My wife Emily and I have recently been going through some old files in our basement, clearing some stuff out and making some much-needed room in an already-crowded basement. And whenever one starts opening boxes from long ago, two things always seem to happen. You find some stuff, and wonder “why did I ever keep that?” And you find some other stuff and say “I am glad I kept that!”
Buried in the corner of our basement, I found a box that was labeled “Olympic Campaign, 1995-2000.” Anyone who knows me well, knows that a major part of my young adult life included a big effort (called a “campaign” in sailing parlance) to qualify for the 2000 US Olympic Sailing Team. My teammates and I accomplished some extraordinary things along the way, but in the end we fell just short, losing in the final race of the Olympic Trials, on June 11, 2000. We lost by about ten feet… yep, ten feet. That was the difference between winning a spot on the 2000 Olympic Sailing Team, and not. So, today, in the corner of my Latimer office sits a trophy that says “2nd place, 2000 US Olympic Sailing Trials.” I am proud of that trophy now. But for a few years after, it was a signifier of pain, not pride.
So, back to the story in the basement…
I opened this box, and found lots of wonderful memories. The sweat-stained hat that I wore for years while racing… My racing gloves, now crisp with dried salt and sweat… Pictures, lots of them… Some cool trophies I had forgotten about… And a notebook. When my original teammates and I started training in 1995, there was a lot we did not know about competition at that level. In particular, I was in way, way over my head. I was completely unqualified to compete at that level. But what I did have in my favor was a control of my ego. I desperately wanted to compete at that level, and I wanted to be good. I knew that in order to make a big performance jump, I was going to have to swallow my pride and make myself open to coaching, input and feedback. So I became a sponge for information, starting with our very first competition in August of 1995, in Kingston, Ontario. I started a notebook on that first trip, and I kept that notebook for the entire six years.
As I sat in my basement the other night, I started thumbing through the notebook, and the memories were so thick I had to almost brush them away like cobwebs around my head. Some of the early entries… Interview with Dave Curtis, world champion… conversation with Jesper Bank, Olympic champion… In those early days, I would walk around the boat park, find the best guys I could, and ask them questions. I had the advantage of being unknown, so they weren’t threatened by me, and were actually quite forthcoming with information. How do you set up your boat? What sails do you use? How tight do you tune your mast? On and on these conversations went.
Eventually, our skills evolved, as did the names of my teammates, and by the end we were legitimate contenders and among the best teams in the world. Great memories.
My point for you today is that there is great power in managing the ego. But it isn’t easy. Many company cultures actually inhibit the free flow of ideas, because people are afraid to admit they don’t know something. So many people are always trying to show how much they already know, even when they don’t know much. And many believe that an admission of not knowing something is professional suicide.
What a shame. What a loss. We all would be so much better off if we allowed ourselves and our colleagues to be vulnerable, and admit weakness or a lack of knowledge. Think about how empowering it would be if you could approach a colleague and say “I don’t know how this works, can you explain it to me?” Some companies have such a culture. Many don’t.
My point to you today is to think not only about the way you conduct yourself in the workplace, and how vulnerable you allow yourself to be. But also think about the company culture that you contribute to. Do you allow others to be vulnerable? Do you allow others to ask questions or admit they don’t know something without repercussion?
If my ego was in the way, I never would have made the jump from the club level of sailing to the Olympic level. I had to manage my ego, and not be afraid of looking bad. This is a key component to skill development, in any endeavor.
Think about it, for yourself, and the company culture you are a part of.
Have a great day.