How often in life are you told to aim to be a zero? Unless you’re a Supermodel (which this readership is unlikely to be), in many people’s minds zero equals nothing, so why would you ever aim to be a zero?
I’ve recently just finished an excellent book, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life” by Chris Hadfield, which documents his life from little boy with a dream of becoming an astronaut, to actual realisation of that dream. Hadfield is a fascinating and thoroughly engaging character and I’d strongly suggest watching some of his interviews if you get the chance.
In his book there are many interesting, insightful anecdotes about his life in space, but the one piece of prose that stood out to me and which can be applied to the work we carry out is his belief that, ‘it is best to aim to be a zero’.
In the book Hadfield writes:
“Over the years, I’ve realised that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.”
Obviously we want to be a ‘plus one’ in all we do. It is to some, a basic human instinct. Very few people want to be a ‘zero’, and no one wants to be a ‘minus one’. So why aim to be a zero?
“Everyone wants to be a plus one of course. But proclaiming your plus one-ness at the outset almost guarantees that you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform. This might be self-evident but it can’t be, because so many people do it”
One can interpret Hadfield’s writing in many ways, but for me, its application to our lives inside and outside of work can be surmised as follows.
In unfamiliar or stressful situations, striving to be a ‘plus one’ may cause problems. In such situations, we may not be well equipped (in terms of knowledge and information to hand), experienced, or energetic enough to be a ‘plus one’. Entering a new environment intent on exploding out the gate will only result in a risk of wreaking havoc.
The pursuit to achieve a ‘plus one’ status will cause us to become a ‘minus one’, someone who causes problems instead of contributing. It is here that we over estimate our abilities and experience, misunderstand our role or the task in hand, and add negative ingredients into the mix such as stress and false confidence. Shaking off that tag then becomes very difficult and the consequences may last longer than you would like.
Now this won’t be applicable to all situations, but generally speaking, would it not be more logical to simply aim to complete our tasks competently and well, meeting our obligations without unnecessary stress and bother for anyone? Particularly in new situations, whether it is part of a new work team or in a social situation such as a party or wedding, it is advisable to fully understand the environment in which you find yourself before seeking to make your impact. So aiming to be a ‘zero’ and delivering your best effort with as least friction as possible is not a bad place to start.
For many that will also be an end. Of course, by doing this we will occasionally rise to be a ‘plus one’, and that is the real lasting value that people will give you credit for. But view that as a welcome bonus and not as an automatic requirement from the outset.
As I’m sure we can all agree, thinking that you’re better than everyone else does not necessarily mean that people will actually think that.