Minding My Own Business


November 2, 2007

A client of ours recently faced a hiring dilemma. In seeking to fill a senior management position, the board had narrowed the field of applicants to two individuals, each of whom brought a unique package of qualifications to the table. As we analyzed the two candidates, the difference between the two was striking. One had risen through the ranks of the company on the basis of diligence and hard work, and held the respect of just about everyone in the organization, including the board. He had never quite hit the proverbial "home run", but had been a valued part of the executive team that was credited with turning the company around. The second candidate was an outsider to the company, but a person who had a sensational track record of accomplishment in virtually the exact area of responsibility for which he was being considered. The debate over the candidates raged, as several directors argued in favor of loyalty, effort and perseverance, while others argued that success was the more important barometer for this decision. I sided with the latter, feeling in my gut that a history of achievement trumped all the effort and hard work in the world.

In thinking this through, I wondered whether in fact I was being untrue to the American ideals of effort and opportunity. Is it not drilled into us from an early age that nothing is beyond us if we try hard enough? Shouldn't an unwavering commitment to investing sweat and hours be substantial enough to secure advancement? But what overrode those feelings was the nagging reality that certain individuals are just winners; they have a knack for succeeding in any environment, from high school football and class elections to landing the big account to overseeing the profitable growth of a midsize manufacturing company.

Have you ever really considered why it is that certain people seem to succeed over and over again, while others just can't ever seem to catch a break? Sure, there is a talent factor, but talent alone can't be everything, because too many people with plenty of talent never succeed. Is it luck? I don't discount luck as a factor, but I don't fully agree with the sentiment voiced most famously by Larry King, who claimed that "luck is the residue of design". More accurate, in my opinion, is the perspective of golf legend Gary Player, who loved to point out that "the more I practice, the luckier I get." (To be fair, it was Thomas Jefferson who earlier espoused that thought: "I'm a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it." Today's business professionals, however, seem to admire golfers more than founding fathers.)

But success can't be only about hard work and perseverance, because we all have known people who worked their tails off and never even approached achieving their goals. In business, especially, we are all too familiar with those brilliant and hardworking souls who just "can't catch a break". So I would suggest that beyond skill, talent, luck, effort, and practice, what truly defines the chronically successful is Vision.

I'm not talking about the vision espoused by the myriad of vague, overreaching and idealistic statements that litter the landscape of corporate communications. That is vision with a small "v", and is a synonym for hopes and aspirations at best, and too often a euphemism for pipe dreams and fantasies. Vision, with a capital V, is the innate ability to accurately anticipate the results of a specific decision, including the timing and reasons behind the outcome. Developing Vision means cultivating a special type of clarity: a crystallized understanding of situations, the effortless and automatic absorption of information, the instant consideration of a myriad of possibilities, and an instinctive determination of the most likely outcome.

Vision is exactly the right word to describe this trait. Someone who requires thick corrective glasses can't possibly see what the individual with 20-15 vision sees. Do you remember the incredible difference in experience when you saw color television for the first time in place of a black and white picture? What is so fascinating about Vision is that those who have it are perplexed that not everyone has it - and those who don't have it can't even imagine the sensation of having it. It's like trying to explain what a particular food tastes like to someone who has never eaten it.

The most accurate description of Vision is that the world slows down for those with Vision. They see more details and events appear more logical to them, as if they are thinking in regular speed while watching in slow motion. They simply process what they see faster, and are able to act on that basis with more accuracy as a result. Vision is something that transcends industries, professions, races, gender, and religion. Certain CEOs sorely lack it while stay-at-home moms use it to great effect every single day.

We see this everyday on the roads, as some drivers appear to be practically Yoda-like as they effortlessly bob, glide and weave their way through three or four lanes of high speed interstate traffic. These drivers, which my father-in-law will swear includes me, are acutely aware of the specific locations and speeds of every car on the road, and therefore experience the simple satisfaction of forward progress engaging in what others might classify as white-knuckle, death-defying motorist insanity.

It was often said of Ted Williams, the late Boston Red Sox outfielder widely considered to be the greatest hitter of the modern era, that he could actually read the signature on the baseball as it flew at 90-plus miles per hour on its way from the pitcher to the plate. Whether or not that was an exaggeration, the point is stark: Great athletes have more than great vision; they have great Vision.

I read recently that the shortage of quarterback excellence in today's American football is directly correlated to the rising physical requirements combined with the complexity of the modern offenses, which have been designed to combat increasingly sophisticated defensive schemes. According to the experts, the pool of physically qualified quarterbacks has been dramatically reduced as the game has increased in speed and ferocity, and that pool is even shallower given the increased levels of rapid cognition necessary to succeed. At the highest level, though, where Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and even an aging Brett Favre reside, the game essentially slows down. These quarterbacks, physically gifted and armed with Vision, are able to recognize defensive schemes, assess options in real time, and carve up even the very best defenses by keeping them off-balance.

But Vision is not just about high speed. It is about recognizing and understanding the complexity, rhythm, patterns, and variables that are the building blocks of everyday life. Great artists, from composers and writers to architects and sculptors, achieve entirely through Vision, allowing their instinct and intuition to be shaped by a comprehensive understanding of their medium, environment and the tools of their trade.

Perhaps the perfect depiction of Vision is a scene directed by Robert Redford in the film version of The Legend of Bagger Vance. In this scene, Rannulph Junuh, the local golf prodigy seeking to return to form in a match against the legendary Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, lines up a critical putt by kneeling behind the ball and visualizing the route that the ball will take to the hole. Redford drops the entire frame out of focus with the exception of the curling sweep of the long, breaking path along the green which Junuh visualizes. As Junuh putts the ball, Redford returns reality into focus, and we watch the ball gently slide along the arc, exactly as visualized, and drop into the cup.

I suppose that what we really want to know is how exactly can each of us get our world to slow down so that we can dominate it? Can Vision be learned or acquired? As I see it, Vision, like IQ, height and eye color, is a characteristic and not a learned trait. We are each born with a unique potential capability for Vision, and to a certain degree, all the effort and education in the world can't change that limitation. However, Vision is more than just the innate ability to see the likely outcome of a strategic decision. Much like reading and executing a difficult putt, Vision requires a combination of technique, understanding and experience. The challenge for each of us is to find a way to incorporate all of this into our internal evaluating mechanisms, and give us the best chance to accurately foresee the outcomes of our decisions.

In The Michelangelo Method, an interesting analysis of the great artist's work and strategies, authors Ken Schuman and Ron Paxton maintain that "Without the ability to connect different experiences, creating a masterpiece is nigh impossible - even if you know what you're doing. Whether it is finding a new solution in to common problem, melding disparate media, creating new forms, or simply viewing a weighty obstacle from another angle, finding the connections in your unique experiences yields the innovations that become masterpieces."

Elisha Tropper is president and CEO of T3 Associates, a New York based strategic consulting firm, and the former president of Prestige Label, a North Carolina converter. He can be reached by e-mail et@t3associates.net.