Despite claims in earlier posts, it seems that although I know a lot of people, I don’t actually know anyone who has the expertise to answer the question I posed yesterday:

I wonder what makes us clam up instead of taking credit for our talents and ideas?

I summarized a bit from earlier posts, but that’s the gist of my question.

It turns out that I do, however, have a lot of smart friends who were willing to ponder the question with me. And one smart parent who pointed me to some pertinent writings by Malcolm Gladwell. Thanks, Dad. (I realize that sounds like I have only one smart parent. My mother is dialing the phone as she reads this. PUT DOWN THE PHONE, Mom. I absolutely have TWO smart parents, but only one of them gave me the Gladwell book.)

My sister-in-law is a former elementary school teacher and a current school librarian. She sees a lot of human nature at it’s most primitive level: packs of school children. She wonders if it’s a question of being modest or not being 100% confident, and says, “So much of our society demands perfection. There is a hesitation in admitting to be an expert at something because you don’t want to have to live up to an expectation that you’re perfect.”

I can relate to that. I’ve kept my mouth shut in many a committee meeting before. Not because I’m too shy to pipe up when I have an idea, but because I know if I do speak up then I’m on the hook to complete the task. By myself. At any cost to my time and finances. And anyone who has ever been in a sorority, planned a charity event or participated in a woman’s group of any kind knows what I’m talking about. If you offer an idea, you had better see it through – perfectly – to the end. Some days it’s just easier to say nothing.

As I wrote that I felt some disgust for that attitude, an attitude I just admitted assuming. We don’t allow much room for failure in our society. Imagine how much we could accomplish if we gave ourselves the room to fail. Or to take on big tasks even when all signs point to that task requiring an exceptional amount of time and energy. We’ve all heard the saying, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” I’d sing and dance on Broadway, but that’s a post for another day. I’d like us to change that saying to, “You very well may fail, but the world supports your efforts anyway!” (See what I mean about feeling all warm and fuzzy?).

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece called “The Talent Myth,” that makes a good case for not doing your best Horshack, shrieking “Mr. Kotter, Mr. Kotter!” dancing around in your seat, begging to take on the world. Gladwell wrote the piece in 2002, just a year after the Enron scandal, and used the company as a case study. The story initially caught my eye because I once worked for Enron – again, that’s a story for another post, another day.

I’ll just say this: as a former employee, I found “The Talent Myth” fascinating, in no small part because I once knew and worked with some of the people Gladwell mentions. Primarily, however, I was drawn to the piece as I realized that I benefitted from (and was later disappointed by) the way things ran at Enron. Talent, or the appearance of talent, was the ultimate value at Enron, not experience. I started at entry level, because I would have done anything to get my foot in the door. I somehow managed to create an illusion of talent, and was quickly given opportunities unlike those I would get at ANY other company. Thanks to those opportunities I learned more in four years than I would have in double that time at a traditional company.

Of course, in the end, things didn’t work out so sweetly for Enron. I still mourn for my colleagues who lost everything. I was young and thankfully did not have my savings – or my life’s work – tied to the company. I had a lot of time and energy left to go on to other things. That was not the case for so many people I once worked with, and it’s for them I am still heartbroken. It’s still hard to drive by the buildings, but I kind of find myself drawn to them whenever I’m in Houston. Like I said – a post for another day, because apparently I have some things to say about this.

Back to the subject at hand.

In “The Talent Myth,” Gladwell cites a 1990s essay, “The Dark Side of Charisma,” by three psychologists (in case you’re wondering, the authors are: Robert Hogan, Robert Raskin and Dan Fazzini). They define three types of flawed managers, the worst being what they call the Narcissist. These people are go-getters who rise in corporations because of their incredible self-confidence. Here’s what the authors have to say about Narcissists:

Narcissists typically make judgements with greater confindence than other people… and, because their judgements are rendered with such conviction, other people tend to believe them and the narcissists become disproportionately more influetional in group situations.

And this is what jumped out at me:

Finally, because of their self-confidence and strong need for recognition, narcissists tend to “self-nominate”; consequently, when a leadership gap appears in a group or organization, the narcissists rush to fill it.”

“The Talent Myth” goes on to discuss how narcissism eventually brought down Enron, because our behavior is tied closely to not only how we perceive our intelligence, but whether we believe we are naturally intelligent (talented) or have to work for our achievements.

What I got from my discussions with friends and family and from my reading, is that, as with so many things in life, there’s a fine, fine line between putting yourself out there and clamming up. Somewhere in the middle is just the right blend of humility and self-promotion.

I do think we have to speak up when we have ideas, big or small. Don’t be afraid to step out there and possibly fall on your face.

But more importantly, perhaps, we need to listen to everyone’s ideas. We all need to practice the art of shutting up and letting someone else do the talking. Like now. I’m done. Tell me what you think by commenting below.