The case for ‘well done’

Saturday afternoon we were hanging out at Anodyne coffee shop, sucking in some post-pick-up soccer game sunshine, when I saw a man sitting at a table with his coffee and the morning paper. He was a runner, clad in a matching hat and T-shirt boasting, “Dublin Marathon 2006.”

Having run one marathon and dreamed of doing the same someday in, say, New York, Big Sur, or Dublin, I chatted the fellow up.

“You ran Dublin?”

“Yep,” he said, with a grin that couldn’t hide the quiet joy of his three-year-old accomplishment or the dorky vanity of his chosen billboards for the day.

“How’d you do?”

“Personal best; 4:20,” he said, proudly.

“Well done,” I said, as I often do, from somewhere deep inside.

The guy’s eyes brightened. He pointed at me as I started to walk away: “That’s what they say there. All along the course, the Irish say, ‘well done,’ ‘well done,’ ‘well done.’ ”

It struck me then as it does now as such a simple, civilized thing: Loads of strangers lining the streets for 26.2 miles, clapping and shouting to loads of other strangers, “Well done.” I like it because it’s not a cheerleader-led cheer or plea for positive thinking, but a hyperbole-free acknowledgement of another human being’s effort at jumping out of their own skin and rising above their own mortality through honest effort, and it made me think about how easy it is to be encouraging, in a low-octane way, of all sorts of such efforts in these troubled times.

It also occurs to me that employers in these hard times might not want to forget about the long-term benefits of telling a worker about a job well done. Employees are nervous out there. Lay-offs, buy-outs and out-of-nowhere firings abound and the quicksand environment can take a toll on even the most secure worker. My boss took me outside the bar I work at the other night and commended me on my hard work, which is the sort of thing a worker of my age and experience should not require, but I admit it felt good to get a pat on the back for busting my ass, even though I’m in cahoots with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”

Which is no substitute for a cash-money holiday bonus, but in the short term, it helps build teamwork, helps keep the creative fires alit, and makes good workers feel part of something: well done! It’s more Borat’s “Very nice” than Nike’s “Just Do It”; more “Be Here Now” than “Be All You Can Be”; more “We Feel You” than “We Are the Champions.” When abused it can be too much, but at the moment I dig it because it’s not “brilliant” or “you’ve arrived” or “you’re a genius,” but a risk-free affirmation that says:

Hey, I noticed what you did there. Sweet. You did not go out and shoot a bunch of people, or rip them off, or screw them over or pass judgment on them. You did not make the world stupider or meaner. You were not Heidi Klum or Simon Colwell, feeding a seemingly endless desire in us to see innocent souls torn to shreds. No. What you did was attempt to create a little light and levity as you ran your race, and for that the rest of us would like to say well done, well done, well done.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.