March 3, 2010

Not just a word

March 3, 2010 - Categories: learning, life, mentoring, reflection

During the Art of Marketing lunch break, Alan Lepofsky wanted to know how I got to know his team when he was at IBM. I explained that Matthew Starr had invited me to the IBM Web 2.0 Summit even though I was just a graduate student doing research, and that was when I got to meet Carol Jones and Alan’s other colleagues. When he heard that, Alan told me this story about the word “just”, from when he was twenty-five years old.

One of his mentors had taken him to a very exclusive restaurant, the kind that looks like a home. It was a scene right out of the movies. The waiter greeted his mentor by name and offered his mentor’s usual table. His mentor ordered a drink. When the waiter asked Alan what he would like, Alan said: “I’ll just have a Diet Coke, please.”

After the waiter left, Alan’s mentor told him to never use the word “just” to make himself or his decisions smaller. Instead of saying “I’ll just have a Diet Coke”, Alan could say, “I’ll have a Diet Coke.” There’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

Reflecting on this in the afternoon, I couldn’t help but be struck by how many of the presenters apologized for themselves. It was casual — self-deprecating humour, apologies for slides or technique, apologies for nervousness — and almost unconscious, like something that people say to cover up gaps. Perhaps they thought of themselves as “just” themselves, too.

How many times have I asked for just water at a restaurant? Perhaps it’s to forestall the questions: Perrier? Carbonated water? Bottled water? But it seems even more awkward to clarify with “regular water” or “house water” or “tap water”. (What do people ask for?)

How many times have I described myself as just a lucky newbie? I often feel that I am. I feel like that child in the IBM Linux commercial, receiving insights from all sorts of amazing people. But to call it luck would be to frame this experience as difficult to reproduce, and
to call myself just a newbie dismisses the beginner’s mind that I deliberately develop and maintain – the one that lets me focus on learning and sharing as much as possible instead of staying within my comfort zone.

So who am I, if not just a newbie?

I am excited and amazed by the opportunities that I have. I am doing something incredibly right. I want to figure out not only how to do even better, but how I can share that with as many people as possible and help them do their best.

And yes, I am going to change the world. =) Why not? It’s possible. How wonderful can it be?