I wish I had written this book. It’s desperately needed, has a built-in audience, and is written by a Gen-Yer for business Gen-Yers on the make for business success. My friend, Alexandra Levit, challenges the big ideas that so many believe but are so damned wrong. She does it in a gracious, thoughtful, reasonable fashion, with illustrations that are eye-popping, leading-edge research, and a great deal of fun. Her delicious writing just sneaks up on you. Furthermore, she focuses on what will make you successful in today’s world, not yesterday’s.
I think it was Lindsey Pollak, the well-known career blogger, who’s written that Gen-Yers lack street smarts. Well, in this book, Levit goes a long way toward resolving that problem. And before I sign off on this paragraph, I need to emphasize that though she’s written to her youthful audience, her ideas are just as needful and just as relevant to all the generations. And yeah…all the professions. I’ll allude to that in a few paragraphs.
As the title reveals, she deals with those silly ideas that some believe are gospel truth. Let’s look briefly at a few of them. Hopefully, it’ll entice you to run to Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com before the sun sets.
Alexandra begins with the historically monstrous American myth that “overnight success is possible.” She goes right for the illustrative jugular by demythologizing Susan Boyle’s first-round performance on television and YouTube, which touted the “overnight success” of a singer who supposedly had never sung in public before. Sounds fascinating! But that wasn’t exactly the way it happened. Susan attended the Edinburgh Acting School, sang at churches and karaoke bars, and trained with a professional voice coach before auditioning for musicals.
Alexandra’s recommendations for achieving success flow right out of the same research of the more academic works of Jeff Pfeffer’s reality stuff on power and Teresa Amabile’s on small wins. Levit’s advice is immediately practicable, providing some very concrete recommendations for setting goals, coping with setbacks, and keeping your goals from getting the best of you.
In another chapter she completely discredits that nauseating Midwestern and Geek belief that if you work hard at your job and are good at it, it’ll be the key to success. There are a number of reasons for success, but the reality is that there’s a very weak link between job performance and career outcome. Among the sub-topics for that chapter are: Why knowledge isn’t power, The popularity factor, Getting on the executive radar, and Promoting yourself without bragging. Here Alexandra recommends that one way to establish a needed public persona is by becoming the go-to person on a particular subject. Be a perpetual learner and showcase your knowledge by serving as an organization spokesperson and creating a convincing online brand.
In today’s economy, her debunking of the myth that really essential people don’t get laid off is exceptionally valuable. The driver for job security isn’t necessarily that of taking on the role of essential employee. It’s rather easy to confuse the good work you’re doing with the organization’s bigger picture. Those two don’t inevitably overlap. It’s not just essential businesspeople that get laid off. If you’ve been around medical clinics and law firms, you should know that both essential physicians and lawyers have been laid off. And essential teachers? Well, ‘nuff said. You hope that layoffs just happen to poor performers, but the truth is that even top performers get laid off. Especially useful in this chapter is a long set of clues that your demise is imminent.
I was curious to find out whether Alexandra would deal with the “passion” myth. Yep. There it was in the place of honor: last on the list, the most prominent place to put an important chapter. Do what you love and the money will follow is a swell way for a title to get at the real issue. It’s a setup for both debunking passion and reframing strengths into more useful recommendations, and Alexandra succeeds at both. I had to chuckle at her comment that passion is not a panacea. The cliché “starving artist,” she writes, came about because the dream of millions to become an artist results in only a lucky few being able to make a living off their job. Their passion got them nowhere.
While reading Blind Spots, I couldn’t help but think of that study on Google that demonstrated the fallacy of deeply held beliefs — and the power of accepting and acting on evidence, even when that evidence clashes with ingrained beliefs. Like most tech companies, Google believed that the most important quality for managers is deep technical expertise. They believed the best bosses left people alone and mainly, when needed, helped people with technical problems. That’s not what the research showed at all. When Google examined what employees valued most in a manager, technical expertise ranked last of the eight attributes they examined. What did employees value most in a manager? Google found that the keys were asking good questions, taking time to meet with people, and caring about those employees’ lives and careers. Google had been hiring on the basis of their beliefs, but their beliefs were dead wrong. And the employees suffered as a result.
Studies show that we see what we believe. In other words, believing is seeing and not the opposite. Alexandra Levit’s book challenges many, perhaps most, of our beliefs with great research, enticing illustrations, and a great deal of reasonable sense. This is a book that’s chock full of great ideas and practicable recommendations. It’s an ambitious career work containing a striking series of vignettes illuminating how to become a successful businessperson today’s world. It provides the kind of intelligence and street smarts needed for careers in the New Economy. It shrugs off the irrelevant, the obvious, and the trite, landing us squarely in reality. Michael Port’s comment is right on: “Hard-hitting, honest, and course correcting…What it really takes to be successful in business.”
Blind Spots: 10 Business Myths You Can't Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success
by Alexandra Levit
272 pp. Paperback. Berkley Trade
Forthcoming on October 4, 2011.
Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.