This is the fourth in a series of blog posts that are based on some writing I did a long time ago and a lot of thinking I have done since. Previous posts in this series are linked at the end of this post.
Point 6: Institute training on the job.
Point 12: Remove barriers that rob workers of their right to pride of workmanship. This means abolishment of the annual review or merit rating.
Point 13: Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.
–W. Edwards Deming
“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
The recognition that every employee is an individual, and deeply appreciating their individuality, underlies several of Deming’s fourteen points. Cultivating and celebrating our own individuality is vital to improving our own quality of life. Deming’s teachings on quality improvement have two lessons applicable to this:
- Avoid rankings and downplay the importance of competition.
- Pursue training, education, and “self-improvement.”
Hugh Prather writes in his book Notes to Myself: “There is no such thing as best in a world of individuals.”
Deming strongly disagreed with the predilection of our society, and businesses, to rate people. Rating systems are ubiquitous in our lives–grades in school, Nielsen ratings of television shows, scoring in athletic events, and, for many of us, merit ratings in job performance evaluations. It is difficult in this milieu not to compare ourselves to others, and, more often than not, feel we come up short in some way. It hardly occurs to us that we each have our own gifts, most of which cannot be graded or scored or awarded with prizes.
Associated with the idea of ranking is the concept of competition. Competitive activities result in one person or team or business being rated as better than another. These activities can devalue the qualities that make us unique individuals. On the other hand, a cooperative activity calls on and develops our unique gifts, and results in all participants being “better” afterwards than before.
So, first, avoid ranking, comparison, and their close colleague, competition. The second aspect of valuing individuality that Deming encouraged was education, training, and “self-improvement.” He emphasized that training go beyond just what was necessary for the job at hand. “What an organization needs is not just good people; it needs people that are improving with education.” 
As I explore how to “improve myself,” I find it helpful to have a metaphor – a story – to guide me. Having become a devotee of the legends of King Arthur since seeing the film Excalibur in 1981, I find in those legends, with the help of Joseph Campbell and others, some good guidance.
One of the stories of the Arthurian saga is the Grail quest.
“[T]he Grail represents the fulfillment of the highest potentialities of the human consciousness. . . . [It] becomes symbolic of an authentic life lived in terms of its own volition, its own impulse system which carries it between the pairs of opposites of good and evil, light and dark.”
In the story, Arthur proposes that his knights go on a quest for the Grail. Campbell then quotes his own translation of an Old French text as follows: “They agreed that all would go on this quest, but they thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group, so each entered the forest at a point that he, himself, had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path.”
In other words, you must find your own path in the adventure of discovering where your authentic life is.
We can each look at the progress of our life as a quest through a symbolic forest in which the Grail – our authentic life – is hidden. Our path through life may seem to take us through brambles and mud. Yet hidden (or probably not so hidden) in our depth is a grand vision, a shining Grail. You catch glimpses of the Grail, yet each time you may look away with thoughts of “I’ll never make money that way” or “I couldn’t do that.” The Grail beckons you to live your own authentic life, yet you’re mired in brambles just a few steps away.
Acknowledge the Grail – that vision – for what it is. It is you! Celebrate it, marvel at it, and know that it is within you to drink from the Grail, to live your authentic life. It is the only way to live your life.
The major step is to gather the courage to reach for the Grail, to get out of the brambles. Wading through brambles and mud to find your authentic life is not easy. Many people never do it – it’s easier in the short term to stay put than to get out of the brambles.
Yet that Cup of Life is close by. Find it and reach for the Grail!