Sunday, August 25, 2013

When Trying Too Hard Goes Wrong

I participate in a couple of online professional forums in which people discuss industry issues, congratulate those moving to new opportunities, and ask advice about challenges they're facing on the job.

I don't keep up with the forum posts and responses every day. Yet, even with sometimey browsing, one can't help but notice a dude who we'll call Arthur. Arthur always has a question. Arthur always has a statement. Arthur is affiliated with every social media site in existence and all of those accounts are listed beneath his signature. And for the record, Arthur is not admin, a person whose job it is to keep content fresh on the forum, and Arthur isn't on a board of some sorts.

Before I knew it, I found myself sighing and rolling my eyes whenever I saw yet another post by Arthur. I even asked a friend who is also a part of the forum if he knows about Arthur. He sighed too.

My immediate thought every time I saw one of Arthur's post was, "This guy is trying too hard." 

We've all probably had this thought at one time or another about someone's actions. But what is it that they're really doing wrong? Why do we fault people for being completely engaged, all in, dedicated, and enthusiastic? What's the problem with that? In true Delect Connect form, I need to explore.

While pondering this, I reflected on the summer of 2002 when I worked as a residential counselor at a youth summer camp set in the woods of North Florida. Each week, kids from around the state who were in "the system" -- whether through foster care or some kind of court-ordered juvenile situation -- were brought in to experience a week of a totally different life that included archery, owls, and nights so black and undisturbed by street lamps that the stars glittered like a billion diamonds.

By request, I was usually assigned to the older teenage boys' group -- too old for tantrums and without the drama that tends to roll with teenage girls. Each week, we gave a yellow bandanna necklace to the kid in the group who showed the most leadership and encouragement within his or her group during the week.

One particular week, there were two boys in our group who were the clear contenders for the leadership bandanna. One boy, who we'll call "Robert," seemed to have come from a better situation than the other kids -- or maybe he just rose above his situation. He was clean cut, extremely well spoken, and smart. A little preppy, even. The other boy, who we'll call "Darren," was also smart...but with an added dose of street smarts that a child his age shouldn't have known. Darren's smarts were the kind that didn't translate to good grades. He was a little rough around the edges and it showed.

We told the boys in our group that we'd be keeping an eye out all week to see who would get the leadership bandanna. From that moment forward, Robert was on a mission. He voraciously helped out his fellow group members and volunteered whenever something needed to be done. He was always the first to raise his hand. He did everything right.

Meanwhile, Darren did everything right too, while commanding a level of respect from the boys that was both gentle and authoritative. When the boys were skeptical about some of our corny camp activities like singing before meals, he sang the loudest and encouraged them to let go and get into it. He cheered his camp mates on as they traversed a log stretched 25 feet in the air. He helped to get the guys up for breakfast on those early mornings.

Thursday night came -- decision time. The other counselors and I debated about who would get the yellow leadership bandanna between Robert and Darren.  We all knew instinctively that Darren should get it, but we couldn't articulate why Robert should not. After all, he had done everything by the book.

And that's what made the difference. Robert was strategically after an award. Darren was just being himself.

I presented Darren with the bandanna. Later on that night, I pulled Robert aside. He was crying. I told him he had done a great job that week and he was a great kid. I can't remember what else I said, but I hope it was comforting. 

It's been more than 10 years since that summer. Robert, Darren, and all those boys are in their 20s now. I think about them from time to time. I think about Robert.  I don't regret the decision we made, but I hope he didn't leave camp discouraged.

There's nothing wrong with setting a goal and being strategic about achieving it; every book and seminar about career and life bellows this mantra from the hilltops all day and night. Yet, there's some strange aspect of the human nature equation that craves authenticity. We crave genuineness. We want to reward the person that's just doing what they do because that's just what they do -- whether or not there's recognition. We applaud the underdog because the underdog is just happy to be in the running.

We don't want to hear that an actress chose a part because she knew it would be Oscar worthy; we want to hear that she loved the role and felt the story needed to be told. We want Nobel Peace Prize winners to care about their causes regardless of fanfare.

There are a lot of folks following the handbook for what to do to get ahead and Arthur is right there with them. Shoot, so am I. I'm trying to move on up to the Eastside and finally get my piece of the pie too. Yet, there's a thin line between being a persistent, engaging, enthusiastic go-getter --- and being a brown-noser or one skilled in the art of butt kissing. Some call it "thirsty."

What's the difference between being thirsty, incessant, desperate...and being driven?

Maybe there is no difference. 

Maybe every person whose success we respect was said to have been trying too hard at one time or another.

And while we're over here rolling our eyes at Arthur, maybe Arthur got the attention he sought from the right people -- and is on his way to leaving us in the dust.


~Lisi P. said...

Nice post. It does make us wonder if there is a difference. I think that what we look for in these situations is if the person has the heart for what they are seeking; is it in their being to want it "just because" or if it's because they have the heart and emotion behind what they are doing.

Just a few thoughts :)

Me said...

Thanks, Lisi P. Yes, I agree, HEART makes the difference. But it's one of those things that's really hard to pinpoint. Usually, you can tell, but it's hard to explain...