American View: To Thrill a Mockingbird

People love to be told that they’re perfect just the way they are. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that the social media manipulators who publish this sort of ‘like-and-share’ pablum are holding people back from becoming mature professionals.

Many LinkedIn posts support the hypothesis that people yearn to be constantly reminded that they’re fine just the way they are – that they don’t need to work towards self-improvement. Admittedly, it can be hard to see the pattern in a casual perusal. Once you clear away the hyperbolic political screeds and the promoted adverts, though, around 20 per cent of the re-posts, shares and endorsements that appear in the average LI feed are cute infographics featuring pithy sayings that suggest that the reader ‘has what it takes’ to be a success. You’d think that many of these had been created by someone interested in encouraging others. I suspect that most of these were actually created to cynically farm ‘likes and shares’ by playing on readers’ fear of inadequacy.

I understand the psychology behind the messages. The more that a person is exposed to others’ lives (both in the office and online), the more that he or she begins to suspect that that they’re not nearly as competitive as they ought to be. This guy over here became a billionaire at age 20… but I didn’t. This girl became a CEO before she was old enough to legally drink… but I didn’t. These shiny, happy millennials got into Oxford and have guaranteed jobs waiting for them after graduation… and I don’t, etc. If an average, competent adult tried to measure his or her relative worth based solely on what they see presented on social media, the drinks cabinet and the razor can’t be far behind. Everyone else posting on social media seems to be a superstar because people crave praise.

That, in turn, is why the ‘like-farming’ feelgood content is so insidiously attractive: these single-frame graphics – usually block text superimposed over a semi-transparent landscape or an office setting – tell the reader that he or she actually shares many of the traits, characteristics or habits of all those wildly successful people that seem to be forever haunting their timeline. People crave validation; some spark of encouragement that there’s still hope. That they can still ‘make it’ into the club of super successful, super popular, enviable folks.

You know the sort: perfectly dressed, always attractive, happy all the time, rich, popular, and wholly fictional.
You know the sort: perfectly dressed, always attractive, happy all the time, rich, popular and wholly fictional.

That’s why these insidious little graphics have an effect on decent, intelligent, educated social media users: the messages are optimized to poke at people’s insecurities. Better, they offer the reader a sliver of false encouragement. A reader feels better after consuming the content, and then feels good again after they re-sharing the content with their connections. It’s a double hit of self-satisfaction.

Personally, I despise these things. First I loathe like-farming and its exploitative tactics. The people who generate these products don’t give two *£&’s about their audience. These are con artists; they inject shiny garbage into the social media ecosystem in order to trick unsuspecting users into spreading their content. Each share action boosts the popularity of the con artist’s account, allowing the seeder to then leverage his or her popularity – often for advertising revenue and user data harvesting . Second, I hate these deceptive posts because the ideas that they propose are almost always wrong.

One of these pseudo-reassuring posts recently appeared in my LI feed three times in the same day, so I’ll use it as a practical example. This appeared to be an unattributed photo of someone’s whiteboard, presumably hanging in an office building. There weren’t any people in-frame, or any other clues to suggest where it originated. Hand-written on the whiteboard was this message:

10 Things That Require Zero Talent

  1. Being On Time
  2. Work Ethic
  3. Effort
  4. Body Language
  5. Energy
  6. Attitude
  7. Passion
  8. Being Coachable
  9. Doing Extra
  10. Being Prepared
Sort of like how actors rely exclusively on their acting talent to succeed in films, and not on hundreds of support personnel to make them look good.
Sort of like how actors rely exclusively on their acting talent to succeed in films, and not on hundreds of support personnel to make them look good.

Let’s be honest with one another for a second: did reading that list make you feel good about yourself? Even for just a second? There’s nothing to be ashamed of if it did. That message was very cynically crafted to appeal. The average target for this post was probably a lower-middle-class to lower-upper-class professional adult who feels like they’re not living up to their full potential, and/or isn’t measuring up to the images of more successful people that are posting on LinkedIn. That covers… pretty much 90 per cent of LI’s user base. At the very least, all of us that read our LI timelines.

The message is supposed to seem encouraging. Ideally, a reader will recognize one or more qualities on the list as qualities that he or she possesses. That makes readers feels better about their own prospects. ‘I’m always on time,’ he/she thinks, ‘and I don’t have any “talent”, so therefore, by the transitive property of social media, I am just as likely to succeed in life as a person who got ahead via their natural talent(s)!’

It’s only when we step back and consider the implied message that it all collapses like a chocolate teapot. Being successful in a professional endeavour requires a minimum amount of either skill plus experience, or else a minimum amount of insulting wealth so that you can simply buy success from others. We’ve had decades of scholarship devoted to proving these rules: either be good at something, or be wealthy enough to rent others who are good at that thing. Preferably, be both.

So, if you don’t have scads of cash lying about to throw at your troubles, you need to be skilled. ‘Talent’ is defined as ‘a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught’. It’s generally safe to assume that a person who possesses the natural ability to perform a task will be more appealing to a coach, talent scout or hiring manager than a person who only has technical experience. The common assumption is that a person who possesses natural talent will eventually develop skill (through the process of exercising his or her talent) and will thereby become twice as good at whatever it is that they do. Meanwhile, a person who only possesses skill can’t ‘add’ natural talent later. Put another way, skill can be gained through experience, while talent cannot.

If you don’t select the trait at character creation, you have to spend experience points to gain it. It’s in the rulebook.
If you don’t select the trait at character creation, you have to spend experience points to gain it. It’s in the rulebook.

This thing is, talent is often a valid functional replacement for ‘skill’ at the amateur level where the simplicity of a task means that talent can serve one-for-one substitute for practiced skill. An exceptional typist, programmer, athlete or sales weasel can dazzle the world when the bar for success is relatively low. Over time, however, professionals have to develop both a wide range of supporting skills and deep expertise in their primary function. Those professional improvements can only be learned (or bought); no one suddenly manifests an understanding of nuanced company politics because they were born with a physiological edge.

That’s why this feelgood list is lying to us when it describes these attributes as not ‘requiring talent’. Look at them again, and replace the word ‘talent’ with ‘skill’, since that’s really all that talent is… Does the message still hold true? Look at it dispassionately: do these ten things really require no skill whatsoever to achieve? For most of them, no; they require considerable skill and experience both.

Consider the idea of ‘being on time’. Some aspects of attendance and participation hinge on having a positive attitude (e.g. ‘I want to arrive on time!’) motivating a person to rise early, not procrastinate, etc. Much of success in attendance, however, hinges on logistics. For example, how crowded the motorway is on the drive to the office, or whether or not the train arrives on time. At least half of success in attendance lies outside of a person’s control, taking skill out of the equation. On the other hand, attendance can definitely be influenced by experience. For example, knowing how to read the flow of traffic so that you can recognize that a traffic snarl is up ahead. Learning the optimal way to reach the office by alternate routes. Memorizing the bus or train schedule. Working out how much slower things move during inclement weather, and so on.

Further, a large part of ‘being on time’ after you reach the office involves hard-fought-and-won experience in knowing how to disengage politely from a high-power superior. Executives don’t have this problem: they arrive or depart when it suits them, and everyone else abides. An underling, though, can’t just walk out on an executive while he or she is talking without it being a provoking act. It actually takes some darned impressive interpersonal Kung Fu skills (which could come from talent) and a thorough understanding of company cultural imperatives (which can only be learned from experience) to get out of a meeting gracefully in order to get somewhere else ‘on time’. So, success at ‘being on time’ clearly comes more from experience than ‘talent’.

To be fair, some natural talent as a sprinter can occasionally help in reaching the lift before the doors close.
To be fair, some natural talent as a sprinter can occasionally help in reaching the lift before the doors close.

I can flog this list to death, but I’ll only thrash one more because I find it to be the most egregious falsehood on the list: ‘being coachable’. At face value, the phrase means that a person is capable of being coached (making it an insipid phrase). ‘Coached’ means being trained, taught, prepared, instructed or tutored by another person who knows more about a subject than the subject. It’s the ability to improve oneself by paying close attention to, thoughtfully considering and then acting on the advice of others who know more than you do. Does that require skill? Damned right it does!

Go ask any coach, teacher or drill sergeant about what it means for a person to ‘be coachable’ and you’ll hear the same answer: most people are too stubborn, egotistical, arrogant and/or daft to actually take instruction well. That’s why coaches, teachers and drill sergeants all get exasperated and resort to shouting. People hate to be told what to do even when they know that the instruction is necessary. People bristle at the notion that they’re inferior to others in any way, even when it involves being proficient in a skill that they’ve never encountered before and can’t possibly be expected to know.

For that matter, most people’s egos automatically reject any advice – even well-intentioned, useful advice – that causes them to feel bad about themselves. People crave validation and praise, not harsh feedback. Hell, that’s why people fall for these feelgood LI posts in the first place! The ‘like-farming’ content plays to the irrational conceit that everyone is perfect just the way they are.

Being able to really listen to a more experienced professional and to embrace their criticism is a critical skill. A football player who won’t obey her coach is a liability to her team. A welder who won’t heed the admonishments of her safety inspector is a liability to her company. A soldier who won’t learn from her Sergeant Major’s incendiary bollocking is a liability to her squad mates. These people tend to plateau early in the fields that they aspire to be great in; as their unwillingness to suppress their own egos and really learn from others prevents them from overcoming their own limitations. By way of comparison, people who can compartmentalize their shame, anger, resentment and embarrassment that manifest naturally when they’re dressed down for failure are the people that can apply others’ advice to get better. ‘Being coachable’ is one of the most important characteristics that a person can develop in life.

Other than wealth, of course. When you’re born filthy rich, none of the normal rules apply to you.
Other than wealth, of course. When you’re born filthy rich, none of the normal rules apply to you.

Can a person possess a ‘talent’ for ‘being coachable’? Conventional wisdom says yes; I say no. I spent a quarter century training and leading soldiers, and came to the conclusion that no one (myself included) has a natural talent for suppressing their ego in order to really accept instruction that makes them uncomfortable. People have to be taught the concept and techniques for achieving confidence in humility. To truly break out of one’s natural egocentric view of reality, a person has to learn (almost always through humiliating failure) that he or she is inferior to other people in a given pursuit – and that the only way to get better at that pursuit is to learn from others.

This process – the means by which we all grow out of being selfish, oblivious children – is part of every adult worker’s professional development. It’s a necessary step in the journey towards maturity and wisdom. We all have one or more moments where our self-centric worldview gets shattered. This is necessary if we’re ever going to quit getting by on our natural talents and start the hard trek of learning how to be what our employer needs us to be.

That critical growth process won’t begin until a person stops insisting that they’re perfectly fine just the way that they are. All of these deceptive ‘like-farming’ messages are designed to exploit that idea; that is, they’re crafted to encourage people to remain obstinately juvenile (and, therefore, vulnerable to exploitation) by triggering little bursts of endorphins. What’s important to take away is that these messages are crafted to stroke a reader’s ego, not to help them improve in any way. Their pithy praise and generic words of encouragement aren’t going to make a reader become any more competitive than they were before. By extension, they’re not going to help anyone else that reads them either. That alone ought to be a good enough reason to stop before clicking on LinkedIn’s ‘share’ link.


Title Allusions: Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960 Book and 1962 Movie)

POC is Keil Hubert,
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, and Horrible Bosses at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

© Business Reporter 2021

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