Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Incredibles Follow-up on Risk

I noted in my first post about The Incredibles that I would follow up on the topics for discussion that jumped off the screen for me. See that post here.

The first topic that I'm going to return to is Risk. Mr Incredible had lived a life as a superhero that was based on risking his reputation, safety and security for the glory of "saving people" and defeating the bad guy. He thrived off of this type of excitement and was at the peak of his powers when the super heros were pushed into exile. The movie cuts quickly to his new life as a parent, corporate employee and suburban house owner. He was no longer energized by his life and was just going through the motions to keep food on the table and the mortgage paid on time. His only apparent thrill in life was hanging out with Frozone and dreaming about chasing the criminals he hears about on the police radio.

The only risk that seemed to be in his life was that he would get fired, again, or that somehow people would discover the true identity of his family. Both of these possibilities seemed to create a drag on his energy rather than energize him. Finally, he decided to take a risk (the wisdom displayed in this decision is definitely debatable) and it ended up paying off big time in the end. He seemed to rediscover who he was and the rest of his family had similar transformational experiences. Of course this was a Hollywood movie so we all knew it would work out in the end but I think this lesson is one that we should all be reminded of every once in a while. Sometimes you have to step off the edge of the cliff not knowing how far the drop is. It may end up only being 6 inches or you may end up learning how to fly all over again.

The following article is one that appeared in The Key Reporter, which is the quarterly publication of Phi Beta Kappa (an undergraduate honors society). Although the author is writing for a group of Phi Beta Kappa inductees I believe that the message applies to most everyone that is reading this blog.

Start of Article from Key Reporter

An Initiation Call for Risk-Takers

From The Key Reporter Summer 2004, Volume 69, Number 3

Editors Note: John D. Zeglis is chairman of AT&T Wireless and former chair of the George Washington University Board of Trustees. Here are excerpts from his address to new members of the PBK chapter at GWU.

By John D. Zeglis

As I speak, I have to be careful because it’s just possible that a room like this has my future boss in it, and I don’t want to offend her.

What is the essential message on a day you reach a pinnacle of academic success? The good news starts with the word that sums up the characteristics of all of you: excellence. Excellence is a choice. As John Gardner put it “very few people have excellence thrust upon them. They achieve it. They do not achieve it unwittingly by doing what comes naturally, and they don’t stumble into it in the course of amusing themselves. All excellence involves discipline and tenacity of purpose.”

You are here because you’ve made a habit of excellence. Occasional brilliance will not get you into Phi Beta Kappa. You are not one-subject wonders. You’ve established your intellectual credentials in a wide range of subjects. The excellence that brings you here is not accidental. You have chosen to pursue it and you have earned it. You’ve broken the code of how to get it done. And that stays with you for life.

A word of cautions from a worldly wise old guy who was once in your shoes: There is a paradoxical thing about academic excellence. If you want to continue your habit of excellence after graduation, you will have to learn how to take risks-and to fail more often than you’re used to.

If excellence is the word for today, the word for your future is achievement. They are not disconnected. But they’re not self-executing either-it’s not automatic that you can go from excellence to high achievement in “the real world.” Many people who are excellent in school don’t have the same success over their lifetimes. Locking in a formula for excellence early in life, as you’ve done in your academic work, often makes people risk-averse. They know how to be excellent, and they aren’t about to start taking risks on being less than excellent. But sometimes a little less success and a little more failure is a good thing.

Students who are identified as “the best and the brightest” have wonderful choices coming out of college. There’s the blue-chip law school, and later the blue-chip law firm. There’s the silk-stocking investment bank. There’s the Fortune 50 icon business enterprise. They are attractive choices. They offer great starting salaries, small risk, and the opportunity to work with smart students from generations past. The reward for your scholarly excellence is that you have the prospect of making a good living without having to take a great risk. But there’s a potential trap here. And I speak from personal experience.

The really smart students continue their habit of excellence in the workplace: through comprehensive research and perfectly written papers, adapted exactly to the employer’s style and methods. You get promoted. You become a partner in the firm or an officer in the business. You get tenure, And then what?

Well, for a lot of people, the prospect of job security, the need to pay the mortgage, and the corner office-they squeeze out a good part of the desire to take the kind of risk that changes things. And soon people who were A+ students have worked their way into a B- career track in middle age, and coast along into retirement. Peter Drucker, the 20th century’s wisest student of business likes to say: “I would never promote into a top-level job a person who is not making mistakes. Otherwise, he is sure to be mediocre.”

Adlai Stevenson was once a partner in my law firm. When he first ran for governor, he went to the smartest man he knew for advice, asking “How did you get so smart?” Smartest man: “Being smart is just a matter of having wisdom.” Adlai: “How do you accumulate wisdom?” Smartest man: “Wisdom is just the practice of good judgment.” Adlai: “How do you gain good judgment?” Smartest man: “From experience.” Adlai: “And how do you get experience?” Smartest man: “Bad judgment.”

Folks without risk barely nudge the needle on society’s achievement, growth, and innovation. It’s only your willingness to persist in the face of failure that can take you beyond excellence and into achievement. Bill Gates dropped out of school. Amy Tan never succeeded as a technical writer. Woody Allen flunked filmmaking. Mother Teresa lost more patients than she saved. Lincoln lost more elections than he won.

I admit that I am not the best example for you. It went to a blue-chip law school and worked into a cushy job as a partner for a big law firm, and then general counsel for one of America’s great business icons. It was the comfortable life of a competent attorney who could always say it was somebody else’s fault. But then cataclysmic changes rocked my industry and my company. And I began taking the risks that led me to AT&T Wireless. It isn’t exactly a start-up, but I now take more risks in a week than I used to take in a decade.

I don’t “win” nearly as often, but I’m having a lot more fun, and I’m engaged in a business that can fundamentally change the way we live. And I love it. I came to this discovery late in life. My most fervent wish for you is that you get a jump on this earlier than I did. Stretch yourselves. Push your limits. Expand your horizons. Dare to fail. If you never fail, you’ll never achieve your full potential.

End of Article

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