Sound, Fury, and…Nothing

“Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps
moving but does not make any progress.”
― Alfred A. Montapert

Years ago, I came up with (I thought) the pithy and clever: “Never confuse activity with productivity.” I read a lot, so when I later came across the quote at the top, I felt properly chastised. My ingenious observation was a bit too similar to Alfred Montapert’s to be called original. By the way, that was not the first time this has happened, so I’ve learned not to be too cocky when I spout wisdom at the top of my lungs.

I see examples of these two concepts getting confused all the time. I worked recently with a salesperson who measured his sales efforts by how many lunches he hosted–dinners and happy hours were simply a bonus. By that standard, he was pleased to inform anyone who would listen that he was an amazing talent. The company was very lucky to have him. Now for any of you in Sales, this next factoid will be quite amusing–he completed three full quarters with no, and by “no” I mean NOT A SINGLE, sale. Moreover, he only worked on three deals overall in that entire time. Two out of that three were, in theory, going to be quite large. Though even by very generous estimates, if everything worked out, and all three closed, he would still not have satisfied his quota. To all the rest of you who are NOT in Sales–he had zero plan to become anything but unsuccessful according to the standard of Sales–SALES NUMBERS.

Should he not have noticed this? Shouldn’t that not have made him shift gears, adjust his strategy? No, because he wasn’t pursuing the standard I just shared. He was focused not on results but on all the activities in which he engaged. He was busy, and in his definition of things, that always leads to success. This is merely an example, not intended to bash someone for being dense. He was caught up in his activity, his ability to demonstrate that he was busy the entire time. This isn’t much different from the absent husband who works very long hours in order to avoid dealing with his family. He perhaps can’t relate to his kids, nor his wife, and has no idea what being a good husband and father means. So he creates his own definition, one that is favorable to his circumstances. He may rationalize that he is earning more money so the family can have more than it needs. Yet do you really think his kid wouldn’t trade boarding school for a few games of catch after school?

There are many other examples, and our purpose here is neither to pick on hard workers nor on professionals who crave the more social portion of their job. For that guy I mentioned who measures his success in the quantity of lunches, happy hours, emails, dinners, golfing events with customers, he satisfies a portion of his own personal needs by hosting events that he can call professional relationship-building, or connecting with a customer. Though customers aren’t averse to getting help when they need to buy something. Customers, myself included, look to sales professionals to help us narrow down our choice when we know we need to make a purchase. In that scenario, when the product is timely and necessary, I would be irritated by a salesperson who, instead of addressing my problem and helping me, simply wanted to take me out for drinks. Once my problem is solved, and everything is running fine, then sure, let’s have a drink to celebrate, or to commemorate how effectively we worked together. But to have drinks before is just a waste of my time, and in many cases, the problem unattended becomes worse.

What I typically recommend is that, before we craft our own success criteria, we determine who has the authority in that situation. If we’re talking about your success in reducing your number of strokes in your golf game, then yes, you are the authority. You and your score card. But if you’re working to become a better partner to your spouse, or parent to your kids, you are not the only authority there! It’s time to sit down with your partner, or your whole family, if appropriate, and have a very open, honest conversation. They will tell you what they need, what they wish they could have. They will happily tell you what, if you could deliver, would make you a more successful partner or parent. In a similar way, your boss at work will tell you what is expected of you in that arena, and to use the same language as above, what, if you do it, will make you a more successful employee. Maybe you happen to have a job whose focus in treating customers to meals or drinks. In such a case, the answer you get may be the activities my salesperson example chose. But if that’s not so, and the answer involves actual work, and efficacy in doing so, then it’s time to look at the criteria the authority has shared with you. At that moment, once you have that information, it’s time to make a decision: Do you want to be more successful or not? It’s not as stupid a question as it may sound–most of us have, built into ourselves (though yes, it can be changed!) a value for “How successful I should be”. Our unconscious minds are very obedient to our instructions, and will not allow us to exceed that level. So even if someone says that they wish to set a land speed record, make their first million dollars, reach the NY Times Best Sellers List, whatever that ambition, a quick series of pointed questions can reveal that inner value. Whether they would ever permit themselves to achieve the stated level of success.

So once you’ve decided, yes or no, to become more successful, it’s about strategy, which is another discussion. But arbitrarily choosing success criteria, when you don’t have sole authority in your arena, is unlikely to work well for you. Your words and actions can instead come across as a lot of sound and fury, a mad flurry of activity…signifying nothing, with results that leave you wanting.