It was my second week on the job, and W. (the cabinetmaker) had just finished a floor-to-ceiling piece and was standing back, eyeing his work critically. Obviously, something was irritating him about the finished product, but I just couldn't see it. Pulling out his tape measure, he moved around the nine-foot tall structure taking numbers and muttering to himself. Eventually, he appeared to reach a conclusion.
"This piece of plywood is a quarter inch short."
Apparently, the vertical divider in the cabinet had been cut incorrectly. Because the box was so wide, the flexibility of the plywood had allowed W. to assemble the piece without realizing it was wrong. I was a little surprised when he began disassembling the cabinet, because the flaw was, after all, nearly impossible to see with an untrained eye. Half an hour later, the cabinet was back in the same place, looking for all the world exactly as it had thirty minutes before. Thinking to butter up the old man with some bullshit, I said, "Well, that looks a lot better!"
The craftsman looked at me and said almost apathetically, "That's not the point. If it's wrong, you fix it."
* * *
It has taken me two months to write this post because I have been struggling with how to put down the ideas this brief interaction stirred in me. But I've got it now. It's integrity. Similar moments have been happening almost daily over the past eight weeks, and I am reminded every time of what W. taught me that day.
It doesn't matter what anyone else sees. What matters is that your actions reflect your character. Could that exceedingly minor flaw have passed the notice of nearly every person on the planet? Undoubtedly, yes. But the one person who would always know it was wrong was the man who built it. He would always know that he had passed off a sub-par cabinet on some unknowing white-collar who had trusted the company to deliver perfection (or a reasonable approximation thereof).
I cannot catch every flaw, every mistake. Even W. and J Boss miss things from time to time. But any flaw I catch, and certainly every mistake I make, I either fix or admit to--whether or not anyone else will ever notice and regardless of whether I will get chewed out for it. I let something slide once... something I had done. Nobody ever noticed or found out. But I think about that one small rectangle of maple regularly, wondering if anyone will ever notice my mistake. It was an accident, and a pretty unremarkable one at that. But I will always know that I had the opportunity and ability to make it right and instead chose not to.
What other people can see is unimportant. What matters isn't impression, but integrity. If it's wrong, you make it right.