Harder Than It Looks, Not As Fun as It Seems

There’s a saying – I don’t know whose – that an expert is always from out of town. It’s similar to the Bible quote that no man is a prophet in his own country. That one has deeper meaning, but they both get across an important point: Everyone’s human, everyone’s flawed, nobody knows everything. So it’s easiest to convince people that you’re special if they don’t know you well enough to see all the ways you’re not.

Keep that in mind when comparing your career, business, and life to others.

Good advice that took me a while to learn is that everything is sales. Everything is sales. It’s usually framed as career advice – no matter what your role in a company is, your ultimate job is to help sales. But it applies to so many things.

Everything is sales also means that everyone is trying to craft an image of who they are. The image helps them sell themselves to others. Some are more aggressive than others, but everyone plays the image game, even if it’s subconscious. Since they’re crafting the image, it’s not a complete view. There’s a filter. Skills are advertised, flaws are hidden.

A friend recently complained about how inefficient his employer is. Processes are poor, communication is bad. He then said a competitor company had its act together. I asked him how he knew that – he’s never worked there and has never been inside the company. Fair, he said. It just seems that way from the outside.

But almost everything looks better from the outside. I guarantee workers at the competitor find flaws in the way their company operates, because they know about their company what my friend knows about his: how the sausage is made. All the messy personalities and difficult decisions that you only see when you’re inside, in the trenches. “All businesses are loosely functioning disasters” Brent Beshore says. But it’s like an iceberg, only a fraction is visible.

It’s the same for people. Instagram is full of beach vacation photos, not flight delay photos. Resumes highlight career wins but are silent on doubt and worry. Investing gurus are easy to elevate to mythical status because you don’t know them well enough to witness times when their decision-making process was ordinary, if not awful.

Of course there’s a spectrum. Some companies operate better than others, some people are more insightful than average. A few are extraordinary.

But it’s always hard to know where anyone sits on that spectrum when they’ve carefully crafted an image of who they are. “The grass is always greener on the side that’s fertilized with bullshit,” the saying goes.

Occasionally a window into reality cracks open. Warren Buffett’s biography The Snowball revealed that the most admired person in this industry has at times had a miserable family life – part his own doing, the collateral damage of life where picking stocks was the highest priority. Same for Bill and Melinda Gates in the last month. Elon Musk broke down in tears three years ago when asked about the mental toll of Tesla’s struggles. “This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids. And seeing friends.”

Sometimes the behind-the-scenes isn’t tragic but is just as revealing.

The Chris Rock I see on Netflix is hilarious, flawless. The Chris Rock that performs in dozens of small clubs each year is just OK. No one is so good at comedy that every joke they write is funny. So every big comedian tests their material in small clubs before using it in big venues. Rock explained:

When I start a tour, it’s not like I start out in arenas. Before this last tour I performed in this place in New Brunswick called the Stress Factory. I did about 40 or 50 shows getting ready for the tour.

One newspaper described Rock at the Stress Factory fumbling with material to an indifferent audience. “I’m going to have to cut some of these jokes,” he says mid-skit. That isn’t bad; he’s still a genius. But back to the iceberg: what most of us see is a fraction of what happened. And it’s stripped of all the hard parts.

It leads to a few things:

When you are keenly aware of your own struggles but blind to others’, it’s easy to assume you’re missing some skill or secret that others have. The more we describe successful people as having guru-like powers, the more everyone else looks at them and says, “I could never do that.” Which is unfortunate, because more people would be willing to try if they knew that those they admire are probably normal people who played the odds right.

When someone is viewed as more extraordinary than they are, you’re more likely to overvalue their opinion on things they have no special talent in. Like a successful hedge fund manager’s political views, or a politician’s investment advice. Only when you get to know someone well do you realize the best you can do in life is to become an expert at some things while remaining inept at others – and that’s if you’re good. There’s an important difference between someone whose specific talent should be celebrated vs. someone whose ideas should never be questioned. Eat the orange, throw away the peel.

Everyone’s dealing with problems they don’t advertise, at least until you get to know them well. Keep that in mind and you become more forgiving – to yourself and others.

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