The only voice that counts

By Published on .

Never confuse your career with a focus group.

You know how it goes.

You start with an idea. The thinking behind it is original. Provocative. Even, perhaps, revolutionary.

The idea is shared with a group of people.

Each person in the group expresses an opinion.

The idea gets dumbed down.

Soon, what was once a glorious piece of thinking suffers castration by committee.

Unquestionably you've witnessed the above. However, this scenario comes with a twist: I'm not talking about a focus group. I'm talking about your career.

It starts innocently enough. In our day-to-day work, we make adaptations to fit in. In our jobs, we might relinquish our most interesting ideas in exchange for collective approval. In our careers, we lower our goals and compromise our standards for what's supposedly "realistic." Eventually, if we're not careful, our own jobs-in fact, our own identities-can become the equivalent of the idea in front of the focus group.

There's a difference between what's right and what's easy to agree upon.

Big hairy caveat: For those of you who rely on focus groups for your marketing, let me take a step back before you get all riled up. This isn't a rant against testing. Focus groups have many fine attributes: Qualitative research. Consumer insight. Free sub sandwiches. But (you knew there was a "but" coming) let's be honest. Even if you like focus groups, even if you keep Subway in business with all of the focus groups you conduct throughout the year, you know their inherent risks. Focus groups can kill your best work if you ask the wrong questions, talk to the wrong people, test in the wrong context or, above all, interpret results too literally.

These same risks apply to your career. Especially if that career is in marketing.

As an industry, marketers gather and evaluate data about preferences. As individuals, our job description is to identify opinions and respond accordingly. We tend to be very observant, very adaptive and very sensitive to positive and negative reinforcement. Sometimes, too much so. Sometimes we carry our strengths to the extreme, monitoring opinions around us and killing the most provocative, and interesting, parts of ourselves.

Marketing departments aren't exactly warm `n' fuzzy places to work, and judgments come at us fast and furious. We marinate in never-ending opinions about what we're doing: Opinions from consumers. Managers. Agencies. Employees. Stockholders. Media. And, yes, the folks sitting on the other side of the one-way glass in focus groups. Some days, it feels like everyone gets a vote on our performance.

The reality is, seeking collective approval doesn't help you avoid risk in your career. It makes you vulnerable to obsolescence, bureaucracy and mediocrity. Following the majority is the greatest career risk there is.

You've probably experienced this even at the most superficial level. If you used to work at a company where everyone wore Patagonia pullovers, but now work in an office where everyone wears blue blazers and khakis, will you keep wearing the pullovers? Probably not, woolly boy.

To be fair, most of these concessions are harmless, and some are downright smart. But in overly political companies, personalities become dumbed down. Square pegs become rounded. Strongly held beliefs become a liability. When that happens, the metaphoric focus group has just killed your best concepts.

As any good marketer can tell you, successful brands win through their unique benefits. The same is true of your career in the job market.

Like most young copywriters, my career started by going from agency to agency, getting as many opinions as possible. I got a ton of valuable advice. But I valued that advice over my own gut instinct. So when people point to a campaign I didn't particularly care for and said, "This is great! You should send this campaign to Fallon!" I went with the majority. Then, one day, I interviewed at Fallon. They said "Nice book, but one campaign concerns us." Guess which campaign it was. Um, yeah.

Know when to ignore the Greek chorus. Sometimes, the only voice that counts is your own.

In today's business environment, smart career moves often come with an element of risk. For instance, leaving a corporate monolith to run an entrepreneurial hotshop. Starting your own company. And if you do a poll, some people will advise you against such risks. However, if you still believe it's the right decision even after strategically considering your options, then do it.

Think of the word "exceptional": It means the "exception." The word "extraordinary" is synonymous with "bizarre." With this in mind, aim to be exceptional and extraordinary in your career by covering your ass.

How?

Listen to the opinions of others, but don't relinquish veto power. Instead of descending to the lowest common denominator, do the opposite. Push your career to the highest common denominator.

Never trade someone else's approval for your own potential.

Above all, know when to shut off the lights of the research facility and tell the participants to go home. Certain decisions are best left to a focus group of one. You.

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