Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Tallest Pygmy

I've lately been encountering a phenomenon I've deemed the Tallest Pigmy. The Tallest Pygmy occurs when a superlative is applied in a context and the context is later lost. For example:

the formost authority on particle accelerators in Canada
the world's formost authority on particle accelerators... in Canada 
and then simply,
the world's formost authority on particle accelerators
or even,
the world's formost authority.

The phenomenon is not limited to any domain, or for that matter, to people (you could have the world's greatest concert venue... in Poughkeepsie). The world qualification is rarely stated as such, though it's often felt. I would estimate that a good fifty-percent of all organizations refer to themselves or something they do as being "world class".

Over the past weeks I've been introduced to most amazing musicians, the smartest IT people, the most prestigious researchers, the best-equipped facilities, and the most talented graphic artists. In the contexts in which each operates, I'm sure that the statements are merited. However, outside those contexts, well...

One Woman's Greatest
The disparity between one person's best and another person's worst can be so great (i.e., the worst person in one context can be so much better than the best person from another) that it's hard for anyone from one context to imagine the other.

Over the past weeks, I've met world renowned researchers who need statisticians to help them design studies, great software developers who don't actually program, but instead piece things together in WordPress, awesome musicians who have no sense of time, and professional graphic artists who don't actually know what is required for a graphic to become a logo. In their contexts, they're well respected for what they do; however, in mine, they don't qualify for the role, let alone the adjectives. They're all tallest pygmies.

You might be thinking, "So what? Why do you care?"

I don't care in general. However, tallest pygmies can become a challenge when, by way of collaboration, I "get" to work with a most talented artist or smartest IT guy. I find myself spending more time educating and training than I would have spent simply doing the work myself.

Even that wouldn't be a problem. I love helping people to develop their skills. However, it can take a lot of time to educate tallest pygmies (much of which can be spent helping them to see that they don't actually meet the minimum height requirements for the new context), and of late, time is the commodity with which I've needed to be most stingy.

Sigma Reduction
To be clear, tallest pygmies can indeed be quite deserving of positive adjectives so long as they're not superlatives. In some context or other, every one of us is a tallest pygmy.

When I worked at Bell Labs, everyone with whom I worked had been the tallest pygmy. Pretty much everyone (well, except me) had been the smartest kid in her high school, had graduated from college, summa cum laude, and had been a top-ranked grad student at a top ranked university.

With such well qualified people, it was an amazing place to work. Yet, despite their qualifications, another phenomenon occurred, one that many tallest pygmies found dismaying. I'll call it Sigma Reduction. Each person had spent his life in the 3- or 4-sigma category. You bring all those 3-sigma cats together, compare their skills and abilities, and guess what? You get a bell curve. Yup, even with all the qualifications, there was a small percent of the group that was clearly more capable than the rest, and a small percent of the group that was clearly less capable. Most of the previously 3-sigma folks had become, well, average.

Pygmy Management
A dense collection of 3-sigma-cum-average engineers could pose significant management challenges. A friend of mine who was hired from a competitor's company to manage a large engineering team once said, "It can be so much harder to manage the really smart guys."

When I asked him why, he responded, "Because it takes so much longer to show them where they're wrong."

Smart or not, being the tallest pygmy can often lead to missed opportunities to learn and grow.

Beyond the overhead of training and managing tallest pygmies, the biggest challenge for me personally has been one of disappointment. I'm always on the lookout for opportunities to have been the tallest pygmy, opportunities to plunge into new contexts in which I'm the shortest. Sure, there are infinitely many contexts in which I'd not meet the minimum height requirements; however, the contexts I'm seeking are the ones in which I currently consider myself to be accomplished.

I'd love to hook up with a technology team where I'd be happy just to maintain the supply of diet Coke so long as I could learn from them. I'd love to play music with cats so skilled that I spend ninety-percent of my time just trying to hear what it was they were actually playing. I'd love to debate someone where every statement caused me to pause and think, "Shit, that was really good."

Over the past weeks, I've anticipated at least some of the above based on my external assessment of a new context. Perhaps I over-prepared by anticipating being the shortest pygmy, but, oh well.

You might be thinking, "So what?" (I know I am.)

I think the so-what is this: Each of us is from time to time the tallest pygmy. Each of us is from time to time the shortest. Being aware of which is which can have a wonderful affect on learning and growth.

Happy Tuesday,

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