I’m not the best

Compared to everyone around me, I’m not the best thinker, writer, speaker, leader, organizer, coach, or blogger.

I’m not the best risk-taker, strategist, fundraiser, relationship manager, pipeline-generator, or closer.

Nor am I the best author, researcher, public speaker, project manager, course designer, facilitator, data analyzer, financial planner, business modeler, lean startup doer, creator, thinker, researcher or innovator.

The good news is, it is not my job to be the best.

My job, first and foremost, is to care the most.

Then I have to turn that caring into a willingness to put myself on the line.

Then I need to translate that into fierce dedication to follow-through, relentless commitment to outcomes, ongoing openness to learning, and strong orientation to partnership. I must be able to see where I know enough already, where I can learn things I need to learn, and where others will be better placed than I am to take parts of the work forward.

Someone else is always going to be better than I am, smarter, more experienced, or more capable in some way.

But my decisions about what I will do, what role I choose to play, what steps I will take next, where I choose to take the reins – these will never get out of the gate if they go through a “best at” filter.

Starting something

“OK get ready New York!!!” shouts an older African American gentleman on the uptown 1 subway in New York City.  He’s dressed in perfectly-pressed ivory linen pants and a neat white collared shirt.

And then he bursts into song, belting out, “This little light of mine…” in a voice that could only be described as angelic.  It deserves a full Gospel Choir behind it.   Barring that, his partner singing harmony was pretty incredible.

Along with just a few of my fellow-passengers, I smile, I enjoy, I give him a dollar.  I get a nod and a nice fist bump in return.

On my next subway ride, a white guy in a suit looks at me quizzically and says, “I thought you were part of the group…on that last train, I mean.”

I told him I wasn’t, that I just liked the music and thought it was gutsy to perform in that way and put yourself on the line.  I couldn’t tell if he was satisfied or confused by my answer.

But I did think it was interesting that just by smiling and enjoying myself, I might be confused for the third member of the group.  Because, of course, being the first, second or third person to stand up and follow enthusiastically can have just as much impact as being the guy standing up and singing.

Leading courageously and following with conviction are both needed to make change.

What do you know?

“Who are you to be spouting all of these ideas?”

“What do you really know about this?”

“You’re not an expert.”

“There’s nothing new here.”

“Who cares what you think, really?”

And on and on.

No, that’s not what your critics are saying.  It’s what the little voice inside your head is saying, the one that’s holding you back.  The one that is petrified that you might discover how much you actually have to offer.

Hard skills, soft skills, real skills

There’s a whole set of things that feel concrete and objective and are easiest to talk about: writing, financial modeling skills, project management, writing a decent PowerPoint deck, etc.

And then there a whole set of “softer” skills – skill in building relationships, how well you manage a meeting, whether or not you successfully deal with uncertainty.

And then the real biggies: Are you a great judge of talent? Do you consistently build trust?  Are you courageous?  Does your presence and do your actions make people better at their jobs?  Do you inspire people?

The challenge is that there’s an inverse relationship between how important a skill is for long-term success and how easy it feels to talk about it.

“You’re still not where you need to be in building a cash flow statement” feels safe.

“I’ve not seen you show consistent success in gaining a sense of shared ownership around your good ideas,” feels like emotional thin ice, so we don’t go there enough.

On some level we know that the second conversation is orders of magnitude more important than the first, but since it feels (inter)personal, less objective and harder to talk about, we avoid having it and stay in the safe (today) but dangerous (in the long-term) space of “stuff that you can learn in a textbook.”

Sooner or later, we have to learn how to talk about the real stuff.

Action is

Action is staking a claim to something.

Action is a means of taking ownership.

When you move first (on a project, on an idea) you mark a territory as yours.

You require others to say “hey wait a minute, we were going to….”

Maybe they were going to, but you did first.

Project leader or project doer

There’s a lot of confusion about this one, because you can “do” all the work and not lead, and you can effectively “lead” something without doing all the work.

So sometimes someone is asked to “lead” a project and what they hear is “please do all the work.”  And sometimes the fact that someone is asked to “do all the work” is confused with a leadership opportunity – it is a step towards leading, but it’s not the same thing.

“Leading” means: I’m ultimately accountable for the success of this thing.  If I’m successful at leading, it will be done better and faster than expected and all the people doing it will feel great about what they accomplished together.  They may not even notice that I “led” anything – in fact it could be a great sign if they didn’t.

The most interesting, underappreciated opportunities are leadership opportunities when you’re not in charge.  It’s important because it’s the top-LEFT quadrant in this 2×2 (lead but not doing) that has the most leverage, not the top right (leading and doing).

The upper right has you working as hard as is humanly possible and feeling in control, but there’s a limit to how much this quadrant scales.


Which conversation

I bet you had a great year last year.  You hit your goals and then some.  You checked all the boxes and now you’re thinking about the coming year and ways you’d like to grow as a professional.

Which conversation do you want to have with your boss?

One version goes like this: Hey, boss, great to see you.  I’ve been thinking that since I delivered so much last year that I’d like to take on these new projects and be given such-and-such new responsibilities and this new job title.

It might work, but wouldn’t you rather have this conversation?

Hey boss, not only did I ship like crazy last year, but as you know I also was leading up these projects, I’ve been taking responsibility for these relationships and these other initiatives that are underway, and I’m also the point person for this big idea that’s going live in March and it’s going great.

So, boss, which one of these things would you like me to stop doing?

Your choice.

Really, it’s up to you.

Willing and able

I had a professor once, a big fan of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who was emphatic about the limits of didactic learning.

“Try to learn how to farm from a book,” he’d say, “and you’ll discover when it’s better to learn from experience.”

It’s true, one cannot learn ANYTHING from a book (or from the web, or through online courses, etc.), but the number of things that you’re ABLE to self-teach is growing exponentially.

(I know you agree on some level, but to get this viscerally check out the Kahn Academy’s videos that explain EBITDA, the law of large numbers, 3-variable linear equations, or the Geithner plan.  This was built by one guy in his spare time.)

The pace of progress is hard to process, but I can’t help but notice, gathering dust on my bookshelf, a 15-year-old copy of German in 10 Minutes a Day, whose text exhorted me, unsuccessfully, to say “eeech seeche minuh koffer” (“I’m looking for my luggage,” in useless phonetics).  I threw in the towel after Lesson One because this was no way to learn a language – me alone with a book, sounding things out.

But if I wanted to try again, today, I could go online and have interactive, audio learning, repetition, playback that taps into the parts of my brain I need to activate to learn to communicate.  The excuse that I couldn’t learn German without going to Germany used to be true, and it isn’t any more  (and the same logic applies to understanding balance sheets and cashflow statements, DCF valuations, C++; Ruby on Rails; PhotoShop….you name it.  That means that the reason I don’t have a good working knowledge of everything on that list is because I choose not to).

If you’ve already gone to school, to college, through graduate school under the old system, getting your head around the new system requires a drastic rerientation.  The first thing to understand is that the barrier, for most of us, has silently shifted from what we’re able to learn to what we’re willing to learn.

Two conclusions:

  1. The value of deciding, of initiating, of self-directed action keeps on going up – because we have so much more leverage for each thing we decide to learn
  2. The value of things that only YOU can share and teach, things that someone cannot learn by themselves, has gone UP  – and your ability to share these things with everyone for free has gone up as well.  (And that’s a lot to wrap your head around too – a post for another day).

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