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Think fast and say nothing

About five years ago in my first quarter of business school, as professor gave me a piece of advice during his office hours that affected me far more than I could have anticipated. He said, "I really need to hear more from you in class. In the last 2 months, you've spoken exactly twice. I remembered you because you said something smart, but you seem to enjoy listening and thinking a little too much. That's ok, but that's not the way to excel either in this class or whatever it is that you will do after you leave here."

My hand went up in all my classes (except Accounting!) a lot more often after that and by the end of my first year I'd become one of those people that still kinda annoy me. The high point was when a friend came up to me after one particularly loquacious performance when I really felt strong and remarked "I think I just parted with good money to listen to you have an hour-long conversation with the prof."

I've dialed it back, but when I started at Google/YouTube a few years ago I was given similar advice ("Be aggressive. Be vocal. Be seen to be taking initiative ..yada yada") ...and this time it applied not just to speaking in meetings or discussions, it implicitly applied to email as well.

Work culture today (particularly in larger, information-driven companies) favors talkers; not people that speak a lot, but definitely those that seem to "think quickly on their feet", that speak often and say smart, well-packaged, sometimes insightful things that we're able to digest and appreciate quickly.

The attributes of our work culture, especially in management, encourage this. Not only have we forgotten that still waters run deep, we don't even see the water unless its making waves.

To be clear, the ability to think fast and quickly make better decisions is an incredibly valuable skill, but increasingly I'm finding the ability to think fast and do nothing is pretty valuable as well.

I've been in too many meetings and on too many email threads where far too many people aren't just being themselves and focussing on the issue that had, but are involved in the theare of trying to show that they're "leaders" or "have thought about something deeply" or "are taking initiative." Sometimes their contributions are vital; other times they're marginal to the issue but useful to them in that others acknowledge their contribution. Often they're neither.

The people that do this kinda stuff really well are generally whip-smart, confident and erudite; and they're seen as such. The one's that don't come off looking like overhead. I like to think I have mixed results with this game. :)

Increasingly, I'm pushing myself in these meetings and threads to stay involved and think just as quickly, and but then play the proceedings forward. I ask myself
  • if I say/do nothing, will the outcome be one I'm just as comfortable with?
  • how important is it to me to be seen to be endorsing/opposing what's going on?
  • can I move this discussion in any way or change this person's mind or is it a done deal and will I just be making myself feel better for trying?
  • ...and all of the above can be summed up by: is it useful to the project, the company, or to me to jump in or is my time spent better elsewhere?
Often, I conclude the best thing I could do is shut up.

This is not easy to do!! Particularly for me because I've overcome my natural introverted tendencies a little to speak up, and that little personal trait likes its makeover. Its even harder because frankly nothing annoys me more than people that are either lying or insist that they are correct when I'm convinced they aren't. In fact, resisting the temptation to correct others when I know they're just plain wrong is about as hard for me as giving up free, legal cash would be... but its clearly the right thing to do many a times.

Anyway, I still believe while its more important to think deeply its still important to think quickly. However, after thinking quickly sometimes; just sometimes; the right thing to do is absolutely nothing.


Isaac said…
Thought-provoking post. More please!
Sam said…
Reminds me of this HBR Article about the "Smart Talk Trap" Preview here:

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