Why Modeling Your Work Persona On Sports Heroes Is A Bad Idea

Written by Mike Shapiro | | March 30, 2017

Watching sports is bigger than ever. No matter where we live, we know a lot about teams and players from all over the country, and the fantasy sports industry has taken fandom to a new level of engagement and intensity. It’s fun and a great diversion from real life.

The trouble starts when you try to bring the sports star mentality to your work life.

Oh, it’s fine if you’re a musician, circus performer, magician, comedian or mime. They’re all in the entertainment business too. Just like the athlete, their job is to perform for people who pay money to watch. But you’re probably in business to serve people who come to you with problems to be solved. And there’s a big difference.

  1. The athlete’s goal is to win and to makes sure someone else loses. Your job is to fill a need – someone else’s.
  2. The athlete is measured on how well he or she performs to a number: Home runs, RBIs, strike outs, points per game, rebounds, assists, yards per carry, touchdowns, interceptions, sacks and so on. Your measure is to satisfy the customer’s needs as determined by the sole, subjective opinion of the customer.

Let that word serve sink in for a minute. How does that sound? It reminds you of questions, doesn’t it? “Yes, sir. How can I help you?” “Will that be all? Can I get you anything else?” Like you’re constantly in the position of having to ask someone if you’re being successful.

I understand. We like to see ourselves as “players” — tough, rugged, cool, and ready and willing to be judged on objective measures, rather than playing “Mother-may-I” for job satisfaction.

How did we get to this?

In the Agrarian Age, people spent their days on the farms doing hard physical work, tilling, planting, harvesting. Food preparation and home maintenance were tough, relentless tasks. But the crops were raised and sold, meals were cooked and eaten, clothes were made and worn, Nobody questioned whether people worked hard or accomplished anything of value. The connection between effort and results and value was obvious.

The Industrial Age brought long, tough days in factories. Though the nexus between work and the fruits of the labor were less obvious, there was little time, energy or inclination to regard sports as anything more than a welcome diversion from the tedium of work, as long as union contracts ensured safe working conditions, a decent wage and health and pension benefits.

But starting with the Information Age and intensifying with the Digital Age, more and more people’s work stopped being so physical. And not just that. It became harder to tell whether any of this hard, not-so-physical labor produced anything of tangible value.

Though the way we work and our connection to the fruits of our labors have changed, our natural wiring for physical labor, and our need to see something real resulting from it, has not. And when we take up less physical work with less tangible outcomes, it’s expected we would create some objective measures to help give meaning to our work. Adopting the sports metaphor might lead us to link our work satisfaction to things that can be measured objectively like click-throughs, sign-ups and orders, etc. rather than the more ambiguous point of view of seeing the customers behind those actions, and ourselves as the stewards of businesses whose reason for being is to satisfy their needs.

Playing the numbers game with service jobs can lead to bad results. Think about the prosecutor who focuses on his conviction rate. Or the doctor who’s driven by the pressure of “in-control” reports to insurance carriers and getting test results to a certain standard. Or the company CFO trying to make sure the earnings per share matches the forecast for this quarter.

But the real problem is deeper than these few examples would indicate.

In a service economy where the measure of excellent performance is the subjective opinion of the customer rather than meeting a numbers goal, a second skill is required: The ability to convince clients you can solve their problems — and that you’re doing it better than your competitors.

Whatever work life you carve out for yourself, it’s a fool’s errand to hitch your satisfaction to meeting numeric goals when the real arbiter of your success — your client — has other things on her mind.

What is it that would cause the client to do business with you instead of somebody else?

It’s critical and urgent that we begin to re-frame our idea of what constitutes success in doing work that’s less physical, less objective and where winning is often measured in the sole subjective opinion of the customer we all are in business to serve.