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ONE PINEAPPLE AT A TIME

9/17/2004 - Several years ago, Linda and I were in Honolulu for a conference at which I was speaking. On one particular day, we thought we’d explore the island and see the land of “Magnum P.I.” and “Hawaii 5-0.” We spent the morning driving around the western edge of Oahu past all of the great locations like Diamond Head and, around noon, arrived at Sunset Beach to watch the surfers and the pipeline waves. In the afternoon, we cut across the middle of the island and, as we were driving, found that we were in the middle of some of the largest pineapple plantations in the world. On our left and right, frontwards and backwards, as far as the eye could see, we looked out over the countryside over miles and miles of pineapples, stretching endlessly toward the horizon in every direction. Periodically, we would drive by a roadside pineapple stand, a product of one of the plantations, where you could stop, sample the fresh fruit and talk to the pineapple farmers. Linda and I pulled into one particularly appealing stand and ordered a slice of the sweetest pineapple I’ve ever tasted, followed by a fresh cup of pineapple juice and a couple of scoops of cold and refreshing, newly churned pineapple ice cream. No wonder the pineapple is the symbol of graciousness and hospitality.

As we silently gazed over the vast green and gold pineapple fields, contemplating the miracle of the confluence of humankind and nature that could produce such a marvel, I received my first lesson in pineapple farming. A grizzled old Hawaiian pineapple farmer was standing by the side of the road, working on a fresh pineapple of his own, and so I sauntered on over to him and began to talk. “Tell me about these pineapple fields,” I asked. And this is what he said. The pineapple plant is only about 3 feet high and produces 3 pineapples per year for 3 years. The first year, you get 3 pretty big pineapples, the second year, you get 3 medium sized pineapples and the third year you get 3 smaller pineapples. Then, you have to plant a new pineapple plant and start all over again. I thought there must be something spiritual about all those “3’s,” so I asked him, “Well, I see pineapples as far as I can see out on the horizon. How do you go about harvesting all those pineapples?”

I was thinking of my own experience in the cotton industry in the American South, where the cotton is picked automatically by machine, and was certain he was about to tell me about the automatic pineapple harvesting machines they have in Hawaii. But I was wrong. “How do you pick those pineapples,” I asked again, and he answered, “We pick them all by hand, and we pick them one pineapple at a time.” At this point, I added the word “wise” to my description of the grizzled old Hawaiian pineapple farmer and, as I hearken back on this sagistic interlude during a hot, Hawaiian day, some chronometric thoughts seem to bubble to the surface.

MEASURING OUR DAYS

My Hawaiian farmer friend’s advice seems to be right on the mark, in that he accurately and succinctly described the way we live our lives, most of the time. We make our journey through the years, he philosophized, “one pineapple at a time,” reminding me of the old gospel country song that asks most plaintively, “One day at a time . . . that’s all I’m asking from You.” Some wise sage once remarked, “Yesterday is a canceled check, tomorrow is not promised, so all we have is today,” and it occurs to me that this is the source of most worry. That is, we worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow. We don’t worry about yesterday because we can’t do anything about it. Instead, we worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow and, if we’re not careful, we can “what if” ourselves to death. A Baptist preacher once told me, “Worry is the interest you pay on a debt that hasn’t come due, yet.” So, if we exercise a bit of carpe diem and grab today by the collar; if we seize not only the day but the moment, as well; if we live in the “now” and enjoy the present; we may be less likely to worry, less likely to be paralyzed by stress and more likely to be happy and content.

TACKLING OUR WORK

All of us have a job to do and when we get to work, we tackle our jobs “one pineapple at a time.” When the workload is stacked up to the roof, when the stress is piling up like chicklets, when the boss is really turning up the heat, when the “To Do” list stretches from here to the Rock of Cashel, we take a look at that list and begin to go to work on it, one item at a time. Plato, that greatest of all philosophers, once wrote that the most important part of any work is the beginning, and I remember an old Asian proverb, attributed to Lao Tzu, declaring that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

One of my favorite stories about Ernest Hemingway is right on point. One of the toughest tasks for a writer -- whether it’s a term paper, a management report or a story about Nick Adams -- is getting started in the first place. If you can ever get started, the story or the report will sometimes pour out onto the page like a pitcher of water. You may have had the experience, common to many writers, of sitting in front of the computer for hours, unable to begin the writing process, because we can’t get the engine started. Ernest Hemingway has some advice:

“The writer's job is to tell the truth,” Hemingway once said. When he was having difficulty writing he reminded himself of this, as he explained in his memoirs, A Moveable Feast (1964): “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say."[1]

In performance appraisal, one of the significant management principles is that the best predictor of future performance is past performance. As Mr. Hemingway teaches us, based on past performance, we’ve done it before, so we can do it again, and we start with what we know. We take the first step. We perform the first duty. We write the first sentence. We just have to get started, one pineapple at a time.

DEALING WITH RECALCITRANT EMPLOYEES

Most managers or supervisors subscribe to the idea that 10% of the employees cause 90% of the difficulties. We know that most employees are very good – they work hard, apply themselves, have positive attitudes and want to do a good job. It’s that recalcitrant minority that drives you crazy and, if we want to maintain sanity, we have to deal with them “one pineapple at a time.” Sometimes, things go wrong at work and when this occurs, management must conduct an employment investigation. We call this, in what might be a mixed but accurate metaphor, “peeling the onion down to the tears.” Some employers do this internally and others, on the basis of costs and objectivity, outsource the job to a third party like Seay Management Consultants.

For example, one employee might accuse another of sexual harassment. When this happens, the two most important issues for management are (1) speed, on the one hand (King Macbeth tells us, “If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly”), and (2) gathering all the relevant facts, on the other. When you begin to interview employees, one fact often leads to another and you often end up interviewing many more employees than you had intended.

In one recent case, the interviewer originally intended to talk with 4 employees. When he got started, he found 36 more standing outside his door! Gathering the facts can be stultifyingly time consuming and we may tend to think that the mountain of information so gathered is just too large to be meaningful. However, if we rely on our wise old Hawaiian farmer’s advice, we’ll take it one pineapple at a time and, eventually, the result will be clear. In every case I’ve ever investigated, when all the facts were in, the result was clear, and management was able to make the right decision.

TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY

As I write this column, most of central Florida, from Punta Gorda through Orlando and upwards to Daytona Beach, is recovering from the devastation and destruction of Hurricane Charley. Driving through any town in this corridor, one finds hanging power lines, trees that have been uprooted and blown over, piles of broken branches, massive mounds of debris and detritus, homes with trees poking through the roof, buildings destroyed, stoplights that don’t work and a host of other challenges and obstacles, boggling the mind and dulling the eyes.

There is so much clean up and repair to be done that it seems overwhelming and one wonders if the job will ever be finished. A friend of mine, without power for a week and with no hope of restoration in sight, told me, “I don’t think I’m ever going to have power again.” As we face this massive clean-up job and as we look forward to getting our lives back to some sense of normalcy, maybe we should look once again in the direction of Hawaii and think of our friend, the old pineapple farmer. We will attack this clean-up job and we will get it done, but it will take some time to finish and we can’t get it all done in one day. We clean up after Hurricane Charley “one pineapple at a time.”

[1] Nancy Imelda Shafer, http://www.empirezine.com/spotlight/hemmingway/hem1.htm

[2] Macbeth, Act I, Scene 1.



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