From the Desk (and Mind) of Marc Landsberg

Humans Come in Units of One

A former boss of mine used this expression from time to time.

“Humans come in units of one,” he would say, leaving what to do about it entirely up to me.

I confess, when I first heard it, I didn’t quite understand it. It was a bit jarring – a choice of words not often associated with humans.

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me.

At work, we are often looking to hire people with a certain set of functional skills, and a certain set of personality traits, and a certain set of leadership skills, and so on.

What becomes abundantly clear, if you’ve ever gone through the hiring process, is that no one can ever satisfy all of the criteria you set forth. No one.

There is no such thing as a perfect candidate. Because there is no such thing as a perfect person.

As Albert Einstein put it: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

We all have our weaknesses, our fears, our foibles, our blind spots, and our ingrained tendencies.

The opportunity for, perhaps even obligation of, the hiring company is to prioritize what really matters to them and make the best possible hiring decision based on that. Celebrate the new hire’s skills instead of regret what they fail to bring to the table.

That’s what makes it interesting, after all.

I can no more combine Ted’s strategic thinking with Sally’s charisma with Frank’s creative flair with Sylvia’s leadership ability than I can put my sister together with my brother together with my favorite cousins and 3 best friends to create the perfect sib-rela-friend (new term I just invented….).

Indeed, humans come in units of one.

In work, as in life, success is found by leaning into this basic fact.

Modern companies embrace this notion, enabling high potential individuals to focus on their strengths. If you’re really really good at something, and you love doing it, well then, you should do a lot more of it, and great organizations give you every opportunity to do so.

More traditional firms tend to focus on deficiencies – on ameliorating weaknesses. This, I think, is a soul-crushing approach.

In one of my former lives, I had a 30-point evaluation. Flying colors on 26 of them, pretty darn good on 2 of then, and room for improvement (lots of it, in fairness) on the remaining two. And guess where all of the emphasis was? On the 2 elements that needed most improvement.

And guess how I felt coming out of that evaluation? Like a total failure.

Modern companies do the opposite. They acknowledge strengths, embracing them as the cornerstone of a person’s value to the organization. They celebrate and reward greatness whenever they can, and provide talent with the opportunity to develop new skills if it’s of interest to the individual.

Yes, we all come in units of one, indivisible despite some companies best efforts to splice and dice us.

The sooner we embrace this essential notion, the sooner we can all look into the mirror and like what we see – the whole image, undivided, uncompromised, unapologetic.


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