Commence Wondering

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.


  1. Interesting write up. We were discussing a well known figure in our industry today at work. We were talking about how arrogant and obnoxious he comes across, especially when it comes to belittling other companies while he promotes his own. We theorized that sense of “authority” was a big contributor to being heard and getting where he is now.

    When you originally posed the question, I had a few thoughts:
    1.) Some mix of personality / disposition / self-confidence.
    2.) Our society puts a lot of value on degrees and titles. Sometimes we think, “Well, I’m no psychologist, I can’t answer this question.” No one has bestowed a degree or title related to this topic on me, so I’ll allow someone more qualified to answer.
    3.) We’ve all worked with that arrogant, know it all, and we don’t want to be *that* guy.
    4.) Some times you don’t realize how much you know about something. That’s what neat about teaching, training, or writing. Once you have an outlet for what’s in your head, you may realize that you know more about a given topic than you thought.

    • Thanks for the comment, Don. I appreciate you stopping by and reading!! Have a great trip. :)

  2. I love this post. I must admit I am guilty of not chiming in with ideas. This is true mostly at work. Not necessarily because I think the idea will fail, but because I am just too tired and am not invested enough to care about seeing the job through. Yes, I know this is kind of horrible. And I know this is the surefire sign that it’s time to move on to the next job. I really do. But until that’s possible, every time I have an idea I just think, eh. More work for me, when I have enough work– and personal projects I’d rather devote the time too. This post has definitely made me rethink that though, so thanks!

    So glad to have discovered this blog!

    • Glad I found your blog, too! Thanks for reading!

  3. This was such a great post. The book you mentioned reminded me of Tim Irwin’s Derailed. It sounds like the most confident seem to jump ahead since they are maybe more willing to take risks.

    • I haven’t read Derailed, but it sounds like I should add it to the list. Thanks for your comment!!

  4. There is definitely a fine line between self-confidence and arrogance. I may have to read the Gladwell book because I’m curious how he distinguishes the narcissists from willingness to “step up” when there is a need for leadership (which I’ve always considered to be a good quality).

  5. Hey Kyle, it’s a good read and I think you would enjoy it. Gladwell is always entertaining and thought provoking. For me one of the key distinctions between narcissism and stepping up is that phrase “rush to fill the gap.” In other words, there’s value in weighing a situation and stepping up to do a task. The authors of The Dark Side of Charisma highlight those people who jump in to give the appearance of leadership ability, rather than step up because it’s the right thing to do. They “self-nominate” so often that eventually everyone starts to buy what they’re selling, even when they’re not qualified to sell it.

    I could talk about it for hours, especially after witnessing the phenomenon in action for years. The whole subject of leadership is fascinating (and frustrating!).

    Thanks again for stopping by to read!

  6. Doesn’t it make you insane to be talking to someone and you can tell they’re just waiting for you to shut up so they can jump in and talk about themselves? Ugh!

    • Yes! I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that, but I really try to actively listen to people when they talk. Listening is a skill – one at which I don’t excel all the time. I’d like to be known as a listener!

  7. Great post! Most people have a natural inclination to do either one or the other–clam up or self-promote, the happy medium is hard for most people. Something to work towards!

  8. i have to say, the happy medium is not hard for me. unless, of course i’m going on about my fabulous then i tend to drone on and on.

    i am quite narcissistic. i need help.



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