They call me Mr Wonderful

Call me Mr Wonderful - image for article by Greg Alder

I have a hypothetical question for you. Before I ask it, let’s take a moment to get into an affirmative mindset.

Let’s start with a known truth:

You are brilliant!

No argument there. Well, no argument from you, at least. No argument from your partner. No argument from your kids. Or your dog. No argument from your devoted staff. But from your clients? Well who knows? After all, they have proved themselves to be really poor judges of brilliance.

Time and again, clients have failed to appreciate the work you do for them. They failed to understand that you could be asking even more for your time than you do right now. They failed to understand pretty much everything that makes you the lauded master of your craft that you are.

This is annoying. But it’s not surprising. After all, appreciation is subjective. And subjectivity is a pain in the butt because it’s so, well, subjective.

“I think I’m great. You don’t. So you must be wrong.”

It doesn’t work like that and we all know it.

But here’s what’s going on in your client’s mind. Your client thinks you’re average. God knows how he or she arrived at this ludicrous assessment. Let’s see if we can work it out.

Let’s say you’re a lawyer. Now go back to your days at university. (This is sounding like a session with the psychologist, isn’t it?) Let’s say you spent most of your time on campus hitting on members of the opposite sex (or same sex, if you’d come out before or during your uni days). Nevertheless, you still managed to become dux. You got honours in every subject. Come graduation, you were courted by the leading law firms around town. You got a job without really trying. You got paid an indecent sum of money for a 23 year old.

Now let’s say the early years of your working life continued along the same lines as your undergraduate life. You still spent most of your time hitting on the opposite (or same) sex. And just as you had on campus you managed to shine without really trying.

Before long, your colleagues started to sense what you’ve known all along (well at least from your days on the school debating team). That is that you are a natural at this. Smart, persuasive, erudite, emphatic, intuitive – add another hundred or so adjectives if you so desire. In fact, the more, the merrier.

Success is magnetic. It’s only natural that you found yourself constantly in the company of people who felt the need to tell you how fabulous you are. Well perhaps they didn’t actually tell you, but that was only because they were too embarrassed to use the words. In any case, you could see the adoration in their eyes. And that’s close enough to a declaration of love for us … or you, in this instance.

Now if you go through your working life without anyone ever questioning your brilliance, you’ll never ever doubt your own brilliance. In fact, rather than confronting anything likely to diminish your sense of self, the opposite happens. With your mind given absolute and unchallenged freedom to fantasise, you become more brilliant every day. In your own humble opinion.

Hey, good looking!

Okay, pay attention now. Here’s your hypothetical question.

Imagine for a moment you are entering personal details for an online dating service. How would you describe yourself?

Do you possess:
A. Very good looks?
B. Above average looks?
C. Average looks?
D. Below average looks?

Hands up all those who answered A or B. Okay, C? And finally, D? Hmm. Not many Ds out there. But a lot of As and Bs. (Trust me, you can’t see the raised hands I can see.)

Now, there’s some good news and some bad news in this. The good news is that it’s encouraging that you have a positive view of yourself. The bad news is that you are fooling yourself.

Three academics studied the personal details of about 30,000 users of online dating services. What they found was that close to 70% of the men and women using the dating services claimed above average looks.

It’s possible that an unrepresentative number of good-looking people use Internet dating services, but it’s also possible these people are exaggerating their good looks. In reality 70% of the population can’t be above average – unless you somehow weight the results so that a butt-ugly person equals for 2 good-looking people.

Not only were the people using the dating service better looking than average, they were also much wealthier than average. 4% claimed to earn over US$200,000 a year (in truth only 1% of Internet users earn this much). They were also about an inch (2.4cm) taller than average. The women weighed about 20 pounds (9kg) less than average.

It’s not hard to understand why these people might have fibbed a bit and made themselves handsomer, wealthier, taller and slimmer than they really were. If they were brutally honest, they’d receive fewer responses from potential partners. This is especially true since if you claimed to have “average looks”. The average (good looking) reader would presume you’re actually “below average” – even if you seem to look okay in the photo (if it is indeed a photo of you).

We all fib a bit about ourselves. We do it by exaggerating our looks in online dating service ads. We embellish our achievements when filling out résumés. If women, we make our breasts look bigger by wearing padded bras or by getting implants. If men, we make ourselves look fitter by sucking in our stomachs.

We spend a fortune at the beautician, the hairdresser, the boutique and the gym. We spend hours in front of the mirror plucking, camouflaging, highlighting, teasing and tucking to make the most (or the least) of what we’ve got. Why? To catch someone’s eye. To find a mate, whether for the night or for life.

The same thing happens in business.

When we first meet a potential client, we are on our best behaviour. We select our words to impress. We brandish our wit, our education, our travels, our culture, our liberalism (unless our client’s a redneck). Our experience and our status dazzles.

When we make our first PowerPoint presentation to a new client, we shout our achievements in as large a type font as the slide will allow, even fudging the details just a little.

When we show our portfolios, we show examples of our very best work. (Never mind that much of it was actually done by staff members who have since departed. They were paid by you at the time. Besides, their ideas couldn’t have originated if not for the creative culture you painstakingly created.)

The truth is that you are spectacular and you know it.

Then one day somewhere down the corporate track something happens to dull the glow of self worth. A client says something that makes you wonder if he has momentarily lost sight of your brilliance. He fails to appreciate the audacity of your new architectural masterpiece. He asks if you’ve brought along an alternative to the strategic plan you’ve just presented. He doesn’t rush to kiss your ring finger (or your ring).

How can that be? Why does he no longer genuflect when you pass? Why has he risen from his knees? Why does he no longer worship at the Church of You?

The first time this happens, it comes as a real shock. Nothing can prepare you for it. What follows is invariably a lonely time of incomprehension. How? Why?

You examine and re-examine what you presented. It’s brilliant. You knew it the moment you thought of it. Everyone you showed it to also thought it was brilliant – all the people you trust, your inner circle, your directors and your closest advisors. (You know the ones. The ones you invite out on your cruiser, the ones you invite to play a round at your country club, the ones you invite to Sunday lunch at your weekender, the ones you pay a six-figure bonus to every year.) They all think you’re great. They all tell you how brilliant your work is. So why doesn’t your client?

Well, and this is the bit that I warned you about at the beginning of the chapter, here’s one possibility –

You’re not the god you think you are

Is it possible that you’ve deluded yourself all these years? Is it possible that those compliments were delivered by people with ulterior motives? Is it possible that your client is a better judge of you than you are?

No, you’re right! It couldn’t be! There’s no way that you could have done so well for so long if you weren’t a genius. The truth must be that for some inexplicable reason your client no longer shares your lofty opinion of yourself. Who knows why or how? So here’s what I want you to do. Repeat after me:

“My client is an idiot. I am right and he is wrong. I am great and he is not. I am a god and he is a pleb. That is why I am having trouble with my client. He is jealous. And who could blame him?”

Right. That’s settled then. But …

There is just one other possibility.

Not likely, but possible all the same.

Maybe – are you ready for this? – you were brilliant once, but not any more. Maybe you’ve just … stopped … trying. Maybe you’re on autopilot. Maybe you have become so good at what you do that you don’t have to work at it – so you don’t. Maybe you’ve stopped innovating. You recycle and reapply old ideas. Maybe you’re now working to a tried – and tired – formula. Maybe you’ve become disengaged with the career that used to excite you.

You’ve become a Las Vegas lounge act, regurgitating old hits for the Depend set.

Who am I to make such accusation? I have been there. I spent six or seven years in the 90s marking time. I was partner in a globally successful business. I was earning big money. I was showing up to work, executing my craft with ease, but I was absent emotionally and spiritually.

I know I’m not the only one to mark time. Research shows that 87% of workers around the world are either not engaged or actively disengaged. I am proof that disengagement can happen at every level of your organisation.

Reengaging staff isn’t easy. Nor is reengaging yourself. Rekindling passion in the office is hard work (as hard as it is in the bedroom). But it can be done.

Be honest. Are you as wonderful, enthusiastic and engaged as you once were? If not, change what you need to rekindle your creative passion and your wunderkind flair. Change your routine. Find new challenges. If it ain’t broke, break it! I promise you will feel your young self.

It’s taken fifteen years to reinvent and reinvigorate me. Individual results may vary.

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