Today we’re going to talk about a part of the career landscape that admittedly is a bit uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s really important: status and how to navigate it.
By status, we’re referencing a person’s power, prestige, and rank within a given social grouping at any given moment in time. And the reason this can be a little uncomfortable to talk about is that many people—when they talk about career strategy—are prone to perpetuating a sort of meritocracy myth of a perfectly even playing field, as if hierarchies don’t exist in every room you enter in your career.
Like it or not, the career world is rife with power jostling and gamesmanship and status-signaling, and just plain old ladders of authority. And so it’s especially important if you’re early in your career to understand how these dynamics work. And when you’re crafting a career and building your network, you want to move through these delicate social dynamics with some deftness.
And, Reid, we thought it’d be fun to start with a story we tell in the book of bestselling author Robert Greene. Should I share that with listeners?
So before Robert Greene—who wrote 48 Laws of Power and a set of other bestselling books—before he became a bestselling author, he worked for an agency in Hollywood that sold human interest stories to magazines, film producers, and publishers.
His job was to find the stories. So as a competitive person, Greene wanted to be the best. And sure enough, he was soon finding more stories that got turned into magazine articles and books and movies than anyone else in his office.
One day, Greene’s supervisor took him aside and told him that she wasn’t very happy with him. She wasn’t specific, but she made it clear that something just wasn’t working.
And Greene was befuddled. He was producing lots of stories that were being sold. Wasn’t that the point of his job? He wondered: maybe he wasn’t communicating well. Perhaps it was just an interpersonal issue. So he focused more on engaging his boss, meeting with her to go over his process and his thinking, and communicating with her, and being likable.
But nothing changed. And he continued to be successful at finding really good stories to sell and winning the praise of his colleagues.
Eventually, tensions boiled over, and the boss interrupted a staff meeting and told Greene that he had an attitude problem. No more detail, just that he wasn’t being a good listener and had a bad attitude. A few weeks later, after being tortured by the vague criticisms, despite his solid work performance, Greene quit.
A job that should have been a stellar professional experience had turned into a nightmare. Over the course of the next several weeks, he reflected on what had gone wrong with his relationship with his boss.
What he realized was this: he had assumed that what mattered was doing a great job and showing everyone how talented he was. What he failed to recognize was how his very visible success might have diminished his boss in the eyes of others.
Simply put, by being so good, he made her look bad. He had failed to navigate the status dynamics around him; failed to account for the insecurities, the anxieties, the egos of everyone else in the office, particularly the people above him on the ladder.
And he paid the price with his job.
So, Reid, this is one of those stories that illustrate a kind of a dark truth of how the world works. It’s not that the very best people always win or get ahead, right? It’s sometimes people who have the meta skill of navigating these tricky dynamics with your manager and your manager’s manager and others in the office.
Yeah, and, you know, part of the thing—you kind of look at this and go, “Oh, there’s this human foibles, human weaknesses, it’s terrible…you know, how could someone let this boss let their ego get in the way, and be interfering in what otherwise—the organization could be producing all these great scripts and doing all these things.”
There’s coherence of the organization. There’s a notion of actually organizations where people show respect to each other, and kind of invest in that in terms of teamwork or positive and parts of the same coin.
So, it’s not just a hero and villain story, and the villain is this terrible ego. Because by the way also, people sometimes motivated by their ego go build amazing things and do things, and—
You know, as we were going through that—the Greene story—again, one of the things I was remembering is, you know, one of these kind of funny maxims in the business world, which is: when someone says, “Well, money doesn’t matter to me,” that usually means, “Money matters a lot,” right?
Kind of—it’s the kind of thing, it’s like, “Status doesn’t matter to me.” It’s like, “Oh, status matters a lot to you.”
I think Freud called that ‘reaction formation’. When we’re stressed, and we’re asked for our opinion on something that has an awkward answer, we will say precisely the opposite of the thing we actually believe.
Yes, and—it may even be self-deluding, to even go further into the psychoanalysis part of it.
And, so, what becomes intelligent to do is to recognize we’re functioning in human systems: life’s a team sport.
Teams, by the way, can have someone who is a really, really good, kind of, point guard, or someone who is a really important coach, and you can kind of say, “Well, the coach, you know, I’m going to just disrespect them.” It’s like, “Well, that’s going to be a challenge,” and so you have to navigate the human system part of it.
And by the way, that’s part of what can make the team higher performance. It’s not just simple a…potentially sometimes a bow to people’s misshapen egos, but also sometimes how the team dynamic works. And so it’s not something to be muttered about and spit on and everything else necessarily. But, by the way, sometimes people’s egos can be a real problem. They can be a dysfunction to the whole team.
Now, as we were going through the story again…what it made me realize again is that one of the key things is kind of the thread—whether it’s the network section or the life-is-a-team-sport section—is to be very proactively choosing your team and developing your team.
You know, part of the thing that I have found that’s really instrumental about being good at teams is like, for example, giving people credit. Like, say, “Oh, you thought of that great idea,” or, “You know, I’m iterating on this idea because you sent me down this path,” or, “You did really good work here,” and so forth.
And that is the kind of thing that we all—I think just about everybody, even if they don’t acknowledge it themselves—hungers for in the things they do.
And by the way, that doesn’t mean, “Don’t be critical. Don’t be all in permanent beta. Don’t be always learning.” Of course, all of those things, which we also put in the book.
But to be recognizing that the social dynamics are part of what makes a high performance team. And then working our way to enable the high performance dynamics.
So many great points there, and I think you’re right. I mean, the Greene story can be seen as a dark story, but there’s—there is a reason to be empathetic to that manager, which is: we don’t know exactly the details of how Greene in his swashbuckling twenties was handling himself in that office.
But there’s something to the point of, “Are you a good team player?” Right? It’s not just about individual raw performance, and so definitely agree there.
I think your point about giving credit is a great tactical tip. Sounds simple. But especially younger employees frequently fail to remember that powerful people often expect to have their ego stroked, their needs accommodated, and their power acknowledged frequently.
And you might think they’re over it. “Oh, they’re so accomplished. Why would the Vice President ever care about me, the lowly entry level employee? Why would they care about my opinion to say they did a great job?”
But they actually will value it.
And then, more importantly, when it comes to your direct manager—your direct supervisor on the job—if you do great work, and you and your manager go into a broad company meeting to present the work that you all did together, but maybe that you mostly did yourself…if you try to hog all of the credit—it might seem like the rational or even most accurate way of describing what happened. You know, maybe you and your manager worked on a report together and you did 95% of the work and your manager did 5% of the work, and you walk into a meeting…
If you hog all the credit in that interaction, you will fail to get closer to your manager. That manager is less likely to be your ally.
By contrast, if you shower them with credit, especially in front of others—not in a dishonest or disingenuous way, but fully acknowledge their role in helping guide you to do all this work—that can go a long way. Again, don’t have to be over the top. These are just small subtle references that should be issued authentically.
But don’t forget it. And I think sometimes younger employees, or more junior folks, think that because they’re junior, the most important thing to do is to beat their chest and remind people that they have talent. And they forget some of these small references, and it’s that forgetting that can lead to the Robert Greene scenario of receiving vague criticism and ultimately getting separated from a company.
You know, just to re-emphasize something really important in what you said there is: always look for the authentic part of it.
You say, “Well, what should I praise you for?” Well, I should praise you for things that I genuinely think are good, and, you know, exercise some creativity and it’s much more authentic. It’ll come across as authentic. It’ll reinforce the right kinds of loop, and if, by the way, you can’t be thinking about things that you can praise with this person, you have a different problem! Right? If you are working with them, for them, etc.
And generally speaking, you know, one of the things that really makes for good teamwork, good alliances, good friendships is to over-endow the credit, right?
So you might say, “Well, we both came up with this idea together.”
“Well actually, Ben, your initial insight which really led to us working on this deal was so important, da, da, da, da.”
Okay, it sounds like it’s supposed to—you know, my brain thinking, “Well, 50-50.” It sounds like I’m saying 65-35, or 70-30.
But if we’re each doing that, and we’re in a good dance with each other—and this is part of the selection—then we’re both so much more happy, and so much more productive in terms of things we’re doing. And that’s the dance that you want to get in as you’re working with a manager.
And so just to underscore one more time that what we’re not saying is, “Suck up to people who are higher status, or affirm everything an important person says as brilliant.” That’s both unimpressive, to say nothing of dishonest.
We are encouraging folks to approach some of these interactions with finesse, and to think about how you can share deserved praise with the people you work with, and share credit when appropriate, especially if that person is your superior in the workplace.
Now, I think, Reid, there are several missteps that are very common when it comes to status, and I thought we could go through a few concrete examples.
So, in the book we share the following example. We say: you and your coworker are both marketing assistants at your company, and he mentions he’s working on a sales proposal. And you proactively tell him, “I’d be more than happy to take a look, and tell you how it could be improved.”
Sounds harmless, but be careful. When you make an unsolicited offer to tell someone how they can improve their work, you’re implying that you are able to see flaws that they cannot. And if the other person sees themselves as your peer, he may not view you as someone who should be telling him how to improve, and might be more resentful than appreciative.
Better phrasing might be, “Hey, I’m not sure I’ll have anything to add, but I’d be delighted to take a look at your proposal if you’d like me to.”
Again, you’re not trying to signal that you’re more important or superior to that person. You’re trying to signal that you’re an ally, that you might have feedback, but you fully understand if he or she is not interested in hearing it. That’s a slight language change, but it’s remarkable how many people accidentally sort of destroy relationships or damage relationships through poorly chosen words or phrases that offend someone’s power or status sensibilities.
And part of it is you have to watch yourself ‘cause I’ve known people who do that because they’re trying to solve their own need of feeling superior or important.
So it’s like, “Well, I have at least three things I can improve on the thing you just said.”
“Well, OK.” Right?
And, by the way, I hope that in everything I say that other people could figure out improvements on them.
But are you doing it in, kind of—there’s this thing amongst packs of dogs—you’re trying to alpha roll the other person and say, “I’m superior,” and you may not even recognize it to yourself.
And so part of the thing where you’re doing is saying, “Well, okay, I think a lot of what you said is really great. I might, you know, have an idea or two that might be helpful. What do you think?”
Well then it’s like, “Okay. Sure. What do you mean, what are you thinking about?” It’s like, “Oh, maybe this, or maybe that.”
Now sometimes you need to exert a little bit of status for people to hear you when it’s really urgent. I will sometimes say, “Okay, I’ve been doing a lot of consumer Internet stuff, and the path that you’re on strikes me as very hard and very dangerous.”
And what I’m trying to use is not so much signal, “I’m the authority. Do what I tell you to do.”
But is to say, “By the way, remember I have all this expertise, and as we’re factoring this out”— this will be like a discussion with a CEO and a board room or something else—“When you’re paying attention to this, really pay attention to the thing I’m saying here because I do know something about this and it could be a very important decision that we’re getting into.”
And you can, again, do it gracefully without the, “I’ve been doing consumer Internet since before you were born, and this is what I now know about this.” Well, that just sounds like you’re a jerk and you’re trying to overstate your expertise ’cause you don’t have a good enough point.
Whereas when you’re trying to say, “Well, look. I’ve seen this pattern, this pattern, this pattern. They’ve never really worked. Maybe it’ll work this time, but more likely it probably is not going to work, and we should really make sure before we choose to do this pattern again.”
And I do think that the territory where it’s between colleagues or true peers, right—similarly-titled or identically-titled people in an organization—those are actually some of the trickiest dynamics, because when there is a manager and a subordinate, there’s a very explicit power dynamic that’s articulated, right? And a lot of people can screw up that interaction, hence some of these earlier comments.
But I think this notion of: you’re in a workplace, you’re on a team, and you’re working with other people who are genuinely your peers. And you’re trying to help them get better; they’re trying to help you get better. You’re trying to get ahead in your career and get promoted; they’re trying to get ahead in their career and get promoted. And how all those interactions come together can be full of landmines.
And, Reid, I once heard you describe somebody as “expert at organizational politics,” or you had some line and you referenced them as a ‘political animal’—I can’t remember exactly how you put it. And I don’t think you meant it in a decisively negative way. I also don’t think you meant it in a decisively positive way.
And I’m curious—because I think in this peer dynamic, where there’s seven people who are all product managers, and only one of them is going to be made Director of Product Management, and the performance review’s coming up in four months…that’s where this becomes more Hunger Games-esque, where people stop sharing praise and start trying to steal credit and start talking crap about their colleagues.
Is that org politics to you, or how else do you think about this?
Well, that’s definitely org politics, and I think a lot of org politics are when you either intentionally or self-deceptively are strongly putting ahead your own interests over the interests of the organization and the project which you’re doing.
But I think one of the things that’s particularly important to do is say, “Well, are we trying to be transparent? Are we trying to be a team? Are we trying to help each other improve? Are we putting the best foot forward where we are getting—the folks who are in charge of making a decision, are we giving them all of the relevant variables? And then are we committing to what the decisions are?”
And those are all ways to try to stay against politics. But, frequently of course, the very natural thing for people who are socially ept and capable is always leaning a little bit into politics; saying, “Oh, you know. This guy Ben, he’s very clever. But he doesn’t—his cleverness doesn’t always deliver the right thing.” And it’s like, “Oh, that’s a way of sowing doubt in someone else’s mind about something.” Or, you know, “This guy, Reid, he talks a really good game, but he’s—what has he really done recently?” Again, kind of similar things.
And you go, “Well, really pay attention if you’re doing that.”
Now, some people say, “Yeah, I’m doing it for my own political benefit. I don’t give a shit about the project or the team or the group or anyone else,” and like okay, well, you know, try to avoid having those people on your team. Try to avoid working with those people.
But if you’re not that, and you’re thinking about it, it’s like, “Okay, how do I make this as ‘we are all getting the right answers, the truth, we’re having good, open discourse about it, and we’re committing to things?’”
And, for example, one of the things very early in the days to try to supplement this product was when I was our first product manager at Fujitsu Software Corporation—one of the things I realized: we had to make decisions very quickly.
You had Opinion 1, Opinion 2, Opinion 3, Opinion 4. And we said, “Well, we’re going to have to resolve all it to one Person 1, Person 2, Person 3, Person 4, all bought in. That would be making decisions too quickly—or too slowly”, excuse me.
And so the thing that I did is I said, “Okay, by the way, as everyone knows, as a product manager I get to make the decision. Sometimes I’m going to make arbitrary decisions that you disagree with in the interest of speed. I will flag it as so. I’m not trying to undermine your ego. And you know, maybe you’re right, maybe I’m wrong. But the speed of making the decision is really right, so I’m not asking you to acknowledge that you’re wrong about this. But I am asking you to cohere as a group on the speed of decision-making and doing.”
And everyone goes, “Oh yeah, yeah. I’m the kind of person who would cohere in that group. Yes, I’ll do that.” And allows you to sidestep some of the politics, some of the ego things on it in order to make it work. And that’s part of what you need to do when you’re leading, because you need to be able to help people dance around the unusual configurations, potentially in their own egos, to have a much higher performance team.
And I think the sorry truth is that the workplace is not a meritocracy that’s perfectly adjudicated, and the most objectively competent person is not always the person who is promoted. The objectively best idea in any given situation is not always the idea that wins.
And there are a lot of organizations, unfortunately, that do promote people based on managers or executives having incomplete data or having been influenced nefariously through sort of political dealings. And I think, you know, for everyone thinking ambitiously about their career, if you’re working at—you know, especially at larger organizations, this can be real, a problem—you don’t want to be naive to this reality. You don’t want to be naive to the reality of status and power. You don’t want to be naive to the reality of organizational politics, and you need to think about how you’re going to engage with it.
And I think, Reid, you gave advice at the beginning of this segment of the conversation, which I think is the best advice ultimately, which is: try not to be part of teams or organizations that are highly political and non-meritocratic.
But, they exist, and even among high-performing organizations that are large, there are as many cultures as there are managers inside that company. Any company that tries to tell you they have a singular set of values or culture is lying to you. There are all these little fiefdoms and ways of operating.
And so maybe it’s to move managers, move teams inside that large organization if you’re finding it that certain people are getting promoted or getting granted certain projects that they don’t seem worthy. So ideally opt out of that culture.
If you find yourself in that culture, decide how you’re going to play it. And there are some people who I know and, Reid, I’m sure you know people, where they just—they lean in and they engage and they’re as political as the next one, and they’re kind of ruthless about it.
There are also people that are more reserved and frankly are kind of underrated and underappreciated in the market or undercompensated. And there’s all sorts of structural bias and perhaps other things that can cause certain types of people to do this more effectively.
But I think a key message here from this conversation is: don’t be blind to this reality. This is a lot of modern workforces and you have to be prepared for it. And hopefully you can arrive with a prepared mind, and so you’re not overly distraught when you encounter sort of this political dealing or status sensibilities that are offensive and so on.
One tactical idea, Reid, that I see a lot of young professionals make—and I actually saw this a lot happen with you when I was hanging out with you at LinkedIn many years ago, helping you in part manage some of the immense inbound you got from folks, people—by saying that, I mean people seeking your time, attention, money, whatever.
It was always astounding to me how many folks would first off cold email you versus get an introduction—you know, tsk tsk, see the Network episode of this podcast for more on that…
But also the number of folks that would ask you out to coffee and propose a time and place that was convenient for them. You know, “Hey, I live in San Mateo, and there’s a great coffee shop down the street. Maybe we could go get coffee there someday.” Right?
And it’s just a classic mistake of not accommodating the person who, in that interaction, in theory is busier, more important, higher status, however you want to say it. But if you’re reaching out to somebody, or trying to get something done with somebody who is of higher status in that interaction around whatever topic you’re working on—and status can really be variable and change or be subjective and all that. There’s not one status leaderboard in all of society.
But in a given interaction, if it’s an entrepreneur seeking financing from a VC who has more companies they could fund than—that want their time and money than there is capital to invest… whatever that power dynamic is, if it’s—that dynamic exists, you need to go to them. You need to meet them at their convenience, on a schedule that works for them, at a time of day that’s convenient for them, right?
And to not acknowledge that, in that initial outrage, is to come off I think as very naive.
And, by the way, it’s just kind of a general good principle.
So, like, if I want to meet someone, you know, even though I’m an experienced, established investor, I don’t usually go, “Hey entrepreneur, would you like to come by my office?” Right?
I reach out and say, “Hey, you’re doing really interesting things. Let’s connect!” And then we’ll try to figure out what the things might be, and I might be—I go to them, it might be something mutually convenient and paying attention that shows that you value the person, that you respect them. And that’s important to do all the time with everyone you’re building relationships with.
Coming back to the peer example—we talked about, you know, if you’re at a—in working in marketing, you have a peer who has the same job title, same stage of your career, maybe same age…you know, that’s where it’s not always clear, sort of who should be accommodating who, and…one thing I like to do in those circumstances when I talk to people who I think of as true peers in my career, is, I’ll say, “Hey, do you want to meet somewhere in the middle? Let’s meet somewhere convenient.”
Or, “Hey, about this time I’ll come to you, next time you come to me.” Or, “How about we split this bill?” Or, you know, whatever conveys a sense of equality I think is important because people can get weirdly touchy about this, right?
It’s like if I think of you as a peer and yet I keep going to you, and accommodating you, and get rescheduled by you…it can start to make me feel a little weird about the relationship. And this is what we call, I think, in the book, sort of “accidentally offending people’s sensibilities” here.
Rarely are status mistakes made with sort of evil intent. It’s often just people not waking up to the fact that folks have egos; that ego needs to be considered as you do things as minute as scheduling with that person.
The topic of status—fraught with challenge. It’s something that you don’t read about in many career books. You probably haven’t heard it in other career podcasts. It is the way the modern world works, and for everyone thinking about building your network—which should be everyone thinking about the Startup of You framework—reflect on how status shows up in your interactions in your career, in your interactions with your manager.
Think about situations where you might have—be higher or lower status relative to someone else, and think about just the tactics of how you can interact gracefully/delicately in situations that call for it.
Question from one of our listeners: “I’m in my mid-30s and I’m noticing two types of career crises happening among the friends and people I know, myself included,” the listener writes.
“Crisis #1: you chose making money over doing things you loved in your 20s and now you’re burned out, unfulfilled, and not sure what to do, or Crisis #2: you chose doing what you loved over making money in your 20s, and now you’re broke and freaking out because you can’t afford to have kids or buy a house. Is there a middle path to avoid both of these crises?”
I think frequently the kind of middle path—half of this and half of this—usually is fairly unfulfilling. Because you make some money, and sure you’re not now broke, but you’re also not particularly passionate about what you’re doing, and if it’s kind of like cut it in half and do some.
I think the way that you kind of, you know, cut this Gordian knot with your Alexandrian strategy is thinking about what are the things that are really essential. So you say, “Well, I’m going to go do what I love, but I will have a plan for how I get into making money. But I realize that I’ll do that, you know, later I’ll do that as kind of an amplifier, and that’s a path that I choose or take the risk of doing and, you know, have my kind of ABZ planning and what my Plans B and Plan Z look like.”
Now, generally speaking, for a lot of young folks, it’s: well, actually in fact, you know, figure out—’cause we all have need to have an economic basis for our life—figure out the economic basis, but then try to make that as a strong place as possible, like not necessarily getting burned out? Not necessarily feeling that it’s empty.
Sometimes that’s—well, like for example, when I was just getting out of college, I decided I would go into the tech industry versus the I-banking industry. And even though everyone said, well, the best economic thing was within I-banking and you’re—as financiers, you’re more guaranteed to make money, that work is really going to not appeal to me.
Whereas in the tech industry, building things—sure, there’ll be a bunch of work that doesn’t appeal to me, and you have to kind of work your way up and kind of, you know, start as a contractor, and then work your way to an employee, and then work your way to being a manager, and then, you know, for me, going and starting company, but all that kind of way up takes a bunch of work to do…but at least I’m building things, and I’m building things that I…I’m only engaging in projects that have a big difference with people.
And that’s the kind of the Alexandrian sword on this is to say, “OK, you get some stuff that it isn’t that every minute—that’s part of reason it’s work and you’re paid—that you’re totally excited about doing it, but you’re happy about the overall path you’re on, and you’re thinking about how do you do more and more of what you love as you go through this economic path.” And that was my way of doing this.
But I think the really key thing is to have a strategy by which you have the fundamental elements of what you need.
Now, choosing between Crisis #1 and Crisis #2, generally speaking, I think it’s like: OK, well, you can—if you have an economic basis, you can move in a lot of different directions. And you just have to make sure that you don’t get burned out and you’re not unfulfilled.
So you think Crisis #2 is the worst crisis to be in if you had to pick?
I mean both are bad, but it’s like: would you rather be broke and freaking out, or rich but unfulfilled and burned out?
Yeah, well, I think the question is: which one can you recover from? Which one can you have Plans B on? Which one—
Yeah, and it kind of depends, I guess, on: if you’re financially broke, you can find ways to make money, right? If you’re emotionally broke, you can find ways to reload your emotional asset base, so to speak, or sort of replenish that. And so maybe it depends on sort of what initial constitution you’re going into this situation with.
My sense is that if you’re waking up in your mid 30s with either of these crises, I think the lesson is—for other people listening who are just coming out of college, say—do regular check-ins on both your bank account and on your emotional bank account and see where you’re trending.
Because 15 years shouldn’t pass and then you wake up one day and say, “Oh shit, I’m unfulfilled.” Or, “Oh my gosh, I have no savings plans. I have no economic plans.”
And this is where I think your network can be really helpful. Like, check in with people, hold your friends accountable, and have them hold you accountable about, “Hey, are you enjoying your work? Are you learning? Are you growing? Are you building your soft assets?” as well as, “Hey, are you making prudent personal financial decisions for you and your family and whatever ambition you’re trying to go at?”
I think it’s almost a cliche career dilemma where people, you know—I guess it’s the midlife crisis, right, where it’s—kind of hits you in the face, right? And I don’t know what that’s about. I guess it’s people don’t frequently do periodic introspection or like deep analysis or reflection on their life, and they’re just so heads-down in whatever they’re doing that it requires some exogenous force to sort of be the cold water that splashes in their face when they’re 45 and they realize, “Oh my God, the job I’ve been doing for 20 years…I just hate it!”
Is that what that’s about?
I think frequently, and also it’s a little bit of the, you know, the lobster in the pot and the boiling and gets worse and worse, you didn’t quite track it. It’s one of the reasons why I think exactly what you’re suggesting, which is an explicit reflection and check-in by yourself, talking with your friends…you know, seeing which things are working, and I think the important thing is to be strategic about it, which is to be thinking, and you’ll be making some tradeoffs and you’ll be making some sacrifices in order to accomplish the thing that you most want.
Part of the reason why I was reflectively choosing Crisis #1 versus Crisis #2 is it’s okay to get in crises as long as you know how to play forward from where you are. And I was kind of imagining the—if you’ve pursued entirely the love path like, “Okay, I love painting, I’m just going to paint.”
You suddenly go, “Well, I don’t have any options from here.” And you have to retrace, so it’s like developing those future options and making sure you have that maneuverability, which is, again, exactly what entrepreneurs who are risk managers tend to do.
And I think that’s what’s important to do, and to keep that in mind, even, of course, while you’re following what your goals are, what your passions are, what you’re—the meaning of your life is.
Another question from a listener.
Listener writes, “You explained in your episode on professional networks [which is the first episode of The Startup of You podcast] that the key is to be part of an ongoing reciprocal exchange. You give sometimes, you receive sometimes, and everyone benefits. But I just graduated from college and I don’t feel like I have anything to give. I have little experience or specific skills or connections. So how can I actively build and contribute to my network?”
Well, we did cover this a little bit—
We did and I think—I mean, I think we even covered it, Reid, a little bit in that episode so tsk tsk to the listener for missing the 15 seconds of wisdom in which we cover this.
But it is a great question, and it’s not an easy question to wrestle with. I think it’s a good question because a lot of young people—but frankly people of all stages of life can get intimidated. They hear people like us talk about “Help, help, help…create value, give value, share value.”
But sometimes they wonder, “Who am I to add value to Reid Hoffman or whoever I’m trying to meet with?”
Or Ben Casnocha.
But there that’s about 50% as hard.
Yes. But I think that the key thing here is there’s lots of different ways to potentially add value.
The one that we covered both in the book and I think in the earlier podcast episode was to say there’s uniqueness to where you are. There’s uniqueness to your experience. You know, you’re approaching, you know, someone—say, like me—and you say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on with college sensibilities, learnings, the way that things are different.” And that could be something, it could be interesting, ‘cause obviously people like me are very curious about that.
Or, you know, “Here’s what some really interesting discovering uses of mobile and Internet technology is.” Again, something you could pretty easily assess would be interesting to someone like me.
But then there’s also being creative. I mean, one of the things that I—decades back, the guy came into my office and said, “Hey, I’d heard that you really liked this board game, Settlers of Catan. And here’s some things I found about it—like alternative packs and some information about it—that you might not have encountered. And so I went and did some research and looked at it, and here’s some things.”
And I was like, “Oh well, cool, I hadn’t discovered that. Thank you.”
And that shows that the person was going, “I’m making an effort to do this,” and that was kind of like going out and doing some research that I hadn’t done. And so I think it’s possibly creative. Now, don’t be overly predictive ’cause I might have very well said, “Oh, I knew all that already,” and so you have to take that as an acceptable kind of risk in this.
But, you know, someone would probably say, “Well, you know, thank you for paying attention, and let’s have a chat.”
And so I think it’s more possible than you would think with some creativity—and if you’re feeling stymied, then go around and ask other people, like what are the things that we know or we have that could be offered as gifts to other people in terms of perspective, use of energy, use of thought, use of creativity and those kind of things.
My guess is more often than not, you’ll find something.
And people will appreciate the effort. Even if the attempt at a small gift or the article is something they’ve already seen, or they already have their Goldman Sachs report on college campus trends, they will look fondly upon the fact that you tried, and that’s a great jumpstart to the relationship.
A question from LinkedIn: “My biggest question I was curious to hear about is how you go about things when you get rejected for jobs or deals when you had a strong networking contact or friend vouch for you…but in the end you were ghosted, or they didn’t respond, or they didn’t follow up like they said would, or you’re just brushed off. What do I do then?”
And this, Reid, speaks to this question of persisting or pivoting, which is a very entrepreneurial concept.
All startups, when they encounter resistance or a lack of traction with customers…founders are frequently debating amongst themselves, you know, “Do we just persist? And, you know, bang on 10 more doors until we meet a customer that likes this product offering? Or do we actually have to pivot our strategy somehow because our current version of thinking isn’t working?”
And there’s something I think that’s such a fundamental concept in startup entrepreneurship, but I think applies to so many circumstances and careers because I think that this questioner has put their finger on something that is really interesting, which is: you’re following up with somebody, you applied for the job, or you took someone out to coffee, and you wanted to follow up to talk about a potential expansion of the relationship or something, and they’ve ghosted you, they’ve brushed you off.
How do you know when to just try another 10-15 times, or just to sort of give up and find something else to do?
Well, the very first thing I’d say is that part of a general good life and work strategy is: as you encounter challenges or setbacks or frustrations…to jujitsu them into something that’s useful.
So, for example, you get rejected for something and as opposed to going, “I suck,” or, “Maybe I should never have tried this,” or, you know, any number of other things, they think, “Okay, this is a place where I can learn some resilience…that actually in fact one of the things that’s very predictive for living a good life and being successful is actually being resilient—the ability to pick yourself back up and and try again.
Now—so that’s one macro thing. So when you’re encountering these kinds of negative, other kinds of setbacks is: try to absorb them to learning experiences, absorb them to kind of resilience-building and resorb them to—now, that doesn’t mean keep pounding your head in the wall until everything falls down. That’s what I’m about to get to, but I think that’s the first part of this.
Now, the second thing is, you have to think about a lot, “Okay, so what am I learning here?” And sometimes, by the way, people get too quickly to, “Oh, the person hasn’t responded in a week.” Well, maybe they had their own crisis, or maybe they had something else to do.
And so, frequently, sometimes following up in a graceful way—like, for example, you know, even now I have people who sometimes don’t answer an email and I’ll just like re-forward a week later, kind of saying, “Hey, you might have missed this. Just trying to make sure it’s in front of you.” Right? Or something like that. And that sometimes can be, “Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sorry, I was really busy. I got swamped.”
But sometimes all the way, and you know, and then you say, “Well, what if, you know, you got introduced for a job, you had a really good connection, you thought you had really good connection, then didn’t get it.”
Well, there’s all kinds of reasons. It may be that the priorities were different, the priorities changed, that sometimes there’s a better candidate than you, and that’s part of the resilience thing. And what you do is you turn that learning into how you operate.
Now, one of the things I think is very important is to interact with people such that you’re going to be interacting with them for the rest of your lives. And so, if you get frustrated, don’t go, “Ahh, you frustrated me!”
But to say, “Hey, you know, look, thank you very much. Anything I can learn from this? Anything you would suggest or be helpful, and you know, kind of continue to kind of play the next card?” And I think that’s the thing to keep focused on as you’re doing it.
And then a little bit of the question is, well, do you think, you know, you’re being ghosted or brushed off? If you’ve sent a couple of very gentle, elegant notes and so forth, and you haven’t heard back at all, you might say, “Hey, look, I understand things maybe have changed and I, you know, really value our time/interaction, and I don’t mean to intrude. I’m going to now start looking at other things. But you know, I really appreciate the engagement we’ve had so far.”
Always leaving that door open to that future opportunity is, I think, a very important part of how you’re interacting with people. And I think that’s a set of considerations to think about in answer to this question.
Reid, as always, thanks for the conversation.
Ben, thank you.