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It's the 1 percents that can define your career

(ran CI edition)

Assume for a minute that 98 percent of the work we do is mediocre. Not mediocre in any sort of nasty way, but something that falls into the wide gap between miserable and spectacular.

Surrounding that 98 percent is 1 percent Citizen Kane and 1 percent Waterworld. We all have flashes of brilliance, and times when our flash just isn't working at all.

Before you decide that this whole premise is 98 percent idiotic, consider three things:

LOOK FOR OTHER PEOPLE'S 1 PERCENT: What separates good bosses from the rest is that they notice when people achieve their best 1 percent. The best way to help someone be a better worker is to catch him doing something right.

That's one reason layoffs rarely accomplish what companies expect. If a boss' job consists of being a hamster on a wheel or a hamster at a meeting she doesn't have time to even notice when a subordinate is doing excellent work.

It's human nature: We're willing to do more for people who appreciate us. But this trait has an evil twin: If we put in extra effort to do something spectacular, but no one seems to notice, we'll have self-doubts or resentment. Something that could have been very positive turns into a negative.

Fiercely motivated people will still do good work even if they don't get praise. But most workers find it hard to stay motivated if no one seems to care.

Colleagues also need to look out for each other. If you see someone doing a terrific job and the managers don't seem to notice, offer encouragement yourself or bring it to a manager's attention. If people go out of their way to help you, go out of your way to thank them.

Look for the negative 1 percent, too. If the quality of someone's work suddenly drops, it could be a sign of something more serious _ anything from health problems to family conflicts to hunting for another job.

When someone's work is in a slightly ugly shade of mediocre, it might be fine for colleagues and even bosses to look the other way. We all make mistakes. But if it's truly so bad that it's in the hideous 1 percent, ignoring the problem sends the same message that ignoring the brilliance does: Nobody cares.

When you see someone in jeopardy, your answer probably comes in the form of a question. Whether you're a boss or a colleague, asking someone what's wrong is a far better approach than criticizing. If you're nasty, what could have been a temporary problem can turn into a downward spiral.

Watch for when your boss is in a good or bad 1 percent phase, too. Good bosses can see through brown-nosing, but everyone can use sincere praise or compassion.

LEARN FROM YOUR 1 PERCENT: Take the time once a month to think about your 1 percents, good and bad. Which part of the job did you do best _ or at least enjoy the most? Which part was the worst? If you have trouble coming up with anything, try the exercise once a day for a while. What were your best five minutes, and your worst?

Paying attention to the 1 percents can help you shape your job. Maybe you can tweak assignments so that you're doing more of what you do best, as well as crafting ways to overcome your weaknesses or work around them.

The 1 percents are also what define your career. Do something spectacular in front of the right audience and you'll land plum assignments and develop a great network. Do something sloppy or nasty and your credibility will never be the same.

If you're too much or too little of a perfectionist, think about the mediocrity rule for a minute. If the project that you're doing is destined to fall into the mediocre range, give it a good effort and let it go. A memo, for example, should be well-written and concise; you're not writing a shopping list, but you're not crafting the Declaration of Independence, either.

The times to scramble and be a perfectionist are when the 1 percents come into play. Certainly you don't want a project to be among your worst 1 percent, so sometimes you have to scramble to make it mediocre. And if you have a project that could be great, put in the extra time and effort _ even on your own time _ to push it into the top 1 percent. Opportunities such as that don't come along very often.

REALIZE THAT IT'S A MOVING TARGET: Suppose baseball player Barry Bonds hits 50 home runs next year. Fans would consider it a mediocre season, even though Bonds never hit 50 homers before this year. But this year raised expectations so much that now 50 homers could be disappointing.

In a way it's unfair, but the more talent you show, the more talent you're expected to show. Older workers can run into this problem if they hit a plateau. The quality of their work hasn't necessarily deteriorated, but they rarely deliver a pleasant surprise to management anymore because the expectations are so high.

Workers also have to realize that companies can move the target without telling you. Nobody might spell out that you need tech skills these days, but you risk fading beyond mediocrity if you don't have them. You might still think of yourself as a good worker, but you're aiming at a target from 10 years ago _ not today.

_ Dave Murphy writes for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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