It’s a line from the TV series, The Americans. In season 3, episode 3 FBI agent Stan Beeman is asked about his past undercover work where he infiltrated a white supremacist group. The colleague asks him how he was able to succeed in that assignment. Stan tells him you just keep on telling them what they want to hear, over and over and over again. Then he utters the great line, “People love hearing how right they are.”
Years of coaching people -mostly high performers ’cause they’re the ones most focused on getting better – have shown me how true it is. I’ve had a few non-high performers who resisted the process of coaching because they mostly wanted to hear how good they already are. Well, they thought they did until I challenged them to look more closely in the mirror and stop making excuses.
When we hear how right we are, we can avoid thinking about how wrong we might be. So I get it. The urge to constantly feel good about ourselves is real. It sure beats feeling bad about ourselves. But that’s the trouble with modern culture – the assumption that it feels bad to realize we can do (or be) better! It’s a lie though and most of us likely know it because we’ve felt tremendous pride in growing and improving ourselves.
Not Everybody Finds Value In Being Challenged – No Matter How Much Care Is Displayed
In 2007 a book was published that provided one of the biggest challenges to me – Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning. I loved that book because it challenged many things for me. It was invigorating. Immediately I started viewing business – the business I was operating – through a different lens. My curiosity soared, which is saying something because I was already driven by questions.
My experience with that book helped me better understand what had – up to that point – been a lifelong pursuit of seeking challenges. Challenges to my assumptions. Challenges to my perspectives. Challenges to what I had already learned.
It had begun from years of studying with older men about the Bible. Working hard to derive whatever wisdom could be passed on. Asking questions. Looking for areas where I could grow and improve. Turns out there weren’t any areas where I couldn’t grow or improve. 😉
In my 20s I developed a habit that was foreign to the industry where I worked. The business plan. I wasn’t involved in the startup world. I was mostly involved in more turnaround work – taking an existing enterprise from one level of success to a higher level. I began to write detailed, in-depth business plans to answer questions I’d ask about the organization I was involved in. I’d spend hours digging for the truth – looking for facts and evidence from which to draw conclusions.
3M was a premier company at the time. Not that they’re not today, but I knew some employees of 3M and it was clear their company was on the bleeding edge of innovation and fact-finding. These were the days of Jack Welch’s General Electric, and I became a big fan. Those two enormous companies – 3M and GE – were very instrumental in my quest to challenge myself.
This was my professional life in the early 80s.
By 1982 I was beginning to gain some insight into how others viewed being challenged. I was forming my own leadership philosophy – and my own business viewpoints on how to best build, organize and grow an organization. The more people I hired the more apparent it became that the ideal candidate for my style of leadership were people who most enjoyed being caringly challenged. Heavy on the descriptor, caringly. Which in my mind didn’t mean soft-pedaling, but meant you had to have the other person’s best interest at heart.
I learned the hard way that sometimes it didn’t matter how much I cared. The other person sometimes had no interest in being challenged. I sought answers to find out why. Sometimes it seemed the other person simply had little or no experience with the sensation. Sometimes I could explain. Sometimes I couldn’t. I realized I had years of experience, from my earliest memory, of older folks challenging me. It dawned on me that I never felt picked on, competed with or anything else negative. These old folks wanted me to be better. I was thankful they were willing to invest time and effort into me but truthfully – I was driving the bus. I was seeking them out at every turn. And they were always willing, but it was me making the first move. Always.
At some point during a lunch with an older mentor, I learned their perspective – one previously unknown to me. After more questions and a lot more listening, he offered me a piece of encouragement that was delivered more like a statement. I was in my 20s. He was in his 80s. “You’re one of the most strategic thinkers I’ve encountered. Your willingness to question yourself and others is rare. You’re way ahead of the game because you seek answers and you’re willing to listen. Old guys enjoy passing it on to young guys who crave the wisdom.”
There it was – he was expressing what I was finding out in my hiring and leadership. He was craving people willing to be challenged. I was being that guy for him. At least I was one guy like that for him.
Through the years in my professional and personal life I learned more and more about how many people in my life weren’t concerned with learning or being challenged. Most simply wanted to be told they were doing great. I’ve spent decades attempting to crack that code – whatever code it may be that can unlock a person’s desire to see in themselves something better. It’s not an indictment on how well they’re currently doing. It’s more about reaching for something even better!
That’s why my wife has told me for decades, “You expect too much. I’m not sure they (whomever we might be talking about) can do any better!”
Such ideas were foreign to me. What do you mean they can’t do better? How is that even possible? Can’t we all grow and improve?
There’ve been times when I questioned it, but not for long. I always revert back to my default point of view, we can all grow and improve. But I’ve learned that not everybody is interested. Even more, I’ve learned that I don’t have the skills or ability to convert the uninterested into the interested. It seems to me that people either crave the challenge or they don’t.
The Closed Mind
For years I fixated (and attempted to figure out) why people didn’t crave what I was craving. The person with a closed mind couldn’t have been that way always…else they wouldn’t have learned anything. So at what point did they decide, they’d had enough learning…enough growth? Years of pondering haven’t provided me with any answers. Mostly, I concluded that people seemed to feel threatened. Instead of hearing about growth and improvement, they chose to hear “I’m not good enough.” It was perspective and it couldn’t be more different than how I saw the world. Or myself in it.
It’s not about being a contrarian. For me, it’s about not yet having reached the pinnacle. Ever. There are always new heights. Unrealized potential. Even if only incremental.
Over time I’ve been convinced by people closest to me – namely, my wife – that I may see in people what they’ll never see in themselves. But I don’t know how to unsee it. I don’t know how to resign myself to the fact that somebody half my age who thinks they have all the answers can find quantum leap growth if they’d only ask some questions and seek some answers. That if they’d venture into the land of pursuing wisdom – trying to figure things out – that there are a few older guys who might be thrilled to help them.
I’m slow to resign myself to the fact that many people – may be most people – just love being told how right they already are. And to be left alone in their self-esteem.
Time, Perspective & Learning How Wrong I Was
So I’m purging possessions in pursuit of a more modest lifestyle. Not that I’ve ever embraced an extravagant lifestyle, but I’m following my urge for a much simpler, plainer life. During this purge, I’ve come across mounds of paperwork. Letters. Notes. Documents of all sorts. I’ve managed to throw away well over 90% of it, but in kinda/sorta going through it, some documents have reminded me of past events where I wish I’d have made different choices and taken different actions.
For the past few days, I’ve thought about my regrets sparked by going through all these documents and I had an epiphany. After all, I am just a man in search of an epiphany.
Now that some time has passed and I’m no longer the same person I once was – hopefully, I’m better – I can look back and realize a few simple things resulted in my wrong decisions. One is pride. It’s always enemy #1. Two is failing to be true to my convictions. In almost every case that was sparked by the first one, pride. Pride will cause compromise. It will help you do things you might not otherwise do. Those two things sum up the overwhelming majority of regrets I have about my own behavior.
There are many things I’d do differently now that I’m older. And wiser. But when you’re 20, you don’t have the perspective or wisdom of an old man. You don’t have it when you’re 40 either. 😉
Life is a learning journey and I’ve learned a lot. It could easily be argued that had I not made those mistakes I wouldn’t be who I am today. Some would say that would be an improvement. (smile) But the journey of our life helps forge us into who we are – and who we’re becoming.
I’ve been wrong about so many things along the way, but I’ve learned. I am not who I once was. It’s not a Jekyll and Hyde kind of change, but it’s more of morphing into an improved (I hope) version of myself. I’m a better old man than I was a young man. I would hope to grow better still.
Mostly, I’ve learned to let go of pride…the kind best described as ego. The pride I’m hanging onto is the pride of wanting to do better. The desire to improve and forge new ground in accomplishment. The pride of knowing I’m giving good effort toward accomplishment. The pride of getting better. But ego is melting away, which wasn’t easy as a younger man. Young men are filled with ego. Some old men, too. But life has a way of showing you who’s boss and there’s a resignation that accompanies growing older. A resolve. It’s a good thing. If you’re older, and you learn it. I am. And I have.
Growth Doesn’t Happen Because You’re Already Right
Growth happens because you don’t yet know, but you learn. Or you haven’t yet figured it out, but you’re working on it. Or because you learn you’re wrong, which prompts you to learn what’s right. Or at least…more right.
Storms. Challenges. Being shown you’re wrong. Correction. This is the stuff of personal growth.
I don’t know your journey. I only know my own. My past, like yours, is in the books. It’s done. Over. Correct and fix what you can. Let the rest of it go. But leverage it for study, research, and figuring out the present and the future.
Today belongs to us. We can lean into hearing how right we are or we can lean toward wisdom and welcome the challenges that question whether we’re right or not. Those people and moments where we’re compelled to stop and think. And wonder, “Do I have this right?” More importantly, moments where we can display our dedication to figuring out whether or not we’ve got it right – and making real-time adjustments to our choices and actions.
Proverbs 26:12 “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
Philippians 2:3 “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Thankful To Teachers, Mentors & Old Heads
The highlights of my own growth and improvement resulted from hours and years spent with people willing and able to help me. People dedicated to my growth.
I now know that my pursuit of these people resulted in extraordinary outcomes that otherwise would have never happened. I sought out older, wiser men. I confessed my wondering. I asked questions. I shut up and listened. I learned. Taking it all in.
It started when I was a pre-teen and persisted until I began to lose these men to death. There were half a dozen or so who towered above the others. All were a decade, or two, or three ahead of me. Without them, I’m not who I am. My growth is largely due to their influence and instruction. And their caring challenges for me to step up and get better. My failures are all my own.
They’re all gone now. The original guys.
But I’ve sought out a few new ones along the way. Sadly, none can replace the guys who journeyed so many years with me. But I figure it’s how life goes. Old chapters give way to new ones. Yet to be written. So I’m busy writing…and hope to encourage you to keep writing your story, too. Let’s make it better. Always better.