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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

The Thing Isn't Just About The Thing

Last week was absolutely non stop, with the local Children's Gala taking place in our village. I am on the committee for it, much to the amusement of my friends ("Are there any committees you're not on?") and it meant activities every day of the week, all culminating in Gala Day on Saturday. Thankfully, despite some torrential rain midweek cancelling a couple of of the smaller events, the weather gods were kind to us and we managed a full day of sunshine, which ensured that the event was well attended and enjoyed by all! Consequently, however, I didn't get around to writing a blog - so I've had lots of little ideas floating about my head and now is my chance to get some of them down on paper or typed up on the screen!

This week's is likely to be the first of two blogs inspired by a documentary I watched about a comedian I admire, the late Patrice O'Neal who passed away in 2011. Sadly I didn't discover Patrice until after he'd passed away but thankfully a lot of his stand up content can be found on YouTube, alongside lots of his appearances on a chat show called Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn and the Opie and Anthony radio show. I will warn you now, however, Patrice is not for the faint of heart! He was a fierce advocate of free speech and believed that no topics were off limit and that people should be able to attempt to find the humour in absolutely anything at all, irrespective of whether others felt it was appropriate to do so or not. He was incredibly direct with his views and while I didn't agree with everything he said, I loved his approach and his willingness to broach taboo or challenging subjects without being attached to his stance or opinion on them.

This approach, particularly when it came to his thoughts on race and gender roles created some controversy and at times, had him branded as misogynistic. While it's easy to understand why that might happen when his comments were taken in isolation, what's always interested me about his approach is that he deliberately opened up conversation about topics that people often take for granted or skirt around, and that was always his intention. When he spoke about relationships between men and women, as he often did, his desire was for both parties to be able to express themselves freely and not have to self edit or sacrifice themselves for the other party. He makes for an incredibly interesting case study, as well as being very entertaining and sometimes shocking, at the same time! Anyway - give him a search on YouTube (probably best not to do so on your work computer!) and make up your own mind!

Something that stood out for me in the documentary, was his view on comedy and being a professional comedian, which I felt had a lot of parallels in work and business. In it, he explains that the reason he became a comedian is because he was a funny kid - which is pretty common as you might expect. What he found, however, when he because a professional and started to operate in that industry, was that being successful as a comedian wasn't just about being funny. Ultimately, the thing (being a comedian) wasn't just about the thing (comedy).

To be successful in his career, he realised that there were certain rules he needed to abide by and that he needed to appear in certain groups, in order to court the right opportunities and get ahead. This hadn't been apparent from the outside, where he'd just assumed that it was a meritocracy, but once he was in, he was confronted with the reality. Often times, there were trade-offs expected, whereby he'd have to take favours from people within the industry, which would then ultimately leave him in their debt down the road. He compares this to the scene in the Godfather, where Amerigo Bonsera approaches Don Vito Corleone on the day of the Corleone's daughter's wedding and asks him to kill two men who assaulted his own daughter. The Don agrees, responding with:

"Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter's wedding day"

At times, O'Neal turned down opportunities - even lucrative deals or exposure - because he felt that the cost to him, in terms of his integrity, was too high.

In business, we often see situations where the most talented, skilled, capable or hardest working individuals are not those who climb the ladder and achieve the highest heights in organisations. Often they're those who network well, have the right connections, are seen in the right places, etc. In other words, the thing (finance, IT, HR, etc) isn't about the thing. It's about the other things that surround it.

Equally, when people start up businesses, they typically do it because they have a skill or a passion for a specific thing (hairdressing, leadership coaching, flower arranging, makeup) however the things that make them successful in their businesses are often the adjacent skills and capabilities. Marketing, finance, business development etc. The thing, once again, is not just about the thing.

So where does that leave us in our careers? Well the first thing is to admit and recognise the game we're in. Whether you like the rules or the way the game's being played, if you work in a business of any significant size, it's almost certainly going to be the case that the quality of your work will not be the sole determining factor in your career trajectory. So you need to make the decision of what you want, and what you're willing to pay to get it. How much of yourself are you willing to trade (your time, energy, passion, maybe even your integrity) to get to the role or the level that is important to you. And once you've made that decision, make peace with it. Patrice O'Neal was very clear that he wanted to be able to look himself in the mirror at the end of the day and be happy about the decisions he'd made and the way he'd conducted himself and you need to understand yourself and set your own boundaries in order that you can do the same. And ultimately, if you don't like the game that's being played, remember that you can always go elsewhere and play a different game!

And if you run your own business, you have a couple of choices. Firstly, you and focus solely on doing the thing that you love, and hope that business will come to you, word of mouth will make you popular and that'll bring you the level of trade that will satisfy you. Or you can embrace the fact that these other skills and capabilities are important if you want to get ahead, and lean into them. Make them a part of what you do and learn to do them well, or find someone else who can!

And what about leaders? Well the more influential you are in an organisation, the more chance you have to change the rules by which the game is played. If you see office politics becoming more significant in determining success than 'the thing', then it's on you and your peers to change that. Not all office politics are toxic to the culture of a team or business, but some are. If you accept it, expect it.

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