in Education

When the spotlight is on, be ready to shine

If you’re not a sports fan, you might not be aware of the hottest sensation in the business right now. Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks point guard who graduated from Harvard, is Asian and was unheralded, undrafted and pretty much a cinch not to be an NBA starter is in fact, doing everything people bet against him to do.

One of the few people to identify this talent’s prospects was a FedEx guy by the name of Ed Weiland. The Wall Street Journal today featured him briefly — at work, no less — after he wrote an article in advance of the 2010 draft preview for a basketball advanced statistics site that indicated Lin might be the 2nd best prospect at his position in that draft.

“Jeremy Lin is a good enough player to start in the NBA,” Weiland wrote, “and possibly star.”

Let’s distill that a bit more. There are actual people paid who identify talent in all corners of the earth. Especially throughout the United States. Jeremy Lin received exactly 0 scholarships for college after a career where he was named Northern California player of the year and led his team to a state title. He then goes to Harvard and helps lead the team to  a share of the Ivy title in his senior year. Yet, the universal message is “we didn’t see him coming. We had no idea he was this good.”

Except a guy who is amateur stat-head writing for an obscure blog on the internet and who delivers packages. Now with the kid’s ascent, the blog post in question gets crashed and surely some NBA has to wonder how they can employ Mr. Weiland’s services for their own purposes.

But this whole feel-good story made me think about how we hire people. They write cover letters and resumes which you might read/scan or otherwise parse through some source and then you pick the best ones to interview hoping your intuition will make them the best fit. Occasionally, they get auditions through spec work or samples beforehand. Especially in the web space, this is how the game gets played.

What if the whole process was wrong? Going back to the example of Lin, he’d been cut by two other teams before landing with the Knicks in late December. If it weren’t for a spate of injuries to their roster, there’s absolutely no way he’d gotten his opportunity to play. 25-minutes against a sub-par team where his team needed a boost was ultimately the difference between being out of a job for the 3rd time in a year and where he is now. The next night, he earned his first NBA start and the rest is history.

Lin’s success is borne no doubt out of the fact that he’s playing for a coach who runs a system relying on a player with his unique attributes. Yet, these attributes were never revealed to the coach during their practices or any other scenario that would have led him to believe what we’re seeing now is possible. Perhaps it’s just a confluence of unique circumstances which have brought this to light, but the takeaways for identifying talent and for people looking for jobs seems clear in this example to me:

If you’re hiring talent, it’s easy to fill positions based on what you’ve always had rather than what you actually need. This kind of self-assessment doesn’t come easy and it’s not something lots of organizations are equipped to do. If you’re looking for a job, it’s easy to look for things like salary, benefits and other things without wondering you’ll be a good fit. Questions like:

  1. Does this role fit my strengths? Can I succeed here?
  2. How do I define success in this role? What are my long-term goals?
  3. What benchmarks can I establish beyond the ones set for me internally to measure my own success?

This might seem like a lot of headwork for a job you might just have. But I’ve seen so many scenarios where people could save themselves the trouble of being in a bad-fit environment by just being more deliberate about what they’re needing at a particular point in your career. None of this matters if you fail to get an opportunity and so, there’s a difference between being discerning and holding yourself back.

Once you get a chance to shine, you need to put your best foot forward and always be preparing for the chance for when the spotlight is on you. Those opportunities don’t always manifest themselves and so, you owe it to yourself to relish them when they do. It might not yield an arena of 20,000 screaming your name or adulation a world away, but it’s still pretty nice to know what you’re made of when you have a chance to prove it.