Malcolm Gladwell, with his book “Outliers”, did me a lot of good. As the title suggests, the book was about outliers in various walks of life. One of the themes of the book was about how we must sometimes look beyond the obvious when it comes to successful people. By shifting a bit of the focus onto the people who have stood by those outliers as they bloomed into something special, the book placed more importance on the people that these uber-successful people were blessed with rather than just the innate abilities that they were endowed with. I cannot claim to be a special, dazzling talent in any aspect of my life like the kind of people that Gladwell wrote about. But here's the thing. As I grow older and as I strive to evolve as a person and a professional, I see that Gladwell certainly has a point. As I think of every little success that I have had in my professional life and every little moment of joy in my personal life, I feel like I have someone to thank. (Since I am just coming off of a rather heavy post on my grandpa, I have chosen to focus on the professional setting here.*)
Image Courtesy: http://engageretainprosper.com/
Image Courtesy: http://engageretainprosper.com/
If there's one element of the professional setting where I consider myself extremely lucky, it has to be the 'teachers' that I have worked for. I am not in academia so, I am not referring to those teachers in academic settings. But I have seen in my dozen years as a working professional that so many colleagues of mine have all been excellent teachers. They teach not through speeches or lectures but rather by doing just the right things with effortless ease. They have, time and again, showed me how to be human and empathetic, yet never losing sight of having their teams focus on contributing efficiently and effectively.
I am sure that what drives a person to succeed will vary widely depending on the nature of the individual, their strengths, weaknesses and even idiosyncrasies. But there is quite a bit of research that shows how some very basic humane traits have resulted in exemplary behavior and increased productivity.
I had read a wonderful book titled "The Power of Habit" written by Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter. One of the chapters in the book went on to detail an experiment that was conducted by Mark Muraven, a Professor of Psychology. The participants in the experiment were divided into two groups. Both groups had a group of warm, freshly baked cookies in front of them and were asked to sit in a room and not eat them for the 5-minute duration of the experiment. The first group was told rather curtly something along the lines of, “You must not eat the cookies.” The second group was given not only more polite instructions but were also made to feel like they had control of the experiment, that they were active partners in this experiment, whose feedback was valued. They were told things like, “If you have suggestions on how to improve this experiment, we would value your inputs.”
The ones in the second group who felt more autonomy and ownership were a lot more successful in resisting the cookies for the duration of the experiment without complaining. After five minutes, all participants (in both groups) were asked to take a simple test where they would see a series of numbers pop up on the screen and had to hit the space bar when they saw a 6 followed by a 4. (It is supposedly a standard test to measure willpower.) The ones in the first group (who were treated rudely and were not given a sense of purpose like the second group) performed rather poorly in this test. The reason was that they had no willpower left after the 5 minutes of resisting the cookies post the rude instructions. Whereas the ones in the second group (who were made to feel a sense of autonomy and ownership) were a lot more successful in acing this test since their willpower resources had not been exhausted. In essence, the autonomy that they felt they had enabled them to exercise self-control to not only resist the cookies but also take the test later and do both successfully.
Reading this section of the book made me feel a lot of gratitude towards some of the wonderful people that I have worked for and worked with, for giving me the kind of autonomy and sense of purpose that make us want to work hard. I emphasize this because there will be times in our careers when we have to go above and beyond the routine to put in longer hours, stretch ourselves and step out of our comfort zone. And, the more we feel like we want to work harder, the easier it is for us to actually push ourselves. And, as was the case with the cookie experiment, the best of managers understand that the sense of belonging and autonomy that they foster will go a long way towards ensuring that their subordinates take the initiative and maximize their potential. And then, when it is our turn to be managers, we just have to pay it forward. After all, that is the ultimate tribute that we can pay to those that helped us develop professionally as well as personally.
And, one of the other things that I have realized is that the ways in which people can help us can be seemingly simple but the impact that it can have on a person can be tremendous. To give you an example, a few years ago, I had to make a presentation one morning. It was scheduled for 9:30 am. My colleague Toni who saw me a few minutes before the meeting said, “Ram, are you doing okay? You don’t seem to be your normal self.” Let’s flash forward to 11:00 am. I had just finished my presentation. It was one of my best presentations at work and I received some terrific feedback from the people that were in attendance. But let’s go back in time to see what really contributed to the success of that presentation. It was 6:30 am. My wife, who was pregnant at the time, decided to work from home that day because she wasn’t feeling well. So, she sent an e-mail to her manager stating that she’d like to work from home that day. Minutes later, she got a nasty response from her boss in which he said that if my wife wanted to work from home, she should’ve informed him in advance. My wife was very upset because of how inconsiderate her boss was. Even though I suggested that she stay back, she said, “No, I don’t feel good about this. I guess I’ll go to work.” So, she came with me in the car, dropped me at work and headed off to her workplace. As I went into my office, my mind was filled with thoughts about my pregnant wife who was feeling so disconsolate. That is the state of mind that Toni saw me in. So, when she perceptively asked me if I was feeling okay, I said, “Let me share with you what just happened.” I vented for a couple of minutes and said, “Actually, I feel better now.” She smiled and said, “Let’s go!” I went into the conference room and the talk turned out very well. Now, think about this. Was my success that day only because of my power point slides and my presentation? Not really. The seemingly small investment that Toni made in me made a huge difference. She cared. She didn’t expect anything in return. She just wanted me to maximize my potential. Whenever I think about that day, I recollect with gratitude the kind of positive impact that Toni's pep talk had on me. It is one of many instances at my workplace where I have had someone's thoughtful words or meaningful gestures lift my spirits or give me a new perspective.
As I look ahead to the rest of my career where I will hopefully have the privilege to work with more people from various backgrounds, I keep telling myself that I must never lose sight of the fact that even if I work for for-profit organizations, the biggest investments that I make must be in people. I want to ensure that I introspect about people as much as I interact with them. Because, the more you look inward, the more you understand the people around you. And, the more you look at the people around you, the better you understand yourself.
* - I have re-purposed some sections of a write-up of mine that I wrote on LinkedIn Pulse.