#24 WHYs Partner - ME: A Deep Dive On Keith

[WARNING: This post is long. I wanted to get it over with in one shot.]

To Learn and Share.

That’s my personal WHY.  It's clean and simple. And I see no value in getting more specific.

What I do want to be more specific about is HOW I learn and HOW I share. And to do that I've decided to get negative. I've compiled a list of the most repeated negative things that people have said about me over many years. These come from bosses, coworkers, 360 reviews, family, friends, etc. To ensure accuracy, I’ve run the list through my trusty Joyce/wife filter. She verified that each negative was 100% spot on.

Next, I broke the list into groups. Nothing scientific, I just played with them a bit until they made some kind of sense to me.

GROUP 1:

  • DETACHED
  • OBLIVIOUS

GROUP 2:

  • STUBBORN
  • BULLHEADED
  • PERFECTIONIST
  • RELENTLESS
  • LOGICAL TO A FAULT
  • CYNICAL
  • SELF-CRITICAL
  • UNPLEASABLE (DO BETTER)

GROUP 3:

  • BLUNT
  • RUDE
  • INSENSITIVE 

GROUP 4:

  • OPPOSITIONAL
  • DISRESPECTFUL
  • INSUBORDINATE    

It’s my theory that I can turn these negative groups “upside down” to find the best parts of ME. Meaning that I believe my most dominant traits are double-edged swords. Handled without care they turn into the above list of negatives. Handled with care they can be my greatest strengths. 

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Let’s look at a fictitious example of this double-edged sword idea in action. Assume Pete's dominant trait is “Refuse To Lose”. If you’re working together on a sales team, and assuming Pete is ethical, you'll cherish him. His doggedness is going to put money in your pocket. But if Pete applies his "Refuse to Lose" at the company picnic, you might not think he's such a peach. He might be the idiot that runs over the other teams catcher to win the meaningless softball game. The exact same trait makes him a cherished teammate or an idiot depending on the application.

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Now that you have the idea, let's dive into these groups and find the good stuff that's hiding behind my flaws. Let's find the real ME.

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DETACHED and OBLIVIOUS were the first grouping that caught my eye. Given my WHY - to learn and share - this isn't a surprise. These two are what happen when I overdo the learning stuff. When I retreat, as I always have, to research and reading to find security.  Mentally disappearing for hours, days…heads down…not bothering to shower, change clothes… 

In a perfect world Joyce might respond to my oblivious nature with something like this. “It's OK that you spaced out on another conversation”. Or “I’m sure happy you read another book while seated in your comfy chair. Can I bring you some lemonade?”

That’s not exactly how it goes, but she is polite, much nicer than I’d be. If I was her, I’d sound more like this. “Get off your MFing ass you lazy freaking detached oblivious piece of shit.”  

Suffice it to say that being less than 100% present at times is not a qualifier for Husband or Employee of the year. But it’s me. I can do better, I can put systems in place to snap me out of it. But the reality is, I am always going to have a tendency to default to “inside my head”.  

So DETACHED and OBLIVIOUS are negative symptoms of over-applying my WHY. But when I look at the other edge of that double-edged sword I find goodness. It's good to KNOW my stuff. To be able to block out the world and grind when necessary. It's paid off at work at school and at home. People have, on many occasions, asked me for help when the chips were down. They know I'll dive deep.

So the underlying dominant trait is a need to KNOW what I’m talking about. It’s a pillar of being ME. And it's my job to get better at not overdoing it.

Along those lines, I've made a tweak in the past few years that's paid nice dividends. When I’m writing or reading something complex I still disappear into my office. Close the door. Strap on my noise canceling headphones. But when I’m doing simple research or fact checking I reappear. I grab a laptop or an iPad and do it out in the kitchen or living room. More physical presence has made me less OBLIVIOUS and DETACHED.  

The other thing I’ve done is open up more about what’s unclear in my mind. In the past I’ve always shared interesting finds with Joyce. But now I’ve started sharing the stuff that confuses me. Admitting my less than brilliantness. I think I shied away from this in the past because it violated my “be a smart guy” persona. Big ego-driven mistake! I’m even finding it’s kind of fun to admit feeling stupid. 

Beyond fun, it's also valuable. The simple act of finding the words to express my confusion often gives me my answer.  Whether the other person says anything or not. It's so effective that I wish I'd discovered it when I was in the working world. Spent less time trying to solve things on my own. Been more comfortable voicing my confusion with teammates. I’m sure I stunted my own growth by wanting to be "the smart guy".

So KNOWingmy stuff is something I love and respect. It's all good so long as I don't let it slide into oblivious and detached. 

Now on to group 2...

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GROUP 2:

  • STUBBORN
  • BULLHEADED
  • PERFECTIONIST
  • RELENTLESS
  • LOGICAL TO A FAULT
  • CYNICAL
  • SELF-CRITICAL
  • UNPLEASABLE (DO BETTER)

This is a long list, and at first glance some of these might not seem related, but for me they are. They’re all symptoms of my learning process.

I’m deliberate - maybe even slow. The first time I encounter an interesting concept I’m not going to get it. So I attack. Books, podcasts, blogs, videos, whatever. 

Read and re-read

Take notes

Find supporting sources

Find dissenting sources

Throw shit away

Organize

Categorize

Throw shit away

Diagram / Mindmap

Throw shit away

Unload on the white board

Throw shit away

The way I get to KNOW my stuff is by DISTILLing. Removing impurities. Throwing shit away. Getting to the core. And until I see that core I'm stuck. I'll be stubborn and bullheaded and relentless and unpleasable.

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So If you have some whiz bang idea and you're waiting for me to sign off on it or invest in it, you have your work cut out for you. I must understand and accept the assumptions underneath the work before I'll move. You must help me DISTILL or we will stand still. 

That’s the down side. I can be a relentless, exasperating, pain in the ass. But, once you turn me. Show me the essence. Give me something I can understand and internalize. Then we're going places. I'll immediately become your biggest ally. I’ll go full blast and I’ll do it with conviction. Make hard decisions. Take risks. Accept whatever the outcome might be because I know why I'm moving. 

That's exactly how I felt the first time I did a tech start up. I understood the foundation of the place from day one. It was all about simple. Simple legalese. Simple contracts. Simple sales model designed to avoid channel conflict. Simple org structure. Simple product strategy. DISTILLed. It clicked at my core, and I was able to contribute with more energy than I knew I had. And while some days were painful, the journey was amazing. 

And now I'm on another painful amazing journey that's all about DISTILLing - this blog. I've been battling these topics for well over ten years and ten thousand hours. I wrote and edited 120,000+ words before I felt I had DISTILLed enough to build this site. And with all that, I’m still writing this post on the fly. I have lots of drafts for future ideas and a general outline, but I blow it up pretty much every week. It's never simple enough. I never feel like I've gotten all the way to the core. 

It's such a fixation for me that I measure my DISTILLation skills. Can you guess the readability level of this post?

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Fifth grade is usually as high as I’ll accept. Lately I’ve been getting them down to 4th grade. On this one I scored a heart warming 3rd grade level. I hope my struggle makes the blog easier to consume. Or maybe I'm past the point of diminishing return. It doesn't matter. I have to do it. (Yes, I do get the irony of discussing DISTILLation as part of the longest blog post I've ever written.)

So how do I control this double-edged sword of needing to DISTILL? By committing myself to a weekly publishing schedule.  This discipline forces me to accept that there are no perfect answers. That the last ten percent is useless. To write the damn post and hit publish whether I'm 100% DISTILLed or not. It's like a much needed brain medication that I despise and crave.

So DISTILLing is something I love and respect. It's all good so long as I don't let it slide into stubborn, unpleasable, perfectionist.

Now on to group 3.

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GROUP 3 

  • BLUNT
  • RUDE
  • INSENSITIVE

I credit my parents with this one. Whether by nature or nurture, at our house people said what was on their mind. My ex brother in law tells a story that sums it up best. He claims that for the first year he was hanging around our house he thought my name was “dumb son of a bitch”.  Point being, you spoke your mind at the Daniel house.

So I can see where the labels rude, blunt, and insensitive come from. If my job is to appraise your work and I think your work is average, I’ll tell you it’s average. Doesn’t mean I’m right or that my opinion should even matter. But I won't waste my time or yours by sugar coating. How do either of us benefit if we don't have a frank conversation?

And this kind of bullshit is the thing that drives me the craziest in the corporate world. I've read performance reviews that were so vague I couldn't tell a superstar from an idiot. Quit being a wimp. Look the person in the eye and tell them what you think. You can be polite, but don't cover it in so much BS that the point gets lost. People need to know if the alarm bells are ringing. That they're on the verge of losing their paycheck. Being complementary one day and then firing someone the next is what cowards do. Grow a pair and tell it like it is while they still have a chance for redemption.

And, if you're wondering, I do bring this same DIRECTness into our home. Like when Joyce asks me if certain clothes make her look fat - which she isn’t. I just call it like I see it, and she swears she appreciates my candor. That’s rock solid proof that DIRECTness can work even under the most dangerous conditions. And it can do more than just work. Applied with care it can actually become a strong asset.

I've had people tell me that they find my DIRECTness refreshing. They love knowing exactly where they, or the team, stands. And I believe them because their actions proved their words. I never had a problem getting people to join my teams at work. They knew we wouldn’t waste time on over the top political correctness. That we’d get shit done AND have fun in the process.

I'm almost finished with this topic, but before I move on I want to share one of my favorite beDIRECT stories. It took place fifteen or so years ago at the Berkshire Hathaway stockholders meeting. I’d read lots about it and wanted to experience it in person. So my brother and I bought stock - required to get the invitation - and made the trip to Omaha. We were there to see Warren Buffet - the Oracle of Omaha. We saw Warren, but the person that stole the show in my eyes was his partner, Charles Munger. During Q&A someone asked how Berkshire compensates the CEO's of their companies. Whether they used compensation consultants to help design the plans. Up to this point Charles had said few words, but this question got his attention. He raised his head, stared at the questioner, and said. (It’s been a few years and I don’t want to misquote him so this is a good estimate of his words.) “I’d rather put a viper in my shorts than sit down with a compensation consultant." Then he lowered his head and resumed his silence.

Fifteen or so words and every single person in that huge arena knew exactly where he stood. Sheer genius. Something to aspire to.

Bottom line, being DIRECT is a core part of my ME. I’m going to call it like I see it, AND I have to be conscious of the wake I leave behind. I think I'm better at this now that my kids are entering the workplace. I try to keep in mind how I'd like people to speak with them, and it takes my edge off. I'm still DIRECT, but I think I'm less likely to come across as rude and uncaring. And it's less likely that my point will get lost because my delivery was too harsh. 

So being DIRECT is something I love and respect. It's all good so long as I don't let it slide into rude, blunt, and insensitive. 

Now on to Group 4.

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What would happen if I was in a job where all three of my ME tenets KNOW, DISTILL, beDIRECT got blown up? I can answer that question because it’s happened twice. Once I almost ended up wearing Depends while still in my 20’s (I'll share those details some other time). And the other - I’ll share with you now. I’m going to be a little vague to avoid calling someone out, but you’ll get the point. This story should do a good job of explaining where GROUP 4 comes from. OPPOSITIONAL. DISRESPECTFUL. INSUBORDINATE.

I worked with a guy who I was 100% convinced didn't KNOW, didn’t DISTILL, and wasn’t DIRECT

He was about as high up as you can get in a many hundred million dollar company. And for some unexplained reason, he called me at home one evening to ask what I thought of his management style. You can imagine how this went. 

I told him...

  • He didn’t know our product. 
  • He didn't give two shits about our people beyond the dollars they brought to the bottom line. 
  • He was a liar. 
  • Working for the same company that employed him made me feel icky.

After hanging up the phone I told Joyce there was a 100% chance that I had just achieved early retirement. Which was a good feeling given that my WHY and my ME didn't fit at this company. 

Alas, no such luck. There was no cardboard box waiting for me the next day. No escort to the front door. Nothing happened.

In all honesty, those things should have happened. My approach was inappropriate. I was disrespectful and insubordinate. That's no way to treat anyone, regardless of title, but it does shine a light on another aspect of ME. 

If you want me to follow you I have to be confident that you know your shit and that you have a moral compass.  And, unfortunately, I tend to be a leadership cynic. I will assume that you don’t know your shit until proven otherwise. That’s not always a good thing. Shouldn’t there at least be some deference to the higher title? Nope, not in my world.

In my world the CEO is no different than the mail clerk. I’m just as DIRECT up the management chain as I am down. So Group 4 is the same as Group 3, it just clarifies that my DIRECTness works both up and down the org chart.

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So now you know what complements my WHY - my ME. People often think of this ME stuff as values, beliefs, traits, whatever. That's fine, I respect their name choices. But in my world, for my map, I'd rather avoid a label. This stuff is just plain old ME.

And my plain old ME teams with my plain old WHY to define the core of who I am and how I function. They're the combo that makes me me and they're here to stay.

Which is a good thing. Because when I apply them with care - magic happens. My life gets just a little bit better. Maybe 1% or 2% or whatever. It doesn't sound like much, but have you ever seen a compound interest chart?  Making tiny gains on a regular basis leads to awesome returns. 

The future looks bright...

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