In my experience, about 90% of people don’t really do what they say they’re going to do. And that problem gets them into a raft of trouble.
About 25 years ago I took a weekend class that changed my life. It was one of those “learn-about how-you-operate-in-the-world” self-actualization classes. I remember being in Los Angeles, in the ballroom of a big hotel, with about 250 other people.
I’d gone to this class because my best friend insisted that I needed to. It really didn’t interest me. And that was especially true on the first night of the class, when the instructor said, “Before we begin, it’s important that we set the Ground Rules for the class. I have several Ground Rules here. I’m going to read them, one at a time, and then ask, for each one, if there are any questions. If there are questions, I’ll answer them. Then I’ll ask whether everyone agrees with the Ground Rule, and I’ll ask you to signify your agreement with the Ground Rule by standing.”
Whew! Why not just read off the whole list?
Imagine my surprise when the first Ground Rule was, “There will be no smoking in the training room.” “Are there any questions about Ground Rule Number One?” the instructor asked.
Questions? What questions could there be? Very straightforward, wasn’t it?
The instructor peered at all 250 of us, apparently looking for questions. “No questions?” he asked. “OK, then, if you are willing to abide by Ground Rule Number One for the entire weekend class, please signify your agreement by standing.”
All 250 of us stood up.
“You may be seated. Thank you. Ground Rule Number Two is, ‘There will be no eating in the training room.’ Are there any questions?”
Straightforward? No. There were questions about this one: “I have low blood sugar and always have something to eat with me. If I feel hypoglycemic, may I eat a snack?” “Do prescription pills count as eating?” “I didn’t get to eat dinner before I came down here…”
Every question got a patient answer. The instructor kept saying, “Are there any more questions about Ground Rule Number Two?” It took forever!
And there were, I think, 13 Ground Rules! Two-and-a-half hours after the class began, we got to Ground Rule Number Thirteen, which the instructor announced this way: “You agree to return from all breaks on time. To help you, we will play this music.”
And then the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” began. It was a beautiful, soaring piece of music about three minutes long - and it ended with one l-o-n-g note. “You will be in the seat you’re in now before that music ends. Are there any questions about Ground Rule Number Thirteen?”
No questions, thank God. We all stood in agreement.
“All right. It’s time for our first break of the evening. It will be 15 minutes in duration.”
Relief! As we walked out into the lobby, there were lines for the bathrooms, coffee and food, and lots of conversations. I chose to speak with a fellow who was having coffee near me - a chiropractor who seemed interesting. I learned a few things about spinal health.
And then we heard it: bum ... bum … bum ... ta da! (boom, boom, boom, boom…) - the 2001 music was beginning; it was time to get back into the training room. I tossed my Styrofoam coffee cup and walked back in, choosing exactly the right row - the rows of chairs, I noticed, were very precisely placed, and very close together - and counting my way down to the eighth chair, I sat down.
The other students were trooping in, too, pushing their way down the narrow chair rows, counting seats, moving toward the seats they had been sitting in - a lot of people, all moving at once.
And suddenly, there it was: the l-o-n-g note signaling the end of the music. People were shuffling past me, and in all the other chair rows, rushing to get to their seats, crawling over other people. And the instructor said, in an incredibly loud voice, “Stop! Stop right there!”
People kept moving. They were so close to those seats they’d been in ...
“I said STOP. Right now! Stop exactly where you are!”
Well, exactly where a lot of those folks were was directly in front of a seated student…very close in front of them, because those rows were so narrow. Imagine - someone’s backside is directly in your face, and he’s being told not to MOVE!
“What are you doing?” the instructor asked. We just spent two-and-a-half hours agreeing on every single one of the Ground Rules - and the first chance you get, you violate one? What’s your excuse?”
The floodgates opened. “The bathroom was so busy.” “I didn’t have time to eat.” “I had to call my kids.”
The instructor was having none of that. “Your word is worth NOTHING!” he thundered. “And if your word is no good, what do you have as a human being? NOTHING!”
I learned that day to simply keep my agreements. I still do. And if I discover that, somehow, it won’t be possible for me to keep an agreement I’ve made, I contact the person who will be affected by that before the deadline, in order to renegotiate the agreement. It’s a way of life for me!
When I am asked the basic principles that I’ve operated on in my professional life or the keys to my success, I usually mention, “Do what I say I will do.”