I recently read David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell and as always when reading his books it made me think about how the ideas he describes reflect the reality of my own experiences. And as always it is a mixed bag. Nonetheless there is one aspect of the when the underdog wins over a supposedly mightier foe that aligns with what I’ve seen in my professional life of a manager and a leader. The focused effort and can-do attitude of determined underdog beats a raw talent and theoretical knowledge of complacent rival hands down most of the time.
Theoretical knowledge is a good basis but by itself won’t get stuff done. What I have seen over the years is that pure knowledge gives you a good starting point but you cannot just hope that it will get you to the finish. I work in software development industry. Lots of the young people who come to interviews boast an impressive academic record and have good theoretical knowledge of programing languages and have memorized some of the standard design patterns or algorithms. What distinguishes the best from the mere good ones? The effort they put into not just memorizing the knowledge but also the practice of using it in real life scenarios. The best of these developers have practical experience with building software applications and understand what from the theory is important and what is nice to have.
If you rely just on your talent chances are you won’t get anywhere. Even the most talented person is not able to utilize his talent to the full extend without the right attitude and focus. Over the years I have worked with many talented people who from childhood sailed through their lives with ease because of the in-born talent and IQ. They were smart, they were talented, they were satisfied with what they have and they became lazy. Nothing wrong with that as long as they were happy with themselves but I always found it sad as I saw the raw potential they had if only they (or someone) helped them realized that with a bit of effort and the right attitude they can be so much more.
Effort put into things is the way how the great distinguish themselves from the mere good ones. Over the years I managed hundreds of people and the one consistent thing I could see was that if someone puts more focused effort into improving himself or building something more often than not the results are way above the initial expectations. It is the internal drive and sometimes even single minded dedication that distinguishes the best from the rest of the team. No distractions, no workarounds, just pure hard work on the right things is what can help even the underdog to win over the more talented but complacent ones. It is that effort that will get your knowledge to the next level and not the other way around.
Attitude closely links with effort and only by combining these you can build skill at the master level. Obviously for you to be able to put effort into something you need a rather unique attitude. You need to be able to recognize what to focus on, you need to be able to understand your own limitations and have means to gather feedback on how you are improving and you need to have a so called growth mindset to believe that you can change and you can make a difference.
And don’t blame your parents or genes if you don’t have that attitude. You can learn it if you really want. In my past life I was a software developer. Rather introverted guy who considered interaction with the rest of the world a nuisance. At some point I realized that to survive in tomorrow’s world I need to build a different set of skills and attitudes. Over the period of several years of focused effort and couple of external events I reshaped my skills to focus more on people and communication. I also went through a profound change in my world view and learned to be the ultimate optimist who sees the positive in everything and everyone and who’s curiosity and need to learn something new and change is never satisfied.
What does it all mean when building your team? What do you focus on when hiring people to your team? Where do you focus your coaching and mentoring efforts? How do you help people who are complacent to realize their potential? I’m not going to provide answers today (I may in some future post) but these are the questions you should ask yourself and find some answers that work in your individual case.
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