Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An Ode To Not Sticking Out

Recently, I saw a blog post by a published author noting the increase in self-promotion that he had seen in recent years, and asserting that it came at the expense of excellence. And that set me musing on how, in other ways, an alternate strategy of “not sticking out” appears to have major advantages.

It all goes back to a story from Greek history that I ran across when I was a kid. A recently-risen tyrant from one of the Sicilian cities sent an emissary to the tyrant of Syracuse – who had done it for quite a while – asking how to stay in power. The tyrant of Syracuse received the emissary next to a field of grain. When the emissary asked the question, the tyrant walked over to the field, where a convenient scythe was lying. Without saying a word, the tyrant began scything the top off of every blade of grain that stuck up far above the rest. When he had done this for a while, he turned and looked at the emissary, still without saying a word. The emissary bowed, departed, and conveyed the message back to his master.

For me, this is not a theoretical consideration. I remember one year at Aberdeen. Previously, I had done quite well selling and doing one-off contracts to computer vendors, whose combination of new customers and voluntary returnees meant that I could grow my revenues from year to year effectively. This particular year, the Powers That Be decided to focus on yearly consulting contracts, as these appeared to outside advisors more likely to generate return business that made revenues more stable. Whatever the merits of this, it was not likely that I would do as well at getting yearly contracts initially as I had at getting and doing one-offs – I had a lot more practice at the latter. And if I had previously self-promoted excessively or made my actions highly visible, so that everything I did was extremely obvious, I would have been among the first in the line of fire if the initiative lagged.

As it turned out, I continued my one-off selling, quietly, while making careful “training” tries at selling yearly contracts. Sure enough, at the end of the year, the initial impetus had died down, I had brought in the most revenue except for the partners, and nobody really cared any more that I was not 100% focused on selling yearly contracts. I figure I gained myself an extra four years of substantial added income by Not Sticking Out. Yes, I could have gotten more if I had self-promoted and succeeded. Still, I could very well have gotten a lot less if I had self-promoted and failed.

Obviously, avoiding getting your head chopped off – or yourself fired at work – is an advantage of not sticking out; but that seems to pale for most compared to the advantages of successful self-promotion. What about other considerations?

Safety In Numbers

Fundamentally, the argument goes this way. Self-promotion and visibility are aimed at gaining outsized success. If one succeeds, that very visible success attracts attackers – not to mention increasing one’s own paranoia that one is being attacked. That’s a very exhausting way to live.

Think of the way today’s security operates – that is, let’s say, the NSA or the police, or even the IRS. Computers scan your communications, your purchases, your video records from shopping or at gas stations. Yes, the NSA may be looking at certain code words that may indicate a terrorist threat. But they are really looking for unusual patterns of behavior, not just the kind of use of these “code words” or other behaviors that most of us exhibit. If they picked us up every time we used the word “terror” in a sentence – well, you get the idea.

Now you achieve outsized, highly publicized success – say, as the CEO of a major bank. Suddenly, the bank runs up massive losses on your watch, so the government has to step in and everyone in the US is affected. No problem, business as usual – you watch your public statements, and guard your emails, as you have been doing for quite a while. Except that all those unguarded conversations at the golf course or over lunch are now suddenly fair game, as well. You can only go so far before you let your guard down; and now your inevitable increase in attention from being the head of the bank is added on to the scrutiny you received as being the visible head of a major part of the overall financial industry before this occurred. Who are the politicians going to ditch if they have to? Why, the CEOs whose heads the press has been howling for. Who are the lawsuits going to target first? Who is going to find the TV cameras parked outside his or her door?

Let’s be really clear about this. The choice is not about being rich or not being rich. The choice is usually about being more rich, 5-10 years earlier, but with a clear possibility of a lot more aggravation from then on, or being less rich, slightly later, with a lot less threat to one’s wealth. A book in the 1990s called The Millionaire Next Door makes the point. The author was asserting that there were as many or more millionaires out there who were rich because they were frugal. Yes, they were – but they were also self-effacing: drove compacts, lived in a medium-sized Colonial in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, very little self-promotion. It appears that you’re just as likely to reach the status of being rich, statistically, if you don’t self-promote and Don’t Stick Out as if you do. Meanwhile, after you’re rich, your kids suffer less at school from being a rich or famous parent’s son or daughter, you live your life with far more privacy, and you don’t have to hire private detectives every time your spouse, your employer, or the government sneezes.

In fact – and I credit Dorothy Dunnett for this, and call it Dorothy Dunnett’s Law – it’s a good idea in your life to pick only one thing in which you are visibly different from almost all. According to Ms. Dunnett, one little foible can be forgiven; more than one can only be accepted by labeling you a harmless eccentric or a lunatic. One can be visibly outstanding at sports, like an NFL quarterback; but if you also reach the heights in advanced mathematical theory, you are not to be trusted to win Super Bowls, as Frank Ryan of the Dallas Cowboys once found out.


Ah, yes, but the glories of praise! The recognition, the attention, the egoboo you receive when you succeed!

I once had a standard spiel for many of my reports at Aberdeen, because I kept seeing it so often in those entering the computer industry analyst business. I would tell them, for about a year you are going to find that this job gives your enormous satisfaction because of the way you will be quoted in the New York Times, in the Boston Globe, maybe on TV, so that all your friends and neighbors will suddenly wake up and notice you and pay attention to what you say. After about a year, that will go away. From then on, you need to find your satisfaction in this job in the fundamental way you are advancing the computer industry by envisaging and encouraging the right new solutions, and thereby doing good for everybody. That lasts. Egoboo doesn’t.

But, you protest, why then do movie and TV stars seem to keep on wanting such attention? The answer is, they don’t really – unless it’s a bit like a drug that has less and less effect the longer you take it, but to which you are addicted. For the rest, it’s the price you pay to stay at the top – and it’s a steep slide from the top, with every press story looking to complete the story arc of poor little girl makes good, gets corrupted, and destroys herself. And then there are the stories of those who exit the limelight completely and appear to do quite well. Fran Tarkenton, the great quarterback, became the CEO of quite a nice little computer company after football. He was far less visible in the computing industry than he was in football, and he didn’t spend comparable time signing autographs and being harassed at restaurants.

It’s Not Either-Or

One of the difficulties I have at this point is that many seem to think I am going to the opposite extreme; total self-effacement, total lack of initiative, total failure to compete, total failure. On the contrary, I am arguing for a slightly moderated form of self-promotion. You want to be Avis, not Hertz. You want to be Number Two, not Number 13,456. You want to be Spencer Tracy the loyal side-kick in the 1930s who became everyone’s alternative leading man until the 1960s, not Clark Gable the leading man’s leading man who ten years later was not a leading man any longer. Warren Buffett, not Donald Trump.

And now we circle back to the blog post with which I began this. Because I agree with its author in this much, at least: if you are indeed Number Two, you have somewhat better odds of achieving true excellence in the long term, and all of its lasting satisfactions, than does the Number One self-promoted beyond his or her abilities at the time. As it did in my case cited above, the lack of notoriety gives you more room to maneuver, more opportunity to develop skills in things that are excluded by a past history of being paid for just one self-promoted skill. Who spends more time doing the Catskills, the TV or movie comedy star who carves the time out of a tightly packed schedule of productions and promotions, or the comic foil who has fewer promotion burdens and whose absence for an episode or two is less damaging?

The Bottom Line
At the end, I need to refine my message further. It’s not that Not Sticking Out is for everyone; it’s that on average we’re better off if Sticking Out is not the strategy chosen by everyone. Most who try to Stick Out will fundamentally fail. Most of those, I think, would be better off if, as the author suggests, they focused somewhat less on self-promotion and somewhat more on being Number Two.

An Ode to Not Sticking Out. On second thoughts, I don’t want to stick out for my poetry – not that I could. I’ll stick to promoting my computer industry analysis skills. How’m I doing?

p.s. Take a look at my labels for this blog post. Think about other ones I could have chosen. See what I mean?

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