@January 14, 2021
A few years ago, a noted executive came to my school and said something that stood out to me.
People try to make themselves stand out, rather than really doing great work and making people around you great.—Jack Stoddard
I find myself falling into this trap a lot at work.
Upon reflection, I see two specific ways I focus on "standing out" rather than focusing on good work:
- Thirsting for recognition
- Seeking differentiation
Part of this stems from immaturity as a professional on my part. But I don't think these tendencies are specific to me, and they aren't uncommon, as intimated by Jack.
Thirsting for Recognition
Let's define recognition as seeking acknowledgement or validation on the utility, quality, or value of your work from others.
Recognition on its own isn’t bad. It’s a good motivator.
A preoccupation with recognition, however, precludes an ability to do genuinely good work, because the focus becomes on the interests of others, rather than on the needs of the work. You often substitute other’s judgment for what needs to be done, rather than use your own.
In my own case, there's a famous entrepreneur in my company. I used to spend a lot of time early on thinking about how I could do work that impressed him, rather than doing work that was actually meaningful to the company on a day to day basis.
In particular, it’s difficult to make others around you better when you focus on recognition for yourself. There becomes an unwillingness to share work opportunities or collaborate in ways that would hide your contribution. You focus on flashiness compared to your teammates, rather than on impact on a broader scale. How can you make others better when you seek credit for yourself?
Within the professional culture of ambitious, highly educated young people, there is an extreme preoccupation with differentiation. I'm absolutely a member of this culture.
Problematically, we seek differentiation not for the sake of doing interesting things in an unencumbered fashion, but for the sake of standing out and feeling better than others. Anyone who looks at the Twitter-manufactured "30 Under 30" culture can see this.
Seeking differentiation for its own sake, as is often the case, is fundamentally unproductive. It yields a focus on self-promotion.
Apart from the obvious example of "personal branding", the pernicious effects of focusing on differentiation can occur unconsciously. In my case, as I sought differentiation at work, I began to focus on work that was not core to my contribution. I would think about hiring, sales strategy, or product interviews, rather than just software engineering work. In doing this, I was looking for opportunities to stand out and differentiate myself, without necessarily doing my highest quality work. A software engineer who can code and do product work seemed a lot more differentiated to me than just a software engineer who did great work. The flaw in this approach is that it hurt my ability to perform my core contribution at a high level.
This isn't to say that range or the ability to generalize and thus be differentiated is bad. It's pointing out that the need to differentiate in the team setting often comes from trying to appear exceptional, rather than contributing at the highest level. Differentiation for appearances, rather than contribution, is bad. We do this a lot.
At the core, Jack was commenting on leadership.
True leadership is incompatible with a preoccupation with recognition and a pathological need for differentiation.
I wrote this piece as a meditation on my tendencies and how they influence my development as a leader. I realize that leading by example is the most powerful method of leadership. I cannot lead by example with these twin tendencies influencing how I work. As Michael Hyatt says, self-leadership precedes team leadership.
In working with a life coach, I've found that awareness can be as much a solution as actively trying to change. That's my approach going forward to try to live up to the ethic in this quote.