Making a Splash (or Not)
If you are like me, you may have spent some time recently watching the Olympics. I love the concept of people pushing themselves to realize their best self, but then my mind begins to wander. In this instance it had to do with how people are assessed in diving. Namely, one is penalized for making a big splash and points are deducted from your overall score. However, in the world outside diving, and in particular the world of work, people are so often striving and rewarded for making the biggest splash possible.
In my career I’ve always been more motivated to do good work and make meaningful contributions rather than getting attention. However, in my less impressive moments I did feel the occasional surge of jealousy towards the splashy ones. In particular, the splashy ones who seemingly didn’t seem to contribute that much but managed to seek and garner all the applause. Truthfully, being a big or small splash person has trade-offs.
Being a small splash guy made me a better manager. I wanted the people I worked with to be the ones noticed and receive the attention and opportunities for their work. I could be a vocal champion and not feel like I was doing so to promote myself.
And yet, we small splashers may do damage to our reputations because we may not ever really be seen except by the small group paying close attention. As a result, we may miss out on intriguing opportunities because word of our accomplishments doesn’t travel quite so far.
In contrast, the big splashers can grab all of our attention and force us to notice them. This can lead to a cycle of ever more possibilities, whether it’s within an organization or from external parties. The media sure does like to cover a big splasher!
However, big splashers have some struggles too. They may fall into a cycle of needing frequent or even constant public attention to feel like they have any value. And it isn’t easy to achieve or guarantee that kind of regular success. They might also have difficulty in creating mutually beneficial partnerships with other individuals or institutions who also crave similar attention. This might extend to talented team members who feel as though this person is an attention eclipser, blocking out others. Furthermore, splashes can also make it hard to see or end up just making a mess. Done wrong, a splash can become an embarrassment.
While it is sometimes true that big splashers are ego driven, there are plenty of other cases where they see the splash as the only way for their work to get the attention it needs, or they need, to succeed. Perhaps they have a boss who can’t see them or exist in an environment where someone like them is less likely to have access to opportunity.
I’ve worked with people all along the splash continuum and know that their motivations are diverse. I think that finding your right spot is a bit like alchemy. Over time I’ve moved further away from having no splash because I realized I felt limited by it. And I realized that some of the work I care the most about and the lives I hoped to help in some ways were better served by being more comfortable in such situations.
A few questions for you to ask yourself to think about whether you are where you need to be on the continuum:
- Do you feel good about the attention and affirmation you receive for the work you do?
- Do you feel like your work could get more attention internally or externally?
- How could it get more attention? What would you need to do?
- If it did, would you be the one likely to receive that attention? If not, do you wish you were?
- If you can’t get that attention in your current situation, do you think you might need to work elsewhere?
- Are you open to receiving attention for these skills in another environment? (i.e., professional organization or service work)
- Can you find a way to make a splash and distribute the notice to others?
The good news is that you always have the opportunity to become a different person or work in a different environment. It isn’t necessarily easy, but it is possible. I hope you are where you need to be on that continuum. If not, it is well within your power to do the thing that helps others see more of your impact, or to share that with others.
—Russ Finkelstein is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and his new book, "Let's Sort Out Your Career Mess, Together..." is forthcoming in 2021.