Whether it’s writing a business plan, conceptualizing new product, pitching a major prospect, or troubleshooting a piece of technology, at many points in my career I’ve found myself doing something for the first time.  Often times it’s also something that’s totally new for the company, like launching a new line of business.

I love being in this position.  It’s exhilarating.  Doing new things helps me learn and grow the fastest and also helps maximize my impact on the company.  It’s really where I always strive to be.  And whenever I’m in these types of positions I always feel the same thing:

A burning passion to prove myself.

Prove that I can do it better than anyone else.  Prove that I was the right choice for the job and I will exceed all expectations.

This mentality usually leads me to put my head down, think a tremendous amount, draw whiteboard pictures, put post-it notes on the wall – and come up with what I believe is the right solution to the problem at hand.

I then take my work and evangelize it – I sell it privately to key influencers, I present it publicly at all-hands presentations.  I go on the war path to move the company the direction that I think we should go.

Last week, I starting having second thoughts about this approach.

I was talking with a colleague who has had an extremely successful career.  He’s the inventor of some of the core technology that powers the ad tech space, he’s led companies, invested in companies, taken companies public, and sold companies.

He said, in his career, he’s experienced the exact same need to prove himself.  However, that feeling went away when he sold his last company to AppNexus.  He said – “After that, I had nothing left to prove.”

Nothing left to prove.

He no longer tries to put the whole company on his back and march up the mountain.  Now he takes a different approach.  He influences where he can, he inserts his opinion where appropriate, and always tries to maintain a high level “forest from the trees” vantage point.  Rather than evangelizing his ideas to others, he now gently nudges others by inputting critical information and leading them to arrive at his same conclusions.  If someone else presents an idea that he authored – that’s how he knows he’s being effective.   However, he doesn’t point out he was the one who thought of the idea first or take credit for the success of an initiative.

Rather than struggling to wrestle control of each situation, he’s embraced a level of chaos and then, with some tranquility, quietly nudges folks the right direction.

At the time of the conversation, I joked that someday I will have earned the right to behave in the same way – after I have completed some of the same spectacular accomplishments that he has.  For now though, I still need to prove myself.

He then said – “The funny thing is: I’m much more effective today than I was when I was always trying to prove myself.”

Very interesting to think about.

Nothing Left to Prove
  • Alex Cone

    Oh I like this a lot.

  • Jaxon Pickett

    Excellent post, but it may be a bit of a tautology – we are more effective when we have “nothing left to prove” because in the quest to prove our selves, we gain true mastery. I’ll be content in proving myself until that day comes.

  • I identify very much with your thought here. Thanks for reading!

  • Mike

    @jaxonpickett:disqus — I’d put it slightly differently — there is no such thing as true “mastery”. You may master one thing today, but next year something new comes along.

    I think it’s different — in the quest to prove ourselves some gain *humility*… humility for the challenge and how incredible difficult things can be. The humility to ask for help because you know you can’t do it alone. It requires humility to sit quietly in the background and gently nudge folks in the right direction and give them the credit. And of course.. humility and “proving yourself” never go together… how can you be humble and in the background when you are yearning for recognition?

  • I think confidence also plays a role. Sometimes I feel more comfortable with humility after I have a thorough understanding of a topic. That way I know how to talk about the key issues without asking questions that everyone else already knows the answers to.

  • Bren Eifler

    I love this. So many confirmations come to mind, including Good to Great references and quotes. After reading the comments I see truth there too. It seems there are multiple threads of truth here, each with harmonics and overtones of the other, not contradicting, but seemingly paradoxical in that all these points of view have truth in the right context. It seems one approach works best with X personality and Y experience level, while another mix requires a different angle. For example, when one is recognized as an expert, having built a world class track record, their whispers can create waves. Until then one has to fight harder to be heard, but in a selfless way that builds up those around them rather than steamrolling them. In the end, those who create value for others win.

  • +1!