Doing a Good Job When No One is Watching



Note: This is a post from Joan Concilio, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

There’s a quote often attributed to Henry Ford that floats around Pinterest a lot:

Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.

Another one, attributed to C.S. Lewis, says:

Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.

Same idea, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

What does it mean to do a good job?

We know that most of you reading Man Vs. Debt are income-earners. Maybe you work at a job, or maybe you’re an entrepreneur, or maybe you do some of both. Maybe you’re a stay-at-home spouse or parent whose job is to keep up with all the family’s schedules and home needs.

In any of those cases, what does it mean to do a good job? I’ve been thinking about that lately because, as someone who works almost entirely freelance and from home, I don’t have the traditional boss two desks away, performance reviews every year, and all of that.

No, I have two dozen clients in states around the country and countries around the world, most of whom are taking me sight-unseen. That’s a lot of faith on their part – and I don’t want to let them down.

That said, it’s often easy to “phone it in,” as my husband calls it. You know what that looks like. To do just enough, but not more. To answer a customer’s grouchy email with just a touch of terseness yourself – not enough to get “in trouble” for if someone else saw it, but enough to be obviously impolite. To be a little slower on that fix, or a little skimpier on that research, because, really, “Who’s going to know?”

The fact is, YOU know. If you’re doing a good job, you know it (and hopefully are taking pride in it!) If you’re not, you know that too.

And when you’re self-employed (and even if you’re not), I’ve come to realize that you never know who’s watching and what future opportunities those people might provide.

A real-life example

Through our family’s personal website, I’m part of a blogging network for homeschoolers. It’s not a paid position – it’s more of a networking and support group – but we have writing projects that we can choose to contribute to, themed post days where we all write on a particular issue, and so on. There’s also a private forum where members can ask for help or feedback.

From the start, I’ve tried to participate in – and “do a good job on” – as many of the group’s writing challenges as possible. I’ve tried to be active in the forums, giving feedback, promotional help and advice where I can. I’ve joined related groups based on specific offshoot topics of the main group.

I hadn’t been doing this “expecting” anything. I do it because I hope that I can help in the ways that I received help when I was new to that niche, and because I want the group as a whole to be successful.

Um, guess what?

You never know who’s watching.

I’ve had six freelance jobs in the past month doing web-design and social-media work for members of these groups, netting close to an extra $1,000 toward our debt tsunami. I’ve never “advertised,” though occasionally when I give advice I will mention that I work online in various capacities, mostly to show that I maybe have some idea what I’m talking about.

And it all came because I did a good job when I didn’t think anyone was watching. I gave advice that maybe I “should” have charged for, for free. I wrote some of the best content resources I’ve ever produced as part of a post series.

And when I did that, little did I know that people were watching. Sometimes, the people who later asked me to work with them for a fee were the people I originally helped, but at other times, the work came from those who said, “Hey, I saw how you answered so-and-so. It made me think that you might be able to help me with XYZ.”

It’s not “What’s in it for me”

I hesitated to share this story, because the message I don’t want you to get is that you should always do a good job because you can expect it to financially pay off. That’s not the point here.

If I have a point, it’s this: When you do a good job, it brings good things.

Maybe it’s a promotion at your job, sure. Maybe it’s a recommendation of your work by a client to a friend of theirs. But maybe it’s just some goodwill, or being able to have a sense of pride in what you’ve done, or the knowledge that you made someone’s day a little better.


It’s easy to do an “OK” job, whether that’s for your boss, your clients, or your family. Are you willing to do a really good job

We’d love to hear your stories about the good things that come from doing it right in the comments.

I hope you’ll share!

26 thoughts on “Doing a Good Job When No One is Watching”

  1. Great story! My goal for this year was be outstanding at everything I do this year and going forward. Do because you are doing the right thing and trying to help others. Again as in your case you never truly know who’s paying you attention.

    1. Thomas, that is an awesome goal and one well worth committing to. Thank you on behalf of all the people whose lives your “outstandingness” touches 🙂

  2. Joan, that was just the spark I needed today to get me back on track at my job, where I’ve been feeling like “calling it in” lately. Some of that is because I’ve been here so long, things have become stale and I’ve become stagnant. It’s hard to keep motivation going, there are some things about my job I excel at and then there are the things I just get by with, I certainly need to work on that! Thanks for the post.

    1. Mary Ann, I’m so glad I could help you think differently about that! Trust me, I’ve been there – but I am so glad to hear you’re willing to make a change.

      You can do it. And even if no one “seems” to notice, WE’RE cheering for you 🙂

  3. This is a great reminder. I often find myself only doing things for other people which means that I tend to slack a bit when no one is watching. You bring up a great point that it is in these moments where we really find out who we are and we may impress someone else who is watching in the process.

    1. Jake, I think you are so right. I don’t think it’s bad at all to do a particularly good job when you KNOW it’s for someone else. But when you really dig deep into what you do outside those situations, you do find out who YOU are! 🙂

  4. Joan, yet another awesome post from you! I love this topic. I like to ask myself “would I fire you as CFO of my life?” when I make decisions that aren’t the best for me financially. Who cares, really, it’s my life, right?

    Yes, but….if I don’t hold myself to the highest standards when it comes to my finances, health, work, etc. who else will? It’s not always easy, I agree, but if we get it right most of the time, we’re far better off in the long run!

    Ree ~ I blog at

    1. Thanks, Ree! I am so guilty of not making good decisions for my own life. As you see from reading 🙂

  5. That’s a great real-life example, Joan!

    It’s easy to slack off when we think no one is watching for sure. While no one may “catch” us this time, eventually they will. And that applies regardless of whether we’re doing good or bad work. So why not do good work as much as you can?

    Plus, we can apply this principle of “doing good” to life in general. For example, I try to leave every person I meet a little better than when I first met them. It could be asking (and listening) about their day in a genuine way, or remembering their birthdays, or providing an article on their hobbies because I know they’ll find it interesting.

    All these acts by themselves may seem small. But I know from personal experience they are not easily forgotten. I’ve reconnected with people whom I’ve lost touch with because they still remember that little something I did for them years ago.

    Like you’ve said, Joan, we can’t EXPECT when (or even if) this “invisible” good work will pay off. But that doesn’t matter because the act itself is our own reward.

    Everything else is pure bonus.

    1. EXACTLY. You don’t know when or if it will “come back” to you, but every action has a consequence, good or bad, even if it is simply a personal consequence in terms of how you feel about yourself.

      And you are so right – these things add up to make up your character, who you are. And they are remembered, sometimes in ways you can’t imagine. Like you, I have these experiences where someone will come up to me and say, “I remember this thing you said in passing 5 years ago.” I might not remember it, but for whatever reason, it meant something to them!

  6. Reminds me of one of my favorite parts of Office Space where the main character is talking to the people deciding who gets to keep their job or not, and he says something along the lines of “If I work my butt off and we ship a few more units, what do I get? Nothing. People work only as hard as they have to not to get fired.”

  7. I know I haven’t been trying as hard as I could have, especially at side hustles, and it definitely weighs on me more when I know that I easily could do better, but haven’t put forth my all. Something I need to work on in the future.

  8. Great article. I love to hear stories like this. I think all too often you find people either trying hard at something only to get recognized or you find people slacking when others are not watching.

    This article is simply a great reminder to simply give and always do your best. Don’t try to “game it” and perform only if someone is watching. Do things and be someone you would be proud of. After all, you’re the one that gets to look at yourself in the mirror every day.

  9. It’s an inspiring story. To motivate us to keep the integrity and quality in our work. That’s one of the reasons why customers stay loyal to a business, readers to the bloggers. If we want to be treated the same, we must do the same to others. Give them the integrity and quality output that they deserve.

    1. That’s true – but I would go one step further and say that you should give quality EVEN WHEN it’s not “to” a reader, a customer, etc. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do even if it’s not going out to someone!

  10. I heard a quote once from prosperity “guru” Randy Gage. He said, simply, “you can’t outgive the universe”. It is so true. There’s no limit to what you can put out there (effort, money, advice, etc). You’ll always get it back (and more).

    1. I’ve heard that attributed a lot of places and I agree with it no matter where the source 🙂 You are so right that you just can’t give enough!

  11. It is definitely easier to phone it in when many people around you are doing the same. I have taken an office detail this year and I was gung-ho in the beginning, seeing all of the changes I could make to the training department. In the last two weeks I have burned out as I’ve seen some of my input get lukewarm responses. If no one else cares, why should I? Thanks for reminding me that I do care, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else does. I still want to produce a good product for those future trainees who will benefit from my hard work. Thanks for the kick in the pants!

    1. Ginny, that is SO hard… you are exactly right. Other people can pull you down in this way so much, but I am glad you realize that it matters to you even when it doesn’t seem to matter to anyone else. I know those future trainees will appreciate it LATER!

  12. Joan, thanks for sharing! I do freelance work too and I think there’s a reason why the word “free” is part of the word freelance. I believe in always doing your best, even if you’re in a quiet room by yourself. Honesty and hard work always pay off in the long run, even if the benefits aren’t financial.

  13. I am also working as a freelancer (I am a translator and bilingual copywriter, copyeditor and proofreader) and I take pride in doing a good job because: 1) I *know* when I deliver quality products 2) I enjoy getting more work through references and word-of-mouth 3) I don’t need praise from a boss, making a living doing what I love is enough!

  14. Pingback: Personal Finance Articles of the Week, 7/12/2013 | From the Desk of Robert Jacobs

  15. I’m a young professional just starting out. I found your blog because I realize that I am constantly doing just what I need to do in order to do what I want to do, as of late in the real world I find it harder and harder to live this way. I thought I would be able to get a job where I just had to make it through my hours and get what I believed to be a “decent” salary of around 50k. Now I see that that’s actually not nearly as simple as I believed, college education or no. Work experience or no, there’s so much competition that people are always trying to squeeze you dry and you only get recognized when you go above and beyond CONSISTENTLY. My problem is that, I have never been motivated enough by anything to work that hard. Awards don’t do it, respect from others doesn’t do it, helping others doesn’t do it. While i’m generally seen as a very nice person, I realize that in actuality i’m quite selfish. I usually work hard in bursts to complete a set goal, largely so that I can go back to my normal low stress state. I live for the moments between commitments when I simply have nothing to do, where I can read or hat with friends or whatever, just mainly know that I don’t have to do any one thing. My question is, is it even possible to support one’s self with such a mindset? I’m starting to feel pretty foolish for having gotten myself into such a pattern over my years but perhaps my younger life, though successful, was just too easy? How can I learn to care more about my work life. Previously, working hard was just a means to an end, i did it simply to stay alive long enough to enjoy my free time. True I would have periods of weeks where I would go on anxiety ridden work binges on nearly no rest, like the time I went 8 days on 14 hours of sleep, but it severely effected my mental state and the resulting periods of laziness were necessary to balance things out. How should I go about living a more balanced life where I am able to consistently work hard at a reasonable level?

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