“Take pride in your work” is a worthy and often-quoted piece of advice given to young people. But like many pithy sayings like that, it’s hard to really know what that means until you’ve seen someone in action who truly embodies it. One person who’s seen that firsthand is Vikram Sarma.
Vikram grew up in the Detroit suburbs in an area he considered himself privileged to live in. The local auto company executives all had golf club memberships nearby, and that created summer work for kids like him. When he was thirteen, he got his first job as a caddie at a local country club. He recalls it being an exciting job to get as a young teenager. “I knew I’d get to work outside for the summer, hang out with seventy other guys carrying bags, and make really good money—maybe $100 to $150 a day in cash.”
Vikram’s first time on the job was a Thursday night when all the new caddies got training. The next morning he was in uniform, waiting with the other boys for their assignments. While in line, he met several of the other caddies. Like Vikram, most were from upper-middle-class neighborhoods, with nicely pressed shorts and new pairs of brand-name shoes.
But one of them, Ahmad, was different. Ahmad was an African American boy from a lower-income neighborhood. He was older than Vikram, maybe seventeen or eighteen at the time. His shorts weren’t as nicely pressed as those of some of the other boys, and his big toe stuck out of a hole in one of his shoes.
Before long, the first two players came in. The caddie master assigned them each a caddie for their round together. The first was Vikram, and the second was Ahmad.
As they started walking the course, Vikram learned something else different about Ahmad. In the hierarchy of caddies, there are five levels: Beginner, Intermediate, Captain, Honor, and the highest level, Championship. Vikram, of course, was a Beginner. But Ahmad, now in his seventh year, was a Championship caddie.
During that first round, it became clear to Vikram that he’d underestimated how hard it would be to carry thirty pounds on his shoulder while walking six miles of hills on a golf course. “By the ninth hole,” he said, “only halfway through the round, my knee buckled. I fell and slammed my knee into the ground. And then Ahmad, without saying a word, picked up my bag and started caddying for both golfers. I was amazed. It was seamless, as if we’d rehearsed it.
“As I walked off the injury,” he said, “I thanked him. And he said to me discreetly, ‘Hey, at the next turn, you’re going to have to put some ice on that knee. I’ll show you where the ice machine is.’”
During the rest of the round, Vikram continued to make rookie mistakes. “At one point,” he said, “I accidentally left a wedge in the sand trap after I raked it. The next time my golfer needed it, I realized it wasn’t there.” Vikram was in no shape to go back and get it. Nor did he really know if that was the right thing to do at that point anyway. Again, without a word, Ahmad handed Vikram the bags and sprinted off to get the missing club.
In another memorable mistake, Vikram was walking backwards after pacing off a distance to the hole and accidentally stepped on the ball of one of the players, smashing it into the turf. Neither player saw it happen, so Vikram wasn’t even sure what he should do. “Again, Ahmad stepped in, walked up to the player, and said, ‘I’m sorry, sir. We made a mistake.’ Then he explained how he could re-place the ball properly and within the rules of the game.”
When the round was over, Vikram was exhausted. “I thought to myself, ‘Thank God this is over!’ ” The players handed their cards, including a tip, to their caddies.
When the players had gone, Ahmad said to Vikram, “First round, huh?” “Yeah,” Vikram admitted.
That’s when Ahmad asked him a very simple and very important question. “What did you learn?”
Vikram gave a not-so-thoughtful answer you might expect from a 13 year old. “I don’t know. That this guy isn’t a good tipper?”
And then with the same patience he’d showed all day, and again without being asked, Ahmad said, “Okay, let’s take a step back and walk through the round. First, always walk three paces ahead of your player. That lets you get to the ball first and have yardage ready. It saves everyone time. Second, think of all the caddies providing an experience for the golfers. We’re a team. So when you hurt your knee, it can’t all be about you. It’s about the customer enjoying the round. That’s why I picked up your bag.”
Ahmad went on to diagnose the entire round, every hole and every relevant stroke—what Vikram did and what he should have done. It was an eye-opening discussion for Vikram. Ahmad had turned the individual job of a caddie, in Vikram’s mind, into a team sport. “It was like what I now know Disney thinks about all the cast members at their theme parks. I was just so blown away.” But Ahmad wasn’t done teaching, and Vikram wasn’t done learning.
Ahmad continued, “I’m not from the best of places. But when I’m here, I have a job to do. If I do it well, it reflects well on who I am and where I come from.” And that’s when Vikram had his unexpected moment of clarity. That’s when he realized that Ahmad took pride in his work because he had pride in himself. And he knew that each one affects the other.
The lessons he learned from Ahmad made a profound impact on Vikram. The most immediate was that he started earning bigger tips because he started taking seriously the job of learning his craft. “I started showing up early and rolling balls on the greens to see which way they would break.”
Vikram went on to earn his way up to Honor caddie, and faster than most of his peers. And the habit stayed with him. “In every job I’ve had since, whether it was selling shoes at Athlete’s Foot or doing political research in D.C., I took extra effort to learn it well. I realized if I didn’t take pride in my work and really study it, I’d be doing me, my peers, and my craft a disservice.”
And that, I believe, is what it means to take pride in your work.
As with all these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids. Then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- What are examples of things people do to show pride in their work?
- What kinds of things do people do that show a lack of pride in their work?
- Why do you think Ahmad went out of his way so much to teach Vikram how to do his job?
- What do you think Ahmad meant when he said, “If I do my job well, it reflects well on who I am and where I come from”?
- If you’re not proud of your job, what do you think you should you do?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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