There’s a stage in one’s professional life that is defined by spending our days figuring out right answers. Do this analysis. Value this company. Research this donor. Share your recommended plan of action.
This is an important skill to develop – we need to be able to understand a problem, take it apart, find out an answer and share that answer with others. But the half-life on this sort of approach is shorter than it initially appears. More often than not, the right answer is only worth the paper it’s written on, since what really matters is what people do. Indeed, Nate Silver’s great book The Signal and the Noise points out that pundits with the strongest opinions are most often wrong, even though they of course get the most air time. One of the tough realizations as we progress in our careers is that the right answer or the best analysis is nearly always a small part of the equation in getting people to act.
At a certain point, what the world is asking of us is that we to get out of the audience. The world doesn’t need more critics, sitting back with arms akimbo, taking mental notes for tomorrow’s water cooler conversation. We need more protagonists, people willing to take the risk of standing on stage, being on the line to make things happen.
What role are you playing?
Here’s a nice test: what do you think, and do, each time something goes wrong when you had been on the other side of the argument? What goes through your head each time someone else says what you were thinking (or said) in last week’s meeting, but it’s their comment that turns the conversation?
The safe, self-validating approach is to say, “You see, they should listen to me. I was right.”
But what really makes change is to use that as a moment of introspection to ask, “What is it that I’m doing, or not doing, that my great ideas aren’t shifting the way people think and act?”
And if it turns out that the reason they listened to that other gal, and not to you, is because of who she is – the experience she has or the position she holds – then go ahead and spend your time trying to influence her thinking. That counts too.
Just finding the answers, though, isn’t nearly enough. You can do more.
(Of course, the same logic applies to “I created great art, it’s not my fault that no one wants to see it.”)