career two by four

Lately I’ve had occasion to give advice to a few people who are early in their careers.  I always find myself amusingly inept at this activity – the more actual experience I have, the more young people think I have something useful to tell them, but the further I am from the time when I was actually making the decisions they face, so the less accurate my recollection is, and the more my advice is colored by soft nostalgia rather than rooted in hard facts.  The wisdom of experience turns into the banality of platitudes.

Of course, none of this stops me from spouting on and on about how to manage your early career.  One set piece I often relate is that there are only four personal characteristics that can advance your success: Intelligence, Diligence, Personality and Mentality.  Many people get very far early on with just one of these characteristics, and so they begin to believe that this characteristic is the most important or even the only important one.  When they begin to fail, they double down on the characteristic that they believe in, which only deepens their failure.

To understand why this is true, consider the other side of this same advice, which applies to people just learning how to manage teams.  There are few things as destructive to a team as the person who has one of the characteristics in spades, but lacks any useful amount of the others.  The brilliant genius who can’t get along with others, the guy who works terribly hard but always on the wrong things, the “people person” who plays politics rather than solves problems, the hard charger who plays to win at any cost – these are all different forms of the same cancer, and they must be excised from the team as soon as they are identified.

So development of the four characteristics rules both sides of the management divide.  And on either side, you have to have great strength in more than one of these characteristics, and you have to understand how all of them contribute to success.

best and brightest = delusional and egotistical

When are people going to realize that the phrase “best and brightest” is only used without irony by those whose egos blind their senses?

David Halberstam used The Best and the Brightest the right way when he wrote about the supposed brain trust in the Kennedy administration that led us into the Vietnam War.  The title has roots going back almost 250 years, when a pseudonymous protestor applied the caustic label to the fools in his government’s ministry.

And yet the phrase remains an irresistible cliche to people who embody the opposite of the literal words.  The CEO of AIG misuses the phrase when he says Treasury must allow over $100 million in bonuses to be paid for the firm’s performance last year.  That’s right, bonuses for year 2008, when they made the decisions that led to a financial disaster that has cost $173 billion dollars of taxpayer money so far.  In explaining this bizarre disconnect between actual performance and justifiable compensation, this delusional buffoon says, “We cannot attract and retain the best and the brightest talent to lead and staff the A.I.G. businesses — which are now being operated principally on behalf of American taxpayers — if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury.”

Wall Street workers must be especially immune to irony these days.  Judith Warner says it’s a relatively modern malady to call finance workers the best and brightest, though she seems unaware of the irony deficit involved in the labeling.  On the other hand, commentators from all around the political spectrum seem appropriately aware of the mistrust we should have of any collection of pointy-headed resume polishers.

Are Wall Streeters the most delusional about their own talent and worth?  Well, they at least share the top of the list.  A peripatetic career through law, finance and technology has exposed me to enough people, professions and archetypes to form this thoroughly unresearched hierarchy of vocational delusion and egomania:

Seriously delusional: high finance versions of bankers, investors, lawyers, and consultants. This only applies to those who deal in hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars daily.  Something about dealing with massive amounts of money causes these people to equate their self-worth with the heady figures involved.  Two factors encourage the greatest separation from reality: (1) the abstraction of money from actual value-creating activity makes it easy to misplace the truth, and (2) the impact of punishing hours of soulless work requires delusions of grandeur to justify the sacrifice.

Mildly delusional: doctors, engineers, and fiction writers. An odd grouping at first glance turns out to have important shared traits.  All are involved in the creation and expansion of life, doctors in the most literal sense and writers in an equally important artistic sense, with engineers somewhere in between.  High intelligence and passion is required for success, and at the most successful extremes, significant fortunes can be made.  So it is not uncommon in these vocations to believe that only the best and brightest could thrive in their fields.

Surprisingly humble: venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Because the most successful in these fields can become as rich as any in high finance, you might be surprised to find humility in their ranks.  However, although these two classes are often at odds (where one needs money and the other supplies it), they share a deep knowledge that success often arises from repeated failure and fortuitous circumstance.  These people know that the best and the brightest lose repeatedly to the persistent and the lucky.

Pathetically self-loathing: journalists and comedians. The best in these fields are every bit as bright as in any other vocation.  But the necessity of constantly examining the foibles of humanity leads to a misanthropic cynicism, which extends broadly to all throughout their view while saving the greatest contempt for the familiarity in the mirror.

These are obviously broad generalizations subject to many exceptions in every direction.  There’s no financier higher than Warren Buffett, who is famously humble; on the other hand, entrepreneur Larry Ellison is a reputed egomaniac.  And there are people in every category who hold dear to the belief that they exemplify “the best and the brightest” – and to these I say:  You’re right!