Wed Nov 26 2008

On peak potential

I just came back from an impromptu meeting (over 2am-nachos) of the three remaining founders of Webreakstuff (the fourth of our founders is now working at Soocial, for those curious). I wanted to share a thought that was on my mind while we were eating and talking: the fact that talent - of a group or individual - needs nurture, both from the individual himself and from the environment around him/her.##From the individual himself

Coming from a shared academic background, we’ve had common friends throughout the years. Some who could be considered excellent in their own areas of work - design, development or management. Most of them, however, lack something that I deem fundamental in order to be recognized as individuals - the ability to self-promote.

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” [1]. Likewise, someone can be a fantastic engineer, or designer, or facilitator, but if they can’t promote themselves enough to show and share that talent they may never succeed. Talking about how to self-promote is out of the scope of this post, but I’ll come back to it in the future.

Woody Allen once said that ” 80% of success is showing up”. Some people never do, while others - some less deserving - take all the credit. Sometimes, even the dungeon-loving, garage-living engineer needs to stand up for himself.

##From the environment around him/her

In his recent book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell talks about how in the high majority of cases, individuals who excel at something share one thing: they’re often people raised in an atmosphere of concerted cultivation [2]. I have always believed that the key to success is in the hands of the individual, but recently I’ve come to understand the full importance of his/her surroundings.

People who don’t work in teams often create the wrong habits, and people who work in the wrong environment never reach their full potential. Quite often it is complicated - or costly - for team members (or managers) to create the right set for people to excel, but the rewards are there [3]. One thing we found on our company was that in the past it was complicated for someone to voice their opinions without someone stepping in and crushing their ideas with a “here’s why you’re dumb”. Taking care of that problem (not with specific actions, but slow change) made brainstorming natural, which in turn contributes to people being, well, empowered to get better.

##Concluding thoughts

In the end, whether someone excels or not is a result of his/her actions and the environment or workplace around the person. Not all individuals are lucky enough to do something relevant (and promote it), and to work somewhere where their value is recognized. A shame, though, is the astounding number of talents you and I will never hear of because the person was either shy, or just hampered by his/her surroundings.

###Footer notes:

[1]: Or as George Carlin would say, “If a man speaks in the forest and there is no woman there to hear it, is he still wrong?“. Man, I miss George Carlin.

[2]: For more information about what concerted cultivation is, make sure you read Malcom’s book, or this Wikipedia paragraph on it.

[3]: There are inumerous books that talk about these topics, but I’ll recommend 3: 1) The Art of Innovation (definitely one of my top 5 favorite books), 2) The Ten Faces of Innovation, and 3) Hot Spots. If you are looking for a short reference of the 10 faces of innovation, and particularly of the Set Designer, see this.