An excerpt from

You Didn’t Mention the Piranhas

Sarah Nelson Smith

“There’s never a downside in seeking and listening to many different opinions and words of advice and wisdom. Some might have no relevance immediately, but might linger in the darker recesses of your mind until they’re needed, when they can be unpacked, dusted down, and revisited in a slightly different set of circumstances. 

The people whose opinions and advice I seek out most frequently, are the people with whom I tend to disagree the most. Why? Because they clearly see situations through a very different lens to mine and they’re more likely to spot something I’ve missed, or point out the weak spot in my thinking than someone with whom I’m entirely aligned. With my most valued colleagues, we regularly go for long walks to discuss and debate, disagree and sometimes argue before getting to a point of understanding, where we can happily agree, or equally happily agree to disagree. Agreeing with somebody is not a pre-requisite to respecting, liking or getting along with each other.

If it’s valuable to have people in your tribe who will share their views with you, it’s even more valuable to have people who are comfortable to challenge your own. In many instances, challenging an idea or a proposition is nothing to be taken personally. I struggled with this for some time: if I had put time and effort into a proposal in which I fully believed, whether plans for a weekend away with friends, or a worked strategy for the business to adopt, my sense of satisfaction in a job well done would come not from the offering up of the idea, but from the acceptance of it by the group. This is ridiculous for several reasons: the element that was within my control – coming up with good, workable ideas – should have been my true goal, if what I wanted to do was to add value to the group and offer up a viable option. The element which fell beyond my control – whether or not the group chose to run with my plan - should really not have concerned me.

Certainly, if I believed that, notwithstanding my advice, a truly awful decision was about to be taken, I’d have done my best to make sure everyone was fully aware of what they were about to sign up to, but if the ultimate decision was not mine to make, it would be futile to overly invest in the making of it. Is it arrogance (“I’m obviously right, so everyone should see that and agree!”) or a lack of confidence (“I’m not sure at all whether I’m right or not, but people agreeing with me would reassure me and give me validation”)? Does it even matter? People often disagree with or reject the ‘right’ way forwards, and others blindly or intentionally follow the wrong way. Such is human nature. And no matter how much we might believe that we know what we’re doing, until we stand in the shoes of every other stakeholder and view the situation through their eyes, we’ll never have the truly holistic picture.

Imagine you’ve been invited to a party, and the host has asked that you bring a bowl of rice, and some iced cupcakes to add to the mix. You prepare both. Taking the freshly cooked rice, you tip it into the big serving dish that sits on the table, and stir it in with the other rice already there. You’ve spent some time icing the cupcakes to the best of your abilities, and now take each one, placing them carefully on the tiered cake stand next to a number of others that have been beautifully decorated and delicately arranged for all of the guests to enjoy. The host invites everybody to come and help themselves to lunch. Salad is heaped onto plates, alongside fish and bread, and spoonful by spoonful, rice. Some hands reach first for the cupcakes – selecting the prettiest or the most intricate to enjoy.

As you watch everybody happily enjoying the food, you barely think at all about whether they’re enjoying the rice that you’d brought: it’s so completely intermixed with all of the other contributions that nobody would be able to tell whether it was yours or somebody else’s that they’re eating. You keep glancing back at the cakes though: as the best ones go, you feel more and more embarrassed to see that yours still remain. “Are there any others?” a child asks? No, just these ones left. The child leaves, taking an apple from the fruit bowl instead. “Who made these ones?” the hostess asks. Was that a slightly disapproving look?

Offer up your contributions and ideas like rice, not like iced cupcakes: once given, the burden of ownership and authorship is severed, and it is simply the property of the group or the decision maker to do with as they choose. If it’s lauded and appreciated, great, but the real win is that it positively enriches the group understanding and decision-making. And if it’s rejected? It’s not yours anymore: you’ve offered it up already, so you need have no pride of authorship. Success is not having your proposal accepted, but simply in having all of the options laid out, so that the right decision can be made based on a genuine understanding of the facts. If you’ve contributed to that in some way, you’ve already been successful.”