time on the things that look good but help me make progress. Day after day, struggling to do the actual work. Using the act of constant polishing as an excuse for believing I’ve spent the past few days or weeks accomplishing something meaningful. Paying close attention to our routines and practices, values or mental processes significantly impacts the quality of our character. In the same way that focusing on the quality, accuracy and effectiveness of our work helps us to spot errors, inconsistencies, and opportunities for improvement.
Life is a rollercoaster of emotions, pressures, achievements and failures. And it’s easy to feel lost when we don’t grasp a sense of purpose or direction. One of the best things I ever did was take the time to know the work I wanted to be doing. From then, it’s a game of saving time and money, improving quality and reputation, and hopping over pertinent stepping stones that move me closer to my big goals.
Before I started writing, I used to find it quite strange that I’d obsess over the quality of a written message. I’d talk to myself about it: I don’t get it; why does something still not look right to me? The wording, the format of the text or the way it’s presented, it’s not neat enough. But why do I care so much? I’m odd enough to enjoy writing work emails simply as it’s pleasurable to see such a clean and concisely written message. Because knowing that even one small typo can cause an eruption of confusion, miscommunication, a faulty calculation, a missed deadline or damage to our credibility or relationship with a client. It excites me to get it right, and I’ll waste no time trying to understand why. It plays a part in what makes working with me a positive experience. Writing well is a form of excellence I enjoy, as it’s all about the person on the other side of the line. The reader. You.
And having another reason to prioritise attention to detail gives me great satisfaction and, in a way, happiness, as it’s another opportunity to do something good for myself and other people. My interests in go-karting, cycling, driving, racing in general, or work as a concept make it inevitable to be someone who is detail and results-driven. I’m naturally competitive. Not in the sense that I want to show that I’m better than everyone, but that I’d look at a good or bad result on a scoreboard and always want to improve for my own sake. It helps us to stand out and gain recognition even without it being the goal. It can lead to more thoughtful showings of appreciation to colleagues and/or loved ones, create beautiful and functional products, or uncover new insights or solutions that make you jump out of bed at 3am (spoken from experience).
Setting clear goals, standards, and expectations helps us establish a mentality to gradually and realistically reach our big goals. Planning and prioritising are part of this regime and can guarantee that even if we miss the big mark, it won’t be by much. That alone is enough to provide heaps of satisfaction and keep us motivated.
Mastery is a road that teaches you to admire all the areas you never usually would—because you may uncover answers you would’ve otherwise missed forever. It teaches you to guide the whole product (whether this is yourself or your work) by eliminating the big bottlenecks to the tiny hindrances and making incremental steps forward.
As said by Tobias Van Schneider, “No matter the industry or craft, the good always rises to the top.” Attention to detail is about evoking awe and respect and moving forward. It makes you do your work well. It makes you different from others. It makes you happy and proud. It is not just a thing you do; it is the way you think, and that matters in the way small things matter.