Keeping Things In Perspective

One of the things I used to struggle with early on in my career was keeping things in perspective. I remember one of my earlier managers telling me “to never get too high on my highs or too low on my lows.” Thinking back, this was really good advice that I’ve learned to apply in many areas of my life.

I was working in sales at the time and following this advice was critical to staying level-headed when things were going great, and disciplined and focused when things weren’t. I can’t say for sure if developing this sort of mental, emotional neutrality helped to advance professionally, but I can definitely say that it has come in handy from time-to-time in many other ways.

Mental, emotional neutrality is great in the professional world. While I think this is a good characteristic to develop at work, I have sometimes had a hard time turning it “off” when I’m not at work. There are times when I should be outwardly excited about something good that just happened (like getting what I want for Christmas or breaking even on my tax return), and yet I remain emotionally even-keeled. I’ve gotten a lot better over the years separating my work-brain from my non-work brain, and I will say that it’s not nearly as hard as it used to be. Although I’ve improved, I still find it easier to celebrate the exciting things happening in other people’s lives (like my kids, my wife, etc) than I do in my own. And it’s not because I’m not excited, it’s just that for so many years I had to maintain this mentality that I have to sometimes deliberately turn it off.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is a great example of properly measuring the professional success of others and putting their success into the right perspective. Gladwell posits that a person’s individual success is not only due to their hard work, but also (and more so) due to the circumstances in their environment. Of course there are academics who criticized Gladwell’s theories calling his research methods unacademic, highly anecdotal, and lacking the basic fundamentals of the scientific method. While “academically” there may be better ways for Gladwell to support his theses, I think most people would agree with the overall concept that hard work alone does not guarantee success and that there are environmental and socio-economic factors that come into play as well. This is so important to understand because so many people view their success as a measure of someone else’s, and quite frankly I think this is a losing battle. The reality is, “success” is subjective and everyone faces different obstacles to get where they are in life.

Last week I posted about Kapor Capital’s “distance traveled” metric and how they take this into consideration when choosing which entrepreneurs to invest in. They understand that a person’s social and economic environmental conditions can play a big part in a person’s journey to where they want to go. Gladwell builds on this notion that the success achieved by the protagonists in his book had so many other things work in their favor that achieving the level of success that they did had a lot more to do with their environment than just their hard work alone.

Keeping things in perspective is an ongoing mental exercise which requires you to deliberately take a step back from the details and think about what the end purpose/goal is. This ties in very well with a blog post I wrote a while ago about valuing progress over perfection. It seems truly effective leaders are able to stay focused on the bigger picture while effectively managing the details. Because most of the entrepreneurs I work with are so early in the development of their companies, they haven’t yet had the opportunity to focus on the big picture because they are either required to be (or haven’t figured out how not to be) in the details. On the contrary, most CEOs at larger companies schedule time throughout the year to get away, take a step back, and remove themselves from the details so they can stay focused on the bigger picture. This is not only important for CEOs to do, but for all of us to do from time-to-time so that we don’t lose sight of the things that are most important (family, etc).

For most of us, losing perspective from time-to-time is normal (we’re human). In fact, sometimes I think it’s probably good for us to abandon our perspective so we can go through the process of reshaping and broadening it. Broadening your perspective is helpful for understanding opposing perspectives, self-discovery, and keeping an open mind. Certainly the more open-minded you are the more likely you are to have a broader perspective in general. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing. Cheers — KM