All That Glitters

Don’t be scared to stand out from the crowd. But fight the urge to present yourself as more successful than you are.

A characteristic that we often encourage is:

Strong opinions, loosely held 1

The ideas behind this are good: act with conviction, but be prepared to change your mind when you get new evidence; don’t be scared to express a viewpoint, but expect to have to back it up with data when challenged. I’ve worked in teams that operated that way, and we got a lot done.

But it’s interesting how often this ambition actually manifests in groups as:

Wishful thinking, seldom exposed

Or even worse:

Loudest reckon wins

Whenever somebody seems definite, it’s useful to ask: “It sounds like you are 100% sure of that, is that right?” If they are honest the answer is nearly always “… actually, no”.

Likewise, we can test for tightly held opinions by asking what evidence it would take to force a change.

When we examine and challenge our own beliefs, and encourage others we work with to do the same, it builds a culture that values critical thinking and continious improvement.

Rather than strong opinions or, worse, loud reckons, the pithy summary of what we should aim for might be something like:

Explicit conviction, revised frequently

Confidence gap

Why do those founders who get the most attention predominantly come from the end of the spectrum that I’ll politely describe as “dodgy real estate agent”?

They are easy to spot because they all have the same tell: the fake corporate persona.

They talk and dress the way they think a serious business person should talk and dress. But there is always an uncanny valley.2 When they describe their business or their team it’s always in terms that attempt to make it sound bigger and more impressive than it actually is yet.

It’s depressing how far they get, just by being confident. Perhaps for this reason, founders are constantly encouraged to “fake it ’til you make it”, especially when trying to raise capital.3

Many people continue to give this unhealthy advice to inexperienced founders, even though saying “this is how you could help” is a significantly more engaging pitch to potential investors than “I already know all the answers” (which of course is never true, none of us do).

And investors often enable this behaviour by asking for accurate predictions across extended time frames. Forecasts are vital for teasing out the assumptions we’re making about the future, and often expose the holes in that logic, but we should always be clear they are estimates not promises.

Some investors love the bravado of a founder who is full of unearned confidence. Anybody taking that approach, and attracting investors like that, should pause and consider how those same investors might respond if (more likely when) the glitter has worn off. The same people who are most attracted to the glamour of an exciting sounding startup are often also the first to go AWOL when things get hard.

No doubt, there are some outwardly confident founders who have survived for years with a significant gap between their public image and their actual achievements. Sadly, these are often the people we choose to highlight and hold up as role models. That’s distorting.

I’ve bumped up against several who behave like this over the years. And I’ve always come away bruised. It increases their average outcome, but also massively increases the variability of outcome.

Benefit of doubt

Remember all the uninformed opinions shared very loudly during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the benefit of just a short period of hindsight, many of those predictions look a bit silly.

The most confusing of these were the people demanding certainty from leaders making decisions - e.g. about when the border would be shut or open, or when vaccines would be available.

As I commented at the time: 4

People demanding certainty right now are just looking for somebody to lie to them and make them feel better, somebody to put a hand on their shoulder and say “everything is going to be okay” even though they actually have no idea if things are going to be okay.

We don’t cope well with leaders who express doubts or uncertainty. And it hurts us all.

To quote Barack Obama: 5

After you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.

Fake certainty might be comforting in the short term but it also makes it more difficult to separate out those who don’t deserve our trust.

Level the field

One of the traits we berate ourselves about in New Zealand is our tall poppy syndrome.6

By this we usually mean our tendency to cut successful people down, when they get ahead, bringing them back down to earth with the rest of us.7

Do we though?

So many people who have been very successful in different fields are celebrated and respected and admired. How do they all escape this treatment?

Perhaps we need to be more specific in describing the behaviour we actually try to weed out.

This is what I see…

We put a lot of weight on how success is celebrated. We prefer people who, after scoring an amazing try, put their head down and jog back to halfway ready to receive the next kick-off. We don’t rate or tolerate people who need to pump their fists and dance about taunting the opposition in those moments, for example.8

We talk down anybody who talks themselves up. We use a complicated code in New Zealand. Things that are great are described as “pretty good”. Things that are terrible are “pretty average”. We’re generally suspicious of anybody who strays outside of that limited range.9

But we reserve our harshest judgement for people who celebrate extravagantly before they’ve even scored the try, claiming the credit before they’ve earned it. We don’t have much tolerance at all for showboating ahead of actual achievement.

I’ll be honest: I find it difficult to be upset that these are our preferences, given the alternatives. When people say “We need to celebrate our successes more” I hear “Vive la inequality!”

Is silence golden?

I give contradictory advice about this:

On one hand, I mostly think we’re all better off keeping our aspirations to ourselves until we’ve got something concrete to point at. When we don’t (and can’t!) know what the future holds it’s better to admit that, than guess with unearned accuracy. If we’re pressed for a guess, we can always give a range. The size of that range itself gives an indication about our level of confidence.10 It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver.

On the other hand, fresh eyes on plans nearly always makes them better, and I always tell founders to share what they are doing with whoever will listen and pay attention to the feedback they get. It’s much harder to get people to care enough to listen to ideas than to cope with their negative feedback.

The distinction is the difference between intentions and actions.

If we’re announcing our intentions (or worse, celebrating having them) we’re probably better off keeping our mouth closed and our head down until we have some actual progress to point at. There is even some evidence that sharing goals in advance makes it less likely that we will achieve them.11 But once we have a plan (or better, some early results) then it’s time to tell others and ask for their help.

What I say vs. What I do

Should we call ourselves a “cyclist” if we don’t ride regularly?

Should we call ourselves an “entrepreneur” if we don’t yet have a product for sale and paying customers?

Should we call ourselves a “leader” if nobody is following us?

We apply aspirational labels like this constantly, but the behaviours that should underpin them are far less common.

People who are good at marketing themselves are always going to hog the headlines. And we tend to assume those who are visible are credible. So the temptation to fake it is huge. It’s much easier to claim a label than to earn it.

That crowds out others who are less visible. Without credibility we need to start from the very beginning in every new conversation. Others will always wonder: who are you, why are you interesting, how come I’ve never heard of you, and why should I even pay attention? That’s exhausting.

Worse, this amplification can easily turn into a feedback loop that creates a big gap between perception and reality. When that gap closes it’s always uncomfortable and when it snaps shut suddenly it can be very painful for everybody involved - the person who has been faking it and the people who believed them.

We may never solve for this.

But maybe we can collectively get better at stopping the feedback loops before they grow and cause problems: by amplifying different voices; by looking further through the façade to find the substance; by celebrating and rewarding achievement rather than identity; and by applauding the pilot for landing the plane rather than for re-fuelling the plane.

Until then, perhaps we could start by being a little less surprised each time gravity re-asserts its dominance.

Chinese painting of poppies
Chinese painting of poppies

  1. This blog post by Stanford University Professor Paul Saffo seems to be where the expression originated: Strong Opinions weakly held, 26th July 2008. ↩︎

  2.  Uncanny valley, Wikipedia↩︎

  3. Your body language may shape who you are by Amy Cuddy, TED Talk, 2012. ↩︎

  4. Rowan Simpson, Twitter↩︎

  5. Obama’s Way, Vanity Fair, 11th September 2012. ↩︎

  6. Tall poppy syndrome, Wikipedia↩︎

  7. This is very different from the original meaning of tall poppy syndrome, which described a technique used by a powerful leader to cut down any other influential people before they were able to challenge their authority.

    See: Lucius Tarquinius Superbus↩︎

  8. Phil Kearns gives the fingers after scoring, YouTube↩︎

  9. This trait isn’t unique to New Zealand and Australia. For example, in Nordic countries this is called Law of Jante↩︎

  10. See Thinking in bets by Annie Duke. ↩︎

  11. When Intentions Go Public, by Peter M. Gollwitzer, Paschal Sheeran, Verena Michalski, and Andrea E. Seifert, Journal of the Association of Psychological Science, 2008. ↩︎

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