How often do you pay attention to the details?


Today is March 22 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you pay attention to the details?” Legendary basketball coach John Wooden noted "Big things are accomplished only through the perfection of minor details." Navigating the chaos and leveraging your mind, body, and spirit occasionally requires strict attention to the little things in life. Since big dreams are made up of small moments, a multitude of tasks, and countless hours of hard work, paying attention to the details matter. Ignoring one detail could inadvertently slow down your forward progress. When you rely on others to help you pay attention to the details, things get even more complicated. That’s where today’s reflection story comes in. To measure how well the little things were followed when it came to set up their concert stage and equipment, the rock band Van Halen included a provision in its concert contract with venues that called for M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES).”


The presence of even a single brown M&M in that bowl was sufficient legal cause for Van Halen to cancel a scheduled appearance. Think about that for a moment. The band was so concerned about their attention to details being followed there were willing to cancel a performance if they saw a single brown M&M in the bowl. The M&Ms provision was included in Van Halen’s contracts as a simple way to determine whether the technical specifications of the contract had been thoroughly read and understood. Van Halen was one of the first bands to take huge concert productions on the road. Unfortunately, they experienced many technical errors at different venues: whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through. For quality purposes, Van Halen would put different provisions into the contract rider just to see if every last detail was addressed.


As Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth explained: “The contract rider read like a version of the Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say ‘Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes.’ This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: ‘There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.’ So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl … well, we knew we would have to line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.” Long before Van Halen used brown M&Ms as a safety check to see if the crew paid attention to the details, miners and others used canaries to check on the safety of a cave.


As Kat Eschner wrote in The Smithsonian Magazine “The idea of using canaries is credited to John Scott Haldane, known to some as the father of oxygen therapy. His research on carbon monoxide led him to recommend using the birds. He suggested using a sentinel species: an animal more sensitive to the colorless, odorless carbon monoxide and other poisonous gases than humans. If the animal became ill or died, that would give miners a warning to evacuate.” Why was a canary Haldane’s suggested solution? Canaries, like other birds, are good early detectors of carbon monoxide because they’re vulnerable to airborne poisons. Because they need such immense quantities of oxygen to enable them to fly and fly to heights that would make people altitude sick, their anatomy allows them to get a dose of oxygen when they inhale and another when they exhale, by holding air in extra sacs. Relative to mice or other easily transportable animals that could have been carried in by the miners, they get a double dose of air and any poisons the air might contain, so miners would get an earlier warning.


For today’s reflection, pause and consider answering the following questions regarding your relationship with the details.

  • How often do you pay attention to the details?

  • How often do you think you are aware of the brown M&M rule?

  • How often do you remind yourself that ‘big things are accomplished only through the perfection of minor details?’ (Knowing full well – perfection - as discussed elsewhere in this Navigate the Chaos series, is often unrealistic).

  • Canaries were used as early warning signs against the dangers of low oxygen. Do you have any such mechanisms in place to help you understand the details for your current life situation?

  • Why do you think people lack the ability to pay attention to the details when so much is on the line?

  • How can you improve your ability to pay attention to the details?