Ask anyone about his or her level of driving ability and they will all say it is above average. This is, of course, true. When it comes to driving ability all rules of statistics become lies.
I consider myself above average. In my head, I am better than most. Not the best in the world of course. There are some people out there better than me but I like to think that I’m not the idiot merging without looking.
My problem is that this ‘better than average’ thinking applies across the board. It creates a kind of swagger, a confidence that is a boon in the modern world. Indeed if my predominant mindset was of inferiority I feel I’d be the one getting mugged. This ‘be the best or if not then better’ is so ingrained that I no longer realize what a powerful paradigm it is, until today.
This morning I awoke with exhaustion. Not the tired kind but the emotionally and physically drained feeling that screams stop, you must have a long rest.
A month of hard work, a greater than usual level of uncertainty that plagues all self-employed consultants, and a certain time of life combined in earnest. At least that would be the logical, dare I say above average, explanation. Only yesterday something happened to me.
I went for a job interview.
Yes, it was bizarre. It has been a very long time since I sat on the wrong, below average, side of the table. And I didn’t mind it at all. In fact, I quite like interviews. There is something about the required nimbleness of thought and speech that I find stimulating, enjoyable even. So the process was not a problem at all.
The generic questions were as crazy as you would expect from HR hacks with no idea of what the job entails, but the interview panel members had expert knowledge and duly nodded at my answers and laughed at my quips. Most importantly they seemed to know what they were doing.
All went well and I proceeded to a task. Apparently, a lifetime of science writing was not enough evidence of my skillset and I had to complete an on the clock summary of a 15 page brochure in words suitable for a web page in 30 minutes. Just follow the process I said to myself as I read the task description.
“Who is the web page for?” I asked without thinking, as nothing in the description hinted at the target audience.
“What message do you need to get across?” I said again without thinking even though that was not in the task description either.
I was, of course, responding to a below average set of instructions. Not particularly significant until I tell you that much of the interview I’d just completed involved several questions, answers and head nodding about the importance of getting the question right. No amount of information gathering and communication of evidence makes any sense unless you know who and what it is all for, I had said. Naturally, it is essential to iterate the Q&A to hone in on the critical needs. The panel seemed to enthusiastically agree.
In my above average head, all I was doing right now was the process I had described to unanimous agreement a few minutes before.
The chair of the interview panel stood next to me staring at the task description. He was the boss but he had no answers to my questions.
If he had said, “Just complete the task please” I would have shrugged and got on with it. After all, I was just processing out loud.
Instead, he visibly cowered, mumbled something about not knowing what was needed, and shuffled away.
“Good example of the iteration process,” I said firmly, harking back to my answer in the interview.
It was stupid I know.
A more empathic person would have recognized the body language as an expression of awkwardness, dare I say a slight inadequacy, and smiled warmly. They would have ceased questioning and simply got on with it.
Some might even have suspected a ruse and not been had by the psychoanalyst’s tricks. The task was of course designed to see how much candidates are prepared to suck up.
I did not suck anything. In one short sentence, I called it out. The walk did not match the talk and I said so — fearless and in this context reckless.
Needless to say, I did not get the job but I did learn a great deal.
I learned to never give up my better than average expectation. It can be a nuisance and at times a liability but keeping to the highest possible standards is a good thing. Trying and expecting above average is noble.
I learned that, ruse or not, you need to give people clear and precise instructions whatever the task.
I learned that you should expect that everyone who is your work superior be good at their job even though there is a chance of them being below average at it.
And I learned that in the world where statistical rules do apply, each and every day I will meet people better than average and below average at what they do. It is a fact.
So if I keep expecting the best, at least half the time I will not be disappointed.