America has had some fantastic presidents, but my favorite is Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. I named my yellow Labrador retriever Teddy and even wrote a movie about him.

My love for TR began thirty years ago when I read Edmund Morris’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. The book chronicled TR’s life from birth to the day he became president in 1901. It’s known as one of the best biographies ever written and I can’t recommend it highly enough (Amazon link here).

Mr. Enthusiasm

TR oozed passion and energy. People who knew him said he would nearly burst out of his suit with enthusiasm on matters big and small.

Roosevelt famously urged people to be “in the arena” fighting the good fight and not critics or spectators on the sidelines of life. How did this manifest in his work, which saw him rise to the presidency at the age of 42? Very simple:

He focused on the work that was in front of him.

That was it. TR’s modus operandi was to put everything he had into whatever work he was doing and success, achievement and all the rest would follow.

Why is this a Zen approach? Because it’s focused on the now. Doing what’s in front of you and not drifting off into superfluous, and worse, thinking.

The mindful way of working

It’s the mindful way of working. Experiencing life as the moment we’re in, not allowing our fearful, craven egoic minds to whisk us away to lands that will not serve us well.

Maybe this sounds old-fashioned and trite. If it does, I don’t care. It’s a winning strategy. No ifs, ands or buts.

The win-win strategy

How? It’s a win-win proposition.

Win #1 is that by focusing only on the work in front of us, we do better work. That’s just obvious. The more honed our focus, on any endeavor, the better the product.

To illuminate this concept, let’s look at the opposite: What so many people do when they aren’t focused on the work at hand.

Sucking up is not the way to go

We’ve all experienced work colleagues who are constantly bullshitting and scheming and not focusing on performing their actual work. They’re the people who expend energy trying to get the boss to play golf at their new, posh country club. Or who suck up to the boss’s spouse or kids.

Nowhere is this syndrome more common than in politics where schmoozing and backslapping are rampant. That is precisely the kind of behavior TR railed against.

He expressed this eloquently in a letter he wrote in 1906, while President, to the 29 year-old, newly-elected Speaker of the New York Assembly, a body in which TR used to serve.

In the letter, he congratulates the Speaker-elect, James Wolcott Wadsworth, Jr., and then offers him the following advice:

“Both my pleasure and my usefulness in any office depended absolutely upon my refusal to let myself get to thinking about my own future political advancement. For I have always found that such thought tended to hamper me and impair my usefulness…I very early, while myself in the Legislature, became convinced that if I wished to have a good time in public life and to keep my self-respect by doing good service, it paid me to think only of the work that was actually up, to do it as well as I knew how, and to let the future absolutely take care of itself. I believe that you have a future before you, and this future will come not through scheming on your part but by giving first-class service…”

Win #2 is contained in the letter. “…if I wished to have a good time in public life…” Yes! Who is going to be happier: Someone dialed in on the work at hand and reaping the resulting energy burst, or an ambitious, scheming sycophant whose only aim is climbing the next rung on the ladder? It’s not even close.

The net-net is that lasering in on our work yields the best product and makes us happier and sleep better at night.

Operating this way allowed TR to bust the rapacious corporate trusts, build the Panama Canal, win the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War and conserve 230,000,000 acres of land, among numerous accomplishments.

The takeaway

It will work for you, too. I don’t care what line of work you’re in. Salesperson, accountant, barista, student, professional beach volleyball player…Doesn’t matter.

When you’re working, put all of your attention on the work. Forget everything else.

The Universe will take care of the rest…