I’m not talking about the will to get up in the morning and begin to check things off of your list. I’m talking about the mens rea, the intention behind what you or your employee is doing. What is your mindset as you move through your day, interact, learn, and do?
For knowledge workers, I believe the approach to work is as important as the doing. For those of us delivering a product largely born from our brain, the why behind our doing provides the edge our clients pay for. We must, of course, get things done, but those accepting money for their brain product are not on an assembly line, and we aren’t turning in assignments. There has to be more than a work product. Our clients expect us to go deeper, to operate from curiosity, and develop fluency specific to their markets.
As business leaders, it’s difficult to identify people with the right motivation. At BS+Co, we identified risk-taking, curiosity, and obsessive behavior as characteristics symptomatic of the mens rea likely to produce the right results.
Our ethos also leans heavily on the idea of resiliency. People that strive to bring to life new, impactful, and meaningful work inevitably fail more often than taking a wash, rinse, and repeat approach to the same work. Resiliency isn’t always a result of curiosity and a willingness to take a risk, but if you see resiliency and peel it back to see curiosity and a little obsession, you might be on the right track.
Let’s take a simple, more formulaic example:
You pit two people, let’s call them Contestant One and Contestant Two, against each other in a week-long cake baking competition. You don’t put any parameters in place in terms of what they can or cannot do.
On day one, they peruse recipes, each choosing one that seems good, following the recipe, and tasting the cake. Each contestant chooses and bakes cakes and tests different recipes the following day. Now that both contestants have several baked cakes under their belt and they are starting to hone in on the cake that they want to bake, this is where we see their behavior diverges.
Contestant One starts pulling all the recipes for the type of cake they will present, trying to find an edge from the recipes. Maybe Contestant One even pulls from and synergizes a couple of different recipes.
On the other hand, on day three, Contestant Two stops looking at the recipe and instead starts baking at different temperatures, researching the countries that produce nutmeg and trying to understand how different soil might affect the cake, and playing with yeast activation. Contestant Two ends up creating cakes that don’t rise, are too dry, or taste like spiced bark because Contestant Two over-emphasized the nutmeg. Contestant Two has some epic failures, while Contestant One is getting a little better each time.
At this juncture, I believe Contestant Two has already pulled away from Contestant One in the goal of baking the best cake, even if traditional measurements don’t appear to support that.
Contestant Two’s research, risks, and failures provide insight into and a deeper understanding of the composition and behavior of the ingredients under various conditions. Contestant Two has a deeper understanding of their cake. Contestant One, on the other hand, may have still produced a better cake at the end of the week. Moreover, Contestant One was always producing a better and better cake.
It’s hard to find Contestant Twos because our system for declaring success too often looks at the day three results. Our schools promote recipe following.
Hiring a Contestant One is less risky than hiring a Contestant Two because they may not bring to life the greatest cake ever baked, but there is no risk they may show a client a gooey spiced bark mess and call it a cake. Also, in real life, our peers and employees aren’t given a week to devote and obsess over baking a single cake.
There are things that organizations can do to buoy the learning curve, such as implementing fail-fast approaches. Companies can promote cultures of curiosity and support, but the fact is that by the time someone finds themselves in a role where the product is a result of their mind, the characteristics are already ingrained.
At BS+Co, we find success in pairing Contestant Ones with Contestant Twos. Our strongest strategists are obsessive and are able to go through the day three experiences on day one. Failing fast is usually better than succeeding on the first try.
In my cake example, both contestants started by accessing information from those that did it before rather than turning on the oven and blindly mixing ingredients. While visiting the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg as a teenager, I heard a quote attributed to Dali (which I can’t find now), “You have to first master the masters before you can master yourself.” As I looked at his masterpieces and thought about that quote, it resonated with me. I find that it continues to be true.
I argue, though, that even the process of “mastering the masters” is a departure from our current approach to education pre- and post-graduate work. Sure, finding a Ph.D. is a great way to find someone with the appropriate curiosity and desire to create something new after mastering the masters, but I believe there are Ph.D. people that never entered college who are eager to be identified by companies that celebrate Contestant Two characteristics.
In summary, I hate doing taxes.