A couple of weeks ago I told you that being otherish in business means adopting a really crappy status symbol. That’s true because it isn’t easy to spot someone who’s being otherish.
It’s also true because being otherish often means adopting a paradigm in which the status symbols you choose and the way you measure success simply don’t match those of nearly everyone around you.
This week I watched a TED talk by Alain de Botton titled “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success.” Alain’s talk focused on a couple of points that are very important to becoming otherish.
His first point explores one very negative implication of our modern, meritocratic sensibilities. That is: “if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top get to the top, you’ll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem merited and deserved and that makes failure much more crushing.”
I frequently read and hear about managers and executives who say things like, “we only want to hire the rock stars,” or “only the best of the best belong here.” As their teams accomplish their goals, it reinforces this ideal and they begin to look for more star players, becoming more and more selective as they try not to lower the output of the team by bringing on someone who doesn’t fit the ideal.
It’s not surprising to me that these managers often use sports metaphors as they reinforce these ideals to their teams. We all like to win, and we like to be part of capable teams that do what they set out to do.
But as managers of people, it’s important not to get lost in the metaphor. It’s even more important not to let our employees get lost. This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect a great deal out of our employees or each other. We absolutely should. But the more we tell ourselves that we only want the best people, the people who are pulling their weight and adding value, the more we reinforce the idea that those who get fired or don’t get hired aren’t valuable, can’t pull their own weight, and aren’t worth having around.
Unfortunately, this happens everywhere. I’m a reasonably smart guy. I grew up working 60-70 hour weeks on my dad’s landscaping crew, so I’m not afraid of work. I double-majored in genetics and English as an undergraduate with a wife and a kid. I graduated in the top 25% of my class at a top-20 law school in the United States while adding two more kids to our family and holding down two part-time jobs. And I couldn’t get a real job to save my life.
Professors I was close with kept telling me I’d find a great job when I graduated. But I looked for work for nearly a year after I graduated. I landed some part-time and contract work that got us through. But every time I interviewed for a full-time, permanent position with a law firm I was rejected.
It was incredibly demoralizing.
All around me, my professors, friends and family told me not to take it personally. Which was absurd. How could I not? I was interviewing with national firms, firms that loudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen how awesome their legal teams were. I had real-life experience and good grades. And I couldn’t get past a second interview.
Clearly I was not the candidate that the recruiters were looking for.
I was a failure.
Alain’s second point is related, and maybe more important than his first. It’s about success. “One of the interesting things about success,” he explains, “is that we think we know what it means.” But because we’re human we can’t be successful at everything. “So, any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on . . . And the thing about a successful life is that a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own, they’re sucked in from other people.”
I realized, sometime toward the end of that year-long job search, that I was chasing a vision of success that was not my own. I had accepted the law firm’s definition of success, and by extension, its definition of me, and it was driving me crazy.
So one day, after a great deal of prayer and meditation, my wife and I decided to let go. We packed our things, rented a U-Haul truck, and drove west. We didn’t have a plan. I scheduled some job interviews in Omaha along the way (just in case) and we knew that we’d run out of money for gas just about the time we made it to my sister-in-law’s house in Utah, where we had arranged to crash for a few weeks.
I hadn’t been happier in months. We still had no money, no real job prospects, and very little to be hopeful about. But we were working on our own vision. We were surrounded by friends and family, people who legitimately cared about our well-being. They reached out for us and made introductions. I started knocking on every door I could find with a renewed confidence. A few weeks passed and I found some contract work, then a full-time job offer that suited me.
I wouldn’t have found this job if I wasn’t looking. I also wouldn’t have found this job if I held on to the definition of success imposed by the system. And I certainly wouldn’t have found this job if my new boss had said “we only hire the best.” I was a first-year lawyer with little legal experience and nowhere near the sort of pedigree generally expected of a general counsel.
I’m no Pollyanna. Perhaps I won’t make as much money as I might have at a national law firm. Otherishness is not a panacea. We won’t catch everyone who falls.
But I can play with my kids after work. I’m writing this as I sit next to my wife and we talk about these ideas that I have. And someday, I hope to build a company that makes 100 other people millionaires.
I think I’ll stick with my own vision of success.