Choose Your Arguments Wisely

Talent Management

February 16, 2012

by Marshall Goldsmith

I have always taken some foolish pride in the humble nature of my upbringing. For many of us, it’s part of being an American: reveling in how poor we were and how much we had to overcome to achieve our current station in life. Since Horatio Alger, this has been part of the American Dream. It’s the reason parents still lecture their children with memories of their childhoods that begin with “When I was your age …” There’s nothing wrong with a little of that if the lecture imparts some useful instruction — and the children aren’t rolling their eyes thinking, “Dad’s at it again.” In general, this is a waste of time.

While “I had it so tough!” is bad at home, it can be even worse at work. When we do this, all we’re doing is trying to elicit other people’s admiration for our having had it rougher than they did. It’s pointless, almost perverse bragging — and what does the “winner” of the argument really win? I embarrassed myself when I got into a contest with a client about which one of us was poorer growing up. After laying out all the necessities of modern life that we lacked in Valley Station, I tossed down my trump card: “The first three years in grade school,” I said, “we had an outhouse.”

My adversary countered, “In West Virginia, all we had were outhouses. What’s the big deal? And by the way, we had dirt floors in my home!”

“You know what?” I said. “You win. I can’t top dirt floors.”

I felt like a fool afterward. And I suspect that the winner didn’t feel any better. That’s what happens when you try to glorify your past for all its deficiencies and all the suffering it brought upon you. It’s no different for any debate about details in the past, even the good times. All you’re doing is creating a contest of competing memories. Except for its limited self-entertainment value, what’s the point of that?

Why we do things like that is a perennially pointless argument; we never really know what other people’s motives are. We can speculate — with generosity, if we attribute goodwill to their motives; or with paranoia, if we suspect hostile intent — but no matter how strenuously we probe, we may never get a frank answer.