Don’t try to be great, just be solid
I am getting sick,” the 60-something patriarch, whom we’ll call Tito, of a retail firm down south tells me. Business is booming, customer numbers are up. Tito should be happy.
But Tito is stressed out. He does not want to forego any opportunity, so he works into the night perfecting deals, lengthily commutes for client pitches and demands that his employees do the same.
Tito pays generously for overtime; most of his people respect him. But some have not spent time with their families for months, while others—ironically—have to go on sick leave after frequent late nights at the office.
“I want our family business to be the best,” says Tito when I advised him to slow down. “Our competitors are not relaxing, so we shouldn’t, either.”
“Isn’t it enough your company performance this year is so much better than that of last year?” I ask.
“Our goal is to be the best,” says Tito.
“Are your people consulted on your targets?” I ask.
“The family sets targets and we expect our highly paid executives to meet them.”
I tell Tito about a graduate student of mine, whom we’ll call Vern. Vern did good work on her thesis, which has just been accepted for presentation in the national psychology convention.
Vern consulted me on how to best present the paper. Some serendipitous findings were found, with case studies to back them up. We got excited about how these could help the audience make sense of traumatic events.
This was when I made the mistake of telling Vern, “And I hope you become the best presenter in the panel!”
I have high expectations of my students. When I believe they have the potential, I urge them on (and help them in the process). Naturally, they have often won professional awards, garnered media attention, made it to the Ivy League, etc.
But Vern replied, “I won’t focus on being the best. I would be too pressured. Instead, I will just try to present the paper the best I can.”
Of course, Vern was right. She is a psychology major, cognizant of her capabilities. Through the years, she has grown, personally and professionally, and I am proud of her. I told her to rehearse the presentation and we will meet again to finalize everything before the convention.
I also tell Tito about how Dartmouth University economist Charles Wheelan prepared for his appearance on the news program Chicago Tonight, hosted by journalist Phil Ponce.
In his book “10 ½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said,” Wheelan says, “the show is filmed live … meaning that if you blunder incoherently or fall off your stool, hundreds of thousands of people will immediately see it … Just 30 seconds from airtime, this was pretty much what was going through my head: Would I be witty and convincing? Would the other guests look more knowledgeable and impressive?
“And it was at that moment that Phil … said, ‘Don’t try to be great. Just be solid.’
“That simple advice had a profound effect. Because I knew I could be solid. That was within my control. I could just talk about what I knew. I could answer questions candidly. I could have a fun and interesting conversation with the other guests … Phil’s advice was liberating because it removed the pressure to deliver what I wasn’t certain I could deliver. And it made me better at doing what I knew I could.”
I tell Tito this does not mean he should not work hard. Hard work has made the business extremely profitable, and he should recognize that.
But making himself—and others—literally sick to be the “best?” At what cost?
“Being great involves luck, and unique circumstances, and lots of other forces beyond your control,” says Wheelan. “You can’t just make it happen by working more or trying harder.
“There is an irony here, of course. The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn’t, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.”
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