Learning from jerks

As usual, it’s been a couple months since I posted, so I’m lowering the standards again, and posting a ramble through some topics that are on my mind this morning. I want to get back into the habit of posting, although that will depend on me actually taking a stand on work-life balance, which I have woefully failed to do for a year and a half, so no promises.

It’s interesting reading Clay Shirky’s rant about how women should “behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks” when I identify more with the women in his rant than the men.

My 2004 rant about self promotion describes that jerk behavior and how I don’t want to be a jerk like that, but in the several years since then, I continue to struggle with under-selling myself and the impact that has on my career.

It’s particularly funny at the moment since a couple people in my group at work have started a self-deprecation watch on me and call me out when I dismiss my work as I habitually do. I need to learn to value myself more, or at least correctly, rather than under-valuing what I do because it seems easy to me.

I think there’s another element in play that Shirky alludes to, which is the willingness to make mistakes. Carol Dweck’s research, as described by Po Bronson, describes two different viewpoints towards approaching the world: one is that our skills are innate, genetic gifts (the “fixed” view), and the other is that we can improve anything we do with focused effort (the “growth” view). The two viewpoints have very different reactions to failure; in the first, failure is a sign that our innate talents are insufficient so we should give up, whereas in the second, failure is a sign that we need to try harder or try a new approach. Dweck’s research indicates that children with the first viewpoint tend to take fewer risks, as each risk has the potential to be a failure, exposing their limits.

More broadly, I think there’s a spectrum of comfort with failure, and how willing I am to take on tasks based on what I know before I start:

  1. Tasks where I know I can deliver the desired results
  2. Tasks where I should be able to deliver the results, but there is some amount of uncertainty in the outcome
  3. Tasks where I don’t think I’ll be able to deliver the results, but hope that I can learn enough on the way to make it work – this is like Shirky’s brazen claim that he could do drafting well when he had no experience
  4. Tasks where I won’t be able to deliver (aka outright lying)

My tendency has been to focus only on category 1 – being unwilling to commit to doing anything where I wasn’t sure of the results so that I would be seen as absolutely reliable.

However, reliable isn’t good enough. People who are willing to aim high, even at the risk of failing, attain more than the people like me who only attempt what is already in their grasp. My Columbia mentor, Jon Williams, once told me that if I weren’t failing spectacularly at work at least once or twice a year, I was not pushing myself enough. That means taking on more of those tasks in category 3 where it’s a big risk, but it will push me to achieve more than I would have otherwise.

Of course, creating a work environment where people can make mistakes and learn from them is still not the norm, as Scott Berkun described in a recent blog post. It’s a challenge to design a flexible culture where taking risks is encouraged so long as learning is taking place, a challenge which is often ignored if not completely unacknowledged. But there are people out there thinking about this – I’m reading a book by Roger Martin called The Design of Business which describes companies like RIM, P&G, and Herman Miller to see how they have infused an iterative design approach into their cultures.

So it’s a two part problem to encourage more of this sort of risk-taking ambitious behavior.

  • Changing the people to be more like “jerks” in pushing them towards those category 3 tasks, as Shirky is hoping to encourage, and I’m starting to work towards in myself.
  • Changing the environment – creating companies and support structures where failure is seen as a badge of honor rather than, well, a failure. It means moving more towards a world based on Carol Dweck’s “growth” theory, where failure is seen as the path to improvement, rather than the “fixed” theory which says that we succeed or fail based on our innate abilities.

Figuring out concrete steps towards that second world is something I’d love to work on, if I could only figure out where to begin.

P.S. I’m amused to realize that the books I currently have out from the library are all in this theme of management and motivation: Daniel Pink’s Drive and Johnny Bunko Career Guide, Po Bronson’s NurtureShock, Mintzberg’s Managing, and the aforementioned Roger Martin’s The Design of Business. Now I just need to make the time to read them all.

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