"Is this the best you can do?"
I once heard this story (probably exaggerated) about a smarmy politician and his intern.
The tale is everything you’d expect.
The Politician is widely respected. Money, power, status. He’s got massive influence in his state and beyond.
The Politician hires an intern who we’ll call Steve.
Steve’s got his own credentials. He came from a good school and excelled there. He impressed most of the teachers and did a handful of extracurriculars. He wrote a few stories for the newspaper and did well in all his writing classes. He majored in political science and minored in journalism.
Steve’s first few days of work are pretty boring, as you’d expect. He gets his equipment and his badge. He spends most of the time spinning around in his little chair, waiting for the sexual harassment training videos to load.
Finally, on the Friday of that week, The Politician comes in.
“You’re Steve, right?”
They have a pleasant conversation. Steve feels pretty loved and special. The Politician tells him how lucky they both are to work there. They are a part of history. Steve feels like he’s made the right choice.
Before the meeting ends, The Politician gives Steve his first assignment:
“Oh, and let’s get you some challenging work, shall we? I’m giving a speech to the oil workers union here in town. 3 weeks from now. Normally I’d let one of my staff writers do the first draft, but since you’ve written a little bit, I’m going to pass that to you.”
Steve nods with excitement. Even though it’s Friday afternoon, he jumps right into action.
Steve drags himself through web page after web page, learning everything he can about the oil industry right now, and how to properly speak to unions. He pulls up his old school papers for inspiration.
Steve takes his laptop home and works on the paper all through the weekend.
He cancels his plans with friends on Saturday evening to finish his first draft. It’s 30 pages. Nearly 6,000 words. Steve works hard. Sunday is spent revising that first draft. By the time he wraps up his second draft, the sun has set on Steve’s weekend.
Although he’s sacrificed the days off, Steve feels proud of what he’s done. There are up-to-date statistics, dazzling passages of rhetoric, and clear action steps for the crowd.
This paper is good.
Monday morning rises. Steve grabs his coffee, races to the office, and prints out the entire paper before anyone can get to the copy machine. Brimming with joy, Steve walks the paper to The Politician’s desk.
As he lays down his work on the mahogany desk, Steve can’t help but think his days as an intern won’t last very long. If nothing else, the dedication he’s shown over the weekend will pay off.
He practically skips back to his broom closet of an office.
It’s week 2. Steve is finished with his dull onboarding. He’s finally getting roped into meetings. City planning. Budget concerns. Decades-long initiatives.
By the time he returns from his arduous day, the 30-page paper is lying back on his desk.
The Politician has read it!
Heart pounding, Steve steps closer and notices a scrawl of red ink on the first page.
“IS THIS THE BEST YOU CAN DO?”
The pounding heart stops on a dime. Steve staggers backward and falls in his seat. He spent his WEEKEND on this! He thought it was GOOD!
Steve allows himself 60 seconds of self-pity before the pep talk begins in his head: This isn’t college anymore, Steve. It’s the real world. You can’t bluff your way through assignments. The Politician expects better of you. Everyone does.
So Steve rushes back home and works on the paper again. The research gets tighter. The statistics get visual aids. The rhetoric gets more… rhetoric-ier.
About 3 A.M., he has a realization.
“Wait one banjo-picking minute here… if I turn this in straightaway tomorrow, he’s not going to think I really spent the time on this!”
And with that, Steve cuts off the lights to go to sleep.
The next day arrives. Steve passes The Politician in the hallway. There’s a cordial nod, but no slowdown. The Politician does not elaborate on his note, nor does he ask where Steve’s next draft is.
Unbelievable, this guy.
Steve spends the rest of the day and night updating the paper.
Wednesday morning, he walks in with the same confidence as Monday. There is no doubt in his mind that the paper is far improved from the previous version. After this effort, he BETTER get the recognition he deserves. Or at least some feedback.
Wednesday ticks by. Steve steps out of the office around 2 P.M. for a tuna salad sandwich. It has rye bread. The accompanying pickle was watered down, though.
He returns from lunch to find…
The paper has come back from The Politician.
There is a note on top.
“IS THIS THE BEST YOU CAN DO?”
Steve is beside himself. He flips through the pages, scanning for ANY other feedback. A note. A comment. A suggestion. But there’s nothing.
Tuna-flavored vomit churns in Steve’s throat.
He was top of his CLASS! He hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep since he started working on this assignment. Who does this politician think he IS??
Steve is past self pity now.
He’s in anger mode.
In a rage-fueled flash of insight, Steve remembers the library in this office building. He commits to spending every spare moment there to improve the paper even further for His Majesty.
Friday rolled by.
Toward the end of the day Friday, The Politician stumbles across Steve in the library.
“Hey Steve! Working on that paper still?”
Steve looks up. Cold coffee next to him. A stain on his shirt. Patchy stubble rippling across his cheeks and chin.
“Uh, yeah. I’m about wrapped up.”
The Politician smiles. Perfect white teeth. Pristine white collar. Briefcase in hand.
“Good deal. Hey listen, I’m headed off early today, but I’ll be back Saturday afternoon. Why don’t you just drop that on my desk tonight before you head home? I’ll look at it before Monday.”
Steve shows his teeth in a demented grin.
The Politician spins on his brown wingtips and click-clacks away.
Steve looks down. The paper IS almost finished.
He types up a final last sentence on his laptop, collects his things, tosses out the coffee, and heads to the printing machine.
Once more, he lays his hard work down on The Politician’s desk.
And Steve falls asleep promptly at 6 P.M.
The rest of the weekend passes happily. Steve joins his friends for cornhole. He watches a movie in theaters. His mother makes him dinner. With cherry pie.
Steve tries to put the paper out of his mind.
The familiar pit in his stomach rises right alongside Monday’s sun. He’s going to get the paper back today.
Steve drives in to work.
He walks up the front steps.
Down the hall.
To his office.
Where a stack of papers is waiting.
The note on top reads:
“IS THIS THE BEST YOU CAN DO?”
And something snaps in Steve.
He snatches the paper off the desk, storms down the hallway, and flings open the door to The Politician’s office. The Politician pauses, coffee cup halfway to his lips.
Steve slams the papers down.
“Listen here, sir. I have written and re-written this paper 14 times. I have searched every online article, read every newspaper. I have searched the social media sites of every oil union leader in order to understand them better. I have read every single book on oil in this library. THE LIBRARY, MAN! Do you know how many books are in the library?? I have revised all my graphs, reviewed all my points, and stopped at every paragraph to consider how these words would affect YOUR career.
I was clear when necessary and vague when needed, and I am INSULTED by the very IDEA that you leave this kind of note AGAIN. I don’t think there is ANY WAY this paper could be better than it is right now, so either I’M not good enough, or you’re an impossible-to-please, grumpy old man who will NEVER BE HAPPY, so which is it?!”
Steve takes a few deep breaths.
And The Politician smiles at him.
There is a pause.
Then, The Politician says:
“So this paper on my desk is the absolute best you can do?”
Steve sets his jaw, refusing to look away.
“Yes. This is the best I can do.”
The Politician cracks a huge smile.
“Now I will read it.”
Probably there are many lessons to be taken from this.
The one I take is this:
Most of us are not lucky enough to have a mentor asking for our best.
We have to find it ourselves.