A Counter-Argument to Athletes in the Workplace
The Martian makes science and math cool. It presents problem-solving as a real life or death situation. It glorifies intellect, strategy, science, resilience, perseverance, and math. Lines like, “I’m going to have to science the crap out of this,” was the lead character’s response to being left alone on a planet light-years away from Earth. The Big Bang Theory in its own quirky way does something similar. Working in science jobs is portrayed as cool. Being committed to Comic-Con is not only ok but glorified.
It is perhaps a little over-the-top to compare these shows to today’s work environment, but it is applicable in the sense that when problems arise, these are the characteristics needed to fix them.
Great Athletes…..And The Rest of Us
Society likes to embrace the notion of athletes as something akin to Greek heroes. They persevere through hardships and tolerate us mere mortals. Athletes jump higher, run faster, and often are more confident in their physical abilities than the rest of us. Sports facilitates teamwork and working together towards a common goal.
It’s clear why companies like Enterprise Rent-A-Car specifically seek out and hire college varsity athletes. They can teach technical skills but they can’t teach competitiveness. There is no question that skills learned on the gridiron are valuable in the workplace.
This article, however, is not about what athletics teaches. Nor is it about sports as a metaphor for precise execution, teamwork, and greatness. This article is about the rest of us, who have discovered and acquired skills external to sports and the importance those skills have in workplace success.
Nerdy and Proud
Growing up, I played sports as well as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D for those in the club) and the board games Risk and Monopoly. Computers back then were still in their infancy, so we played games or we went outside. These games fostered imagination, problem-solving, and strategy. Looking back, I probably would have identified pretty easily with what today’s media calls a nerd.
A recent Modis “Geek Pride” survey found that more than 87% of Americans proudly identify with their inner nerd.
This change in perception has only happened in the past decade, where socially awkward can be cool vs. vilified, as it was in my childhood. Today, the pace of change is increasing. It is becoming increasingly imperative to have the skills that I acquired off the sports gridiron and more so in the playrooms of my friends. Three of those specific skills are resiliency, creative problem solving, and the ability to work alone.
To this day, I can hear my father say, “life isn’t fair, son.” And you know what? It’s not.
For many, resiliency is an acquired skill set born out of life’s setbacks. While the athlete may jump over tall buildings, the nerd learns to flourish in the background where not everything comes easily.
I am forever faced with new sets of business problems that continually morph and change. It is critical that I’m deliberate and resilient in tackling every new challenge. This skill was learned not through football – or baseball or basketball – greatness. It was the awkwardness and alone time that taught me how to be self-assured and good with failure, viewing it only as a temporary setback towards eventual success.
Playing those “nerd” games of the 70s and 80s helped foster a mindset of creativity and imagination. Figuring out how to circumvent a room full of Orcs with only a few tools or spells forces a different view on problems. The solutions had nothing to do with strength of body and more to do with strength of mind. Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates all had incredible imaginations. They solved problems that often didn’t exist – yet.
For me, the ability to review issues from all angles helps facilitate solving business problems. Being singly focused on how to deconstruct a problem leads to stalemates and an inability to work with others. Self-taught creativity in problem-solving has allowed me to see other’s perspectives and work towards a joint resolution.
While working in a team is affirming and enjoyable, many of us gained skills by working alone. We’re more self-taught than school- or team-taught. As the school athlete attended dances and award dinners, the nerds honed problem-solving skills around computer screens and game-boards.
Team members are often expected to be able to work towards solutions individually without collaboration. Workers who are comfortable trying, failing and trying again are more likely to succeed than employees who fear failure and judgment by the group. Nerds, because of their self-taught nature, thrive in navigating through business issues .
Self-reliance, problem-solving, and the ability to work alone are but three of the skills that I can attest to having learned not on the playing fields but in the playrooms of my childhood friends. Nerds have skills. Mad skills. Just not the kind that involves running a marathon. But as part of today’s work environment, we’re more and more important to addressing the key issues that move business forward. Our critical role is recognized more often now, but it is sometimes overlooked. And that’s ok. We’re nerds. We’re used to it.