What If…I’d Been Meaner?

I read an article last weekend in USA Today about the new Steve Jobs movie. There was a quote that struck me, that to me really cuts to the core of the trade-offs we make every day.

The question is, “Had he been a bit nicer, could he have put a dent in the universe the way that he did?” Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson told reporters at the New York Film Festival Saturday. “I hope people see this movie and have those arguments in the parking lot after,” Sorkin added.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, nor was I one of the millions that read the biography on which the movie is based. This blog is called Too Much Mel, so this isn’t about Steve Jobs. My question is this: could I make a dent in the universe if I was a bit meaner? If I was little less concerned about my impact on others, and less interested in helping others grow, could I make a bigger difference?

Boy, is that hard to contemplate.

It’s hard because breaking your whole person up into pieces and trying to hold some elements constant while you vary others is a crazy abstraction. Sure, it works in a science experiment but it doesn’t work so neatly in real life. Keep the drive, intellect, creativity and passion. Let go of the empathy, mentorship and balance. Be ok leaving carnage. Or more accurately, do not even notice or recognize the carnage. I don’t know that person. She is so foreign to me that I am unable to anticipate her actions.

But, I am certain that she would have made a bigger dent in the universe.

Why? Because in 2004, my job asked me to be that person. I was offered, and accepted, an international assignment. It was a great opportunity, the kind of opportunity that few people are offered and sets the stage for future doors to open. Every career-driven part of me reared up to grab hold, take notice and kick ass. I was in full dent-making mode.

And then my family started to fall apart. I had started the job a scarce three months after my second child was born, flying there alone for a month to set-up my department and our home. We returned together and I settled into helping my family build a new normal. But my husband struggled to adapt to a foreign culture and to take care of an infant and a toddler on his own without his support network. I thought of and executed a number of plans to try to improve the situation, but nothing seemed to help. I was fighting a war on two fronts: at home to ensure my family was strong and healthy and at work to deliver an entirely new business capability.

In that moment, I had the chance to embrace my inner dent-maker. I knew that I could put my husband and kids on a plane, send them back to what they needed and focus my attention on the job. Or, I could figure out how to abort and get us all home. At that time I saw clearly the two paths and what they would mean. If I chose the job, the odds of keeping my marriage together were slim. If I chose my marriage, the odds of advancing to the level I wanted to in my career were even slimmer.

I chose to be nice, I chose my marriage.

I’ve shared the story many times over the years and I’ve shared my regrets. I regret that I thought we would be capable of being successful overseas. I regret that I couldn’t help my husband find the joy in a new culture. I regret that I let down my leadership and that I couldn’t take the work to the finish line. But, I don’t regret the decision to be nice. I have never had anything more than calm certainty around that.

So, I know that I will not be a dent-maker. Because in the end, when push comes to shove, I will be nice. And, there will always be be someone as smart as me, as motivated as me and as passionate as me — and just a bit less nice. Someone for whom being nice is less important. Someone who needs to make a dent in the universe more.

And thank goodness for that, because I really love my iPhone.

Creativity = Risk

There is a false dichotomy in the world: the idea that you are either creative or you’re not. Sting, one of my favorite muscians, did a TED talk that argued that creativity is about having a new idea and bringing it to life in the face of critique and obstacles. I like that definition, because it opens the door to creativity to everyone, not just those who are artistic.

The idea of creativity and risk came home to me first in middle school. I got involved in a total geek fest called Odyssey of the Mind. The team-based annual creativity competition issues a handful of Long-Term problems (some building, some artistic, some mechanical) each accompanied by ridiculous constraints. The goal is to get kids to think out of the box while working effectively together over a period of months. (It really is cool, check out their website.)

Anyway, one year when I was involved, the team kind of fizzled. I don’t remember anything about the Long-Term problem we were working on or why it fizzled. What I do remember is that on the Saturday morning of the competition I decided to go anyway to see my brothers compete and to keep my mom company. I didn’t have anything better to do.

When we arrived, I was surprised to learn that my team was still registered. We were right there on the list. And it got me thinking. I couldn’t present anything for the Long-Term problem, but what about Spontaneous? 

The Spontaneous problem is — just like it says — all about instant answers. You get pulled into a room and you have a very short amount of time to respond to a creative problem. Sometimes, they ask you to name all of the possible (i.e. crazy) uses for a standard household object. Sometimes, it is naming words that include letters. Sometimes, they hand you a bunch of objects and you have to build a tower as high as you can. All of them involve your team and each of its members thinking fast. The faster and better you think, the more points you get. Every year, teams win and lose on Spontaenous scores.

I was registered. I was there. And really, how cool would it be  to think fast enough for seven people? So, I asked if I could compete in the Spontaneous alone. The woman looked at the rules. She consulted someone else who looked at the rules. They checked and rechecked and determined that there wasn’t anything that indicated I couldn’t compete by myself so they checked me in and gave me my room assignment. 

At my appointed time I showed up, the lone representative of my team. After dealing with the confusion with the judges, they gave me the problem. I remember very little about it, but I think it was a word association puzzle. I remember doing ok, but with only one brain and not seven to have ideas, it wasn’t a great score. I remember leaving the room feeling more than a little sheepish, not sure that it had worked out quite the way I thought it would. I hadn’t even come close to winning.

At the end of the day, everyone rallied in the gym for the swap meet and awards ceremony.  It was a flurry of super smart kids and parents, and I found a bleacher seat with my mom and brothers. We talked about how their teams did and whether they might make it to states. I was half-listening when the announcer started talking about the Renatra Fusca — the top award given out for individual creativity. They went on to share the story of a young woman who had shown immense creativity by breaking the paradigm and having the audacity to engage outside of the rules, how she had competed alone, without a team, and while she didn’t win she had done far better than they expected any person could do alone.

As they said my name, I still hadn’t connected the dots. My mom, crying next to me, had to nudge me to stand up and walk down the bleechers. The entire thing is still a blur. At the time, I didn’t see my action as creative. Ballsy, maybe. Unorthodox, sure. But creative?

And yet, as I listened to Sting, one of the most creative people I know and an artist I admire immensely, it fit the definition. I didn’t care that no on else had ever considered it. It didn’t stop me that every single element of the process and program was designed for team interaction. What I did was so ridiculous and proposterous that no one considered writing a rule that one person could not be a team — that a team needed at least five people.

They fixed that loophole the next year.