Monday, February 25, 2008

Involvement vs Commitment

Perhaps many of you have heard some variation of the story about the chicken and the pig when it comes to involvement vs. commitment.

The basic premise:

Think about a meal consisting of eggs and ham and consider the contributions made by a chicken and a pig. A chicken provided the eggs and a pig provided the ham. It can be said the chicken was involved, because the chicken continues to live as it lays more eggs. It can be said the pig was committed, because the pig gave its all to provide the ham and other pork products.

This is one of those "motivational" stories that sounds real good when you read it, and I've heard some of my colleagues use it during teambuilding sessions for various companies to motivate their staff towards being committed as opposed to just being involved. But continuing to follow that analogy probably isn't what management had in mind, nor is it what most workers want to do with their lives.

The chicken is contributing at a long term, sustainable level. She's able to keep giving, as her output is renewable. The pig, however, is screwed. He gives everything at a single burst, and that's it. No more pig, and he needs to be replaced. While the "farmer" gains from both levels of contribution, the pig isn't around to see the benefits. The farmer's out looking for another pig.

And the chicken? She's just sitting there, laying more eggs, and continually providing for the farmer. I don't think there are many employees who want to be the pig. Everyone who is part of the team would much rather be the chicken. And the next time a motivational speaker uses that analogy, think about it... Do you want to go down in a blaze of glory, or do you want to produce over the long term?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Sherpas: Bad Gear, Great Attitude

Sherpas are a big part of climbing lore and legend. Ever since westerners began flowing into the Himalayas in the nineteenth century to seek adventure, they have relied upon the local guides to help them navigate the treacherous terrain. While a few Sherpas have gained fame from their own work, most often they are the unsung heroes of the climbing world. They’re always present and they always do the hardest work, yet they receive little of the credit.

My first experience with Sherpas came in 2001 when Erik and I set off to Nepal. I was immediately struck by how much they seemed in contrast to their western climbing counterparts. Whereas American and European climbers tended to be loud and boisterous, the Sherpas were quiet and reserved. We would share puffed-up stories of our adventures around the world while they said very little, except to occasionally praise us for a well-told story.

While I realized right away that Sherpas had a very different way of looking at things, I didn’t fully understand how helpful and wonderful they really were until I had finished the trip and arrived back home. I had just returned from Nepal and felt like I was still on the top of the world, literally and figuratively. I had gone to the world’s biggest mountain, and with a blind man in tow! Wanting to stay in my rock star state of mind a while longer, I decided to take a look at some of the pictures our expedition photographer, Didrik Johnk, had sent over.

The photos told a great story. There were snapshots of the exotic places we’d seen, along with images from the climb itself. In one, we were crossing a deadly section of crevasses. In another, we clung to our ropes and axes while fighting our way up. And finally, there was a shot that captured us high on the mountain – striding through the Geneva Spur, deep on the mountain near Camp Four. I beamed with pride as I looked down at our photos from the top, and was about to toss them aside when one caught my eye. Something seemed a bit out of place, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. There we were, smiling wildly and being heroes. What could be wrong with that?

Then I noticed the detail that was getting to me. Standing in the background was one of our Sherpa colleagues. While we were whooping and celebrating under layers of high-tech, very expensive climbing gear, he was looking contentedly at the sky in a pair of blue jeans. And not even designer jeans, but a pair of knock-offs you’d find in a discount store. How could this be? I was bundled under several layers of Gore-Tex and goose down, all designed to keep me warm and alive in a place where life shouldn’t be. This man looked like he was taking a stroll in the park. Mount Everest, especially near the top, is known as a ‘death zone’ for its extreme cold, wind, and lack of oxygen. True, our Sherpa friend was carrying a canister of oxygen, but it was for me!

At that moment, I started to realize who the real rock stars were. Our Sherpa friends had shown up every day and done everything asked of them and more, without the slightest hint of impatience or complaint. My recollection of this is not unique. Every single climber I’ve talked to since, when asked, has vouched for the Sherpas’ remarkable mindset. Their willingness to take on any challenge for the team without expecting recognition of any kind is an amazing trait. For them, nothing is ever too hard, too heavy, or too long.

Physiologically, many people think Sherpas hold a genetic advantage in the mountains. This idea was so compelling that a major study was done to examine them. A team of researchers ran many body composition comparisons between Sherpa and Western climbers, dissecting many of our basic human functions as they relate to
high-altitude stress. After a solid year of computing and comparing, they found we are all basically the same. When I heard this, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. It just proved to me what I already knew: Sherpas have important qualities that are just not quantifiable. So how do they do it? It’s simple, they outwork us.

They do indeed have something we don’t, but it’s not in their lungs or their blood cells, it’s an attitude that pushes them to consistently overachieve. They treat every task as if it’s the most important in the world, every person like they’re a close friend, and every day like it could be their last. Sherpas don’t do it for money and glory, they do it because it’s a way of life. From the first to the last, they make it their mission to be worthy of being counted on. How much better would our world be if more people could adopt this attitude? In our world, it seems so important to take credit. Everybody wants to be in the spotlight, to get the biggest and the best. The real heroes aren’t usually the ones getting the awards, they’re the people getting it done every day. Forget trying to imitate actors and sports stars. If you want to stand out, be like a Sherpa.