I freely admit that in a past job I was a loser. You know the guy in the office who gets stuff done? Yeah, I was the other guy. And it wasn’t that I didn’t produce anything, I did. It wasn’t that I didn’t fulfill my job description, I did. But that’s all I did. For some reason it seemed OK to me to just be average.
That’s a fair picture. But so is this:
I was a smart kid fresh out of college, surrounded by people with 20 years of experience but no more skills/knowledge/abilities than I. My average was at least equal to the group’s performance, maybe a bit better due to nothing to my character’s credit but to my more recent education. I was promoted and given raises and begged to stay when I finally quit.
That’s a fair picture too. Both pictures were simutaneously true.
Why? How can this be?
I stumbled across this post that I think describes what was happening fairly well:
“hanging around people who are doing amazing things makes me try harder to do amazing things”
The people I was surrounded with, in retrospect, weren’t exactly doing cool stuff. The team wasn’t thought of as an innovative team. The work we were doing was thought of as a necessary evil in the organization (you’re not people, you’re a cost center!). Compared with other jobs I’ve had, it’s easy to see this truth in retrospect. When surrounded with A players, I tend to perform better. So that brings up two questions for me:
Q1) Why is this true? Why do we tend to perform better when surrounded with top talent people?
Q2) Can we identify this in-the-moment or only in retrospect? How can we evaluate our current situation and work towards bettering ourselves?
A1: Peer Pressure? Probably. Intrinsic Motivation? Probably. Suggestive Energy? Probably. Behavioral Psychology? Probably. Regardless the means of this drive to perform better when surround with better performers, it all goes back to classic systems thinking. That is, a person’s performance is more a product of the system in which they exist; and less a function of individual aptitude. Sure you have to have all the requisite skills and abilities to do the job, but creating really great performers (or really poor ones) is a function of the system. From Ackoff:
“An important aspect of a part’s performance is how it interacts with other parts to affect the performance of the whole.”
There are even been studies that show the simply thinking about smart people may make you smarter. While that claim is dubious at best, it’s interesting and lends itself towards the same conclusion: surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are, better performers, and doing cool things, and you will likely perform better – because the system you are part of is a better system.
A2: If we work on becoming more aware, surely we can see these truths in-the-moment. You might need some reference, something to compare your current situation to, but maybe not. I think a large part of this can be self-known and is as much a gut-feel-in-the-moment thing as it is a comparing-in-retrospect thing. If you sit down and think about it – really feel – you can answer the question for yourself. Am I doing my best work here? Is the system I’m in helping or hurting me long term? Is it time for a change? Surely beware of “grass is always greener” or other pessimistic frames of reference. But for the most part I think these answers are self evident.