Be kind. Be coachable. Be competent.

I recently spoke to a group of students at a middle school career day. One of the things we discussed was what it takes to be successful in the profession I was representing. What’s interesting, I believe, is that the same qualities are required for pretty much any profession: 

Be kind. Be coachable. Be competent.

Be kind. Others have to enjoy working with you. If they don’t, the situation won’t last. I once worked once on a team of brilliant high performers that had a stated “no asshole” policy. Being kind means treating others with respect, being honest, trustworthy, dependable, of generally good character. Just be a decent human. Or as they say on Breaking Bad, DBAA.

Be coachable. As the saying goes, hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Most experienced coaches and leaders will take a hardworking individual who doesn’t make excuses and seeks to improve over a talented but lazy, egotistical or defensive individual. Everyday and twice on Sunday.

Be competent. This one is obvious. There is a minimum level of competence required for any position. Not everyone will be superstars. My advisor in graduate school made a remark about the diverse skill level within the student body. “Is every golfer at the level of Tiger Woods?”, he rhetorically asked. If you are the Tiger Woods of your industry, that’s great. But that’s not what employers expect you to be. If you don’t know something, of course the conventional advice to admit as much of course is the right thing to do. But let’s face it, if you don’t know what you’re expected to know TOO often, people around you are going to question what value you bring to the team. The only way to avoid this is to put in the time learning your craft and becoming more competent. There is no shortcut.

Can you be a superstar asshole who doesn’t take coaching and survive? Yes, but not forever. Employers and teams will begrudgingly tolerate this individual. Being kind and coachable seem to be inversely related to being competent; the more competent you are, the more employers will put up with lack of kindness and coachability. But do you really want to be that person that they wish they could get rid of but just feel compelled to hold on to? Their tolerance and patience will wear thin at some point. Or they’ll find a sufficient replacement. You don’t want to be this person.

These three qualities also underscore why it is SO important to choose a career that you love. Obviously you want to love your job so that you’re happy. But loving your job will also make you more likely to be successful. The more you dislike your job, the more irritable you’ll be and the less likely you are to be a pleasant person to be around. And if you dislike your job, it's going to be difficult to genuinely accept coaching and stay dedicated to improvement and achieving higher levels of competence. Loving your job will make you more pleasant, coachable and even competent in the long run.

There are many qualities that I haven’t mentioned here. Am I ignoring them? Am I saying they aren’t important? No, in my mind I’ve swept most of these under one of these three categories. When I ask myself “what does it mean to be kind”, for example, there are a whole host of things. The same for “what does being coachable mean?” and “what do I have to do to become more competent?”.

What do you think? What attributes do you think are necessary for success? This is one of those questions I wish I had thought about and taken a position on sooner in life. I don’t ask you to agree with my position; I only hope that you form a well reasoned position that you believe in.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you! By the way, I represented data science at the career day!


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