When I’m food shopping, I not only read the nutritional labels, I also pay close attention to the Best Before dates. In fact, when buying bread or yogurt, I’ll often reach toward the back of the shelf, because the items with the most recent expiry dates are always in the front row. The freshest stuff is usually at the back.
As I continued my shopping, it occurred to me that other things in life should also have expiry dates, parental advice being one of them. I realize that the lessons handed down to us by our parents are practical, valuable and usually timeless, but there are exceptions. One of these exceptions is “always try your best”. On the surface, this is a mantra that we should use throughout our lives – why wouldn’t we try our best in any situation? – but as I discovered, qualities that we find endearing in children are not quite as enchanting when we become adults. That piece of advice does have an expiry date, after which it spoils, and then slowly becomes foul and rancid. After you reach a certain age, sometimes it’s better to hide your light under the proverbial bushel.
Always try your best was a philosophy that my parents instilled in me while growing up, and it served me well throughout my school years, from elementary school right through university. As children, we’re always trying to impress our parents, our teachers and our friends with how much we know and the new things we’ve learned. Adults are always happy to see children accomplish things and always encourage us to learn new skills or continue to practice and refine the skills we have. I just assumed that this encouragement from my elders would continue forever, so it was a shock when I discovered that it didn’t.
My existence, previously filled with enthusiastic mentors who were generous with their time, changed as soon as I entered the working world. I thought that the shift from life as a university student to a working life would be easy – much like advancing a grade in school. The courses would be more challenging, but that simply required working a little harder, applying yourself, asking a lot of questions, and making sure that you can handle the learning curve.
I was naturally excited about starting my first full-time job. I realized, as the new kid on the block, that I was at a distinct disadvantage since everyone at the company knew far more than I did, so I went out of my way to be enthusiastic and to show that I had a lot of ambition. However, in my eagerness to impress my co-workers with how hard I could work and how quickly I could grasp new material, I failed to grasp a new reality and an important social lesson. I discovered that while parents, teachers and professors always encourage you to try harder and do your best, your co-workers aren’t quite as invested in your potential.
Starting out, I assumed that the corporate world would be much like campus life – an environment filled with bright, ambitious, exuberant and insatiably curious young people who believed in life-long learning, who were enthusiastic about the future, and who planned to make an indelible mark in their chosen field, or perhaps even upon the world. It never occurred to me that some employees might be content to just coast through their day-to-day existence or take the path of least resistance. I began to encounter people who had held the same position for years and who, inexplicably to me, seemed quite content to do the same job year after year. I couldn’t fathom why these people wouldn’t have their sights set on the executive suite, or at least the challenge of more duties and responsibility. While the members of my peer group, the freshly-minted graduates, were always taking courses and trying to improve ourselves, I met people in society who had already plateaued – they had no interest in taking industry courses, general interest courses or even learning new things.
After being immersed in the corporate world, I soon discovered two important things:
- The knowledge gap between me and my co-workers wasn’t as vast as I had assumed when I started my job.
Having spent almost my entire life in various learning institutions, I couldn’t conceive that I could possibly know more about a subject – any subject – than someone else. I had always been surrounded by experts – parents, teachers, professors – and I had internalized the notion that I was certainly the least knowledgeable person in the room (if not on the entire planet). It took me a while to accept that I had actually caught up to anyone. While this was initially a pleasant surprise, it turned out to be more of a disappointment. In my blog entry Living Without Boundaries, I propose that the absence of boundaries makes life intriguing and magical, When boundaries appear, the magic disappears. Growing up in a world full of experts, I wasn’t able to detect anyone’s knowledge boundaries, but now I had, and it was quite a let-down.
- People are generally happy to coach you, but if you start asking questions that test their knowledge limits, that desire to help disappears quickly. Normally helpful people may become curt or even brusque.
I had never even considered the existence of ego among adults before, much less its feeding and maintenance. Ego was for children. If I couldn’t answer a question, I would simply admit it and make a mental note learn more about that topic later on. I considered any gap in my knowledge base as my own failing, and something that I needed to address. In my youthful and idealized way of looking at the world, I had also assumed that maturity causes the abatement and eventual abolition of one’s ego, and that the need for ego nurturing is inversely proportional to one’s age. This discovery of ego in adults was counterintuitive to me back then – why would anyone be inhospitable toward someone who is merely eager to learn? – but it makes perfect sense now. The 19th-century writer Ambrose Bierce summed it up nicely in this quote “Calamities are of two kinds. Misfortune to ourselves, and good fortune to others”.
Some months later, I decided to try a discreet social experiment at work. I was in the market for a VCR, but I had never owned one before and didn’t know much about them. There seemed to be a plethora of manufacturers and models, and I was thoroughly baffled by the choices. While doing my research, I visited a number of stereo stores and collected a handful of brochures. I brought a few brochures to work, approached some of my co-workers individually and said that I wanted some help in choosing a VCR, since I knew nothing about them (I made sure that I people I asked were technically-literate and already owned a VCR). I showed them brochures for various machines ranging from very basic models to a top-of-the-line model that cost over $1000. I also asked each person which brand and model of VCR they owned, and how they liked it. Everyone said that the high-end model was a waste of money and was certainly far too much machine for my needs (even though no one actually asked me what my needs might be). In the end, the machine that people recommended was one comparable to their own, or perhaps one model below it. I believe that everyone was well-intentioned in both their desire to assist me and to select a suitable machine, however, I couldn’t help thinking that while they were eager to share their knowledge, they didn’t want to help me buy a VCR that was superior to the one they owned.
As I moved from a campus to an office, tutoring and mentoring gave way to competition, score-keeping and territoriality. These traits seemed to be an inherent part of life among adults, and I could see that my youthful enthusiasm, ambition, innate curiosity and everything else that I assumed was a positive quality, were going to alienate me in this new environment. Dale Carnegie, whose folksy advice in his book How To Win Friends and Influence People had served me well in the past, wasn’t going to be much help in this competitive corporate environment. Therefore, over time, I developed my own method for getting along with my colleagues. I call it “The 90% Solution”.
When I meet new people, I try to size them up. I want to find out how intelligent they are, the depth of their knowledge base, how attentive they are to details and determine their overall level of awareness. I don’t want to be too obvious so I will usually pepper my conversation with an assortment of obscure or esoteric references to pop culture, current events, geography, history and religion. I will also throw in a bit of jargon – technical, medical, scientific and computer terms – and then see how they respond to them. I’m looking for a recognition reflex and elaboration, as well as references that are ignored. At the same time, I’ll listen for English proficiency, grammatical errors, vocabulary breadth, sentence length, proper pronunciation (of both English and foreign words) and any use of deliberately obfuscating jargon. I will also pay attention to their ability to simplify complex topics, how structured their speech is, their use of abstract concepts, how often they stick to a subject or go off on tangents, and how relevant the tangents are. From this cursory analysis I will eventually get a sense of their intelligence level, areas of expertise, and even their approximate level of formal education.
After calculating a knowledge or awareness level I will assign it an arbitrary value, and then place myself, conversationally, at 90% of that level. I may make esoteric references and use a few technical terms myself in order to ramp up quickly, but I am also careful not to brag or try to impress.
I’ll try to find out what their area of expertise is, and then ask some questions about it. Most of us have a superior knowledge of some subject – which may be our profession or one of our interests – and this is their opportunity to show off a little of that expertise. For a brief time during our socializing, I will endeavour to make that person an expert.
The way that I hope to be perceived by new acquaintances is “Hmmm… that Bob is a pretty sharp guy – certainly above average. Of course, he’s not quite as sharp as I am, but he’s pretty close; he has potential. I think we’re going to get along just fine.” The proficiency level that works best for me in social situations is “compatible but not threatening”.
While this approach has worked well for me, it is not always suitable – there may be occasions during which you are introduced as an expert in a certain field, and then you are expected to know more than everyone in the room – however, in casual social situations, I found that the 90% Solution works as well as any of Dale Carnegie’s tips.
To be fair, what I’m doing is nothing new – in fact, these deliberate adjustments are quite common is sports. For example, a skilled tennis player is not going humiliate a beginner in order to feed his own ego. As a good sportsman, he will determine the skill level of his opponent and then automatically adjust his own level so that they are fairly evenly matched. The opponent then plays to the best of his ability and doesn’t feel hopelessly outranked.
I remember a particular karate class years ago, during which a number of my fellow students would spar against Sensei. Normally we would spar against other students who were at the same belt level, so I was quite nervous when I was chosen to go up against him. I was afraid that Sensei would wipe the dojo floor with me. Surprisingly, the match was easier than I thought. I still lost – it wouldn’t be in Sensei’s best interest to lose to any of his students – but I felt that victory was within reach. Immediately afterwards, I was convinced that just a little more training would give me the advantage I needed. In retrospect, it was clear that Sensei had already gauged my skill level and was merely toying with me, but at the time I felt that we were actually well-matched.
Riding a bicycle is another example – riding is much easier if you shift gears frequently, according to the terrain and topography. Observing and adjusting to your surroundings makes the ride more pleasant and efficient.
Golf enthusiasts have a more formalized “handicap” system to ensure that groups of players appear to be well-matched when playing together. However, golf is the only sport I know that has this built-in skills alignment option. All other sports rely on the players to make their own adjustments (if they are so inclined).
The importance of shifting gears is something that I wished my parents, teachers and mentors had told me while growing up. In some situations, you have to stop automatically trying your best, or you’ll risk becoming alienated. If you want to fit in, then you have to place yourself somewhere near the middle of the proverbial bell curve; you need to read your surroundings regularly, and then make constant adjustments.
Unfortunately shifting gears seems to be scarcely noticeable in most social situations. I find that many people are still showing off – whether it’s gadgets, clothes, transportation, income or knowledge, they seem more concerned with impressing others than by allowing others to feel good about themselves and their own accumulated knowledge. While I’m sure that these healthy-ego types undoubtedly feel convinced that others are genuinely admiring them, their accomplishments and their possessions, they should also remember the words of Ambrose Bierce.
Although The 90% Solution has worked as well as any of Dale Carnegie’s tips, the one thing that surprised me is that I’m still using it – for over two decades, I’ve been applying The 90% Solution as my social lubricant. I had always assumed that our knowledge base grows as we age, even if we don’t embrace life-long learning as a philosophy – how can one not learn something new each day with the rate of change and progress increasing at a seemingly exponential rate? Nevertheless, people of all ages seem to relish having that barely-perceptible edge in social situations, and I’m happy to offer it to them.
In conclusion, by all means, try your best when you’re competing with yourself, but read your social environment carefully when you’re in a group, and gear down when appropriate. Your accomplishments may not always generate the universal admiration that you expect and deserve, so I find that it’s often useful to follow the advice of Shakespeare and “Speak less than thou knowest”.