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Ok, so you’re either starting a business, have been fired, got a new job, being head hunted, going for a job interview, negotiating a sale or pay raise, having trouble with colleagues, feeling unmotivated or you are a terrible procrastinator. What do you do?

You read one of the thousands of Top Ten Lists that are rampant online. Well, here is my 10 cents worth. A Top Ten List of reasons to ignore Top Ten Lists.

1: Lovely quotes are not enough

Those deep and prophetic quotes are often wrong. You know the ones, “success is 20% inspiration and 80% perspiration”. When someone says this, I want you to ask him or her where the evidence is for such prophetic words of wisdom. Who conceptualized and operationalized these concepts, and how did they measure them? It’s a pretty precise number the 20:80 rule, but there is no fact or basis to it. It’s just a quote.

2: The world is unfair and unjust

Most Top Ten Lists totally ignore or underplay this reality. The world is unfair and it is unjust. If you’re a different color, or you are female (especially a female who is a different color), or you were born into a poor family, or in a poor area, advice such as “work hard and you will succeed” means very little. Yes, there is always the example of the poor kid who made it big, but they are exceptions to the rule. It’s like saying my grandfather smoked till he was 100 to show that smoking does not kill you. Smoking does kill you, and increasingly, being born poor means you will die poor.

Too much emphasis is given to the agency of the individual, our individual agency is only limited; we are social beings.

Here our family, or social ties and social networks, and the care, compassion and the mentoring of others are crucial. Your ability to escape poverty is related to the quality of your education and of your community. It is all about policy. Have all these things in place, then by all means, work hard! That will work when the system is not stacked against you in many subtle and real ways. Otherwise you are much better off putting all your effort into changing the system.

3: Don’t be afraid to fail, be afraid of organizations that are afraid to fail 

Many Top Ten Lists declare “don’t be afraid of failure, use it as a learning opportunity”. I dare people working in organizations to fail. Let’s see what happens to them.

“Hey boss, I failed to meet your sales target”. “Hey boss, I failed to close any deals”. “Hey boss, that product failed to…”

Try it and see what you learn. You will learn that most organizations do not value failure, they do not see it as a positive learning experience but as a negative. You live in a world that fears failure – this includes many of the organizations you will work for.

4: You are not a magician 

I have seen ‘leaders’ inspire people to take risks; start new ventures, or take on risky projects. You’ve seen Top Ten Lists telling us we can do more with less. Or:

“Don’t say I’LL TRY, say I WILL”.

This mean all the onus of success or failure is on you. I have literally sat with one ‘leader’ as he set out his vision to staff about change, he allocated tasks, gave orders, and said, “Go do it, I will support you!” However, he provided no real resources, only words, and buckled when push came to shove. This left many people who were pro change damaged. Most left the organization for much better places, including myself (although I hazard to guess he was very happy about that).

Most leaders and managers expect you to be a magician, just like they are illusionists.

They want you to magic crap out of the air. Unless you get a written guarantee of the resources and real support that will be given to you, don’t agree to do anything involving major change based on nothing more than words and a friendly smile. No real and committed resources and support? No thanks, not interested.

5: Trust is the drug

Trust comes in many forms and it’s not necessarily a positive thing. People who say “trust is the key to success” are providing you with a really simple idea of trust. Murderers can trust each other not to tell, the Mafia works on trust, as do terrorists.

One reality is that trust is ‘event’ based and assumed.

What do I mean by that? Well let’s start with assumed. Think about the person you trust most. What changes might occur in their life that would cause them to behave in ways that would betray your trust – Divorce? Affairs? A major illness? A major financial disaster? Accident? The list is endless.

We assume things stay the same when it comes to people we trust, but they do not.

It’s even more problematic in organizations – we are strangers brought together to work. We can never assume the trust we have in people will be sustained for a lifetime. It seldom is and you are either inexperienced or delusional if you think it can. Events change people and change things. Hence, contracts are critical. Well-designed, proactive contracts. Don’t just rely on ‘trust’, because trust is not permanent and it’s assumed. Assumptions are often wrong: get it in writing.

 6: Give me competence before niceness any day

Yes there are even Top Ten Lists which tell us how to be nice to our coworkers. I want my neighbor to be nice; I want my workmates, managers and my leaders to be competent – if they’re nice that’s a bonus.

Incompetent people cause a lot of damage. Even really nice ones.

Indeed, nice, incompetent people create more work because most employees protect them by taking up the slack that they create.

7: Be a hero? Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something

There are numerous Top Ten Lists which guide us in how to give our boss advice or feedback. Aside from a few key behaviors – such as bullying, sexual harassment, dangerous and unethical behavior – don’t make things your problem (until the time is right). It’s not your job and it’s above your pay grade to worry about strategic and managerial issues. People are appointed and paid more than you for this kind of stuff.

Give your opinion if asked, but don’t volunteer it.

Unless you have a vested interest in changing things, or you have aspirations for leadership, don’t volunteer your services and ideas in an environment that does not value them, and most probably does not really want them. Bide your time, things will change, and power relations shift. Then make your move.

8: Boring is not bad

If you believed all the Top Ten Lists you would assume that there are people who find every second and every hour of every day amazing. For these individuals, even going to the toilet is a transformational experience.

However, thank your lucky stars that most days have elements of banality to them: same things, same people, same processes, etc.

Life is not an action film. As an experiment watch all the Die Hard films for 24 hours straight, then multiply that by 365. Imagine if life was exciting and action packed every day and every second. It would be a very boring life indeed. Rejoice in the bland, you will love and appreciate the fun bits even more.

9: Singularity?

Top Ten Lists concerning the eventuality of machines taking over the world abound. Lots of very smart people are warning us about the existential risk of technology, and in particular Artificial Intelligence. I say bullocks to that! Get my Outlook not to crash on my MacBook, or my phone not to lose all service signal and Wi-Fi access on a simple train trip between Leeds and Cambridge and then I might just think about fearing technology.

Let’s face it, AI is and will continue to revolutionize everything from health, our ability to make better decisions, explore the universe; and just you wait until we have the technology to prove string theory: but even so we have a long, long, long, long way to go before we need to fear anything other than ourselves or nature.

So relax, your life won’t end if you kill your social network identity, burn your phone or throw out your iPad.

It will continue, and you will still engage, albeit in different ways. No computer will hide under your bed to kill you for leaving it. Think about how and why you interact with technology. A life subservient and reliant on technology is no better or worse than one reliant or subservient to other human beings.

Besides, once we upload our brains and free ourselves from our bodies, we have pretty much achieved nirvana.

Ironically, every religion on earth is trying to convince people that this is the end state (a place free of our physical form). Technology will one day achieve that. A lovely place where the pain and drudgery of a physical existence no longer exists.

10: Ignore number 10

Number ten is usually a forced point because we ran out of steam making our list and we try and think of a number 10 that does not repeat 1-9. In fact, usually we are out of steam by number 8 – so you can usually totally ignore number 10. Ok, I’ll still do a number 10 in three words and lots of exclamation marks: String Theory! Fantastic!!!

 

 

 

 

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Professor of Strategy at Leeds University Business School, and a Doctoral researcher at The University of Cambridge, UK. His research is on mega-project strategy and generative relationships that foster innovation and transformation. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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