Sunday, December 9, 2018

Being "That Guy"

With no thanks to a long trail of contemporary contexts of the phrase, "that guy" has become the epitome of everything which people hope never to be accused of doing. The end result of all that is that I can't simply use that phrase for an innocent application of something positive—rather than smirkingly railed against—without having to do a convoluted tap-dancing prelude beforehand.

It's only been since about 1994 that people have glommed on to the term "that guy" disparagingly—at least, according to the website Know Your Meme. The phrase's evolution since that year has gained it a berth in the Urban Dictionary lexicon, ever since then transmitting its culturally censured connotation.

But before that time—and I'm sure you can recall an era before the dawn of that phrase's current usage—"that guy" could be, well, just anyone. Especially a generic anyone. And that's how I want to use the phrase today.

You see, I read this story about a guy—an innocuous, unobtrusive guy—whose quiet way became the key to extraordinary success for those around him. I found his story in a book I'm currently reading—Daniel Coyle's The Culture Code, but more about that another day—and I've been mulling this one over for a few days now. The more I think about it, the more I think I want to become like that guy...until I realize I can't even say that without launching into a long diatribe as to why it is okay to become "that guy" when the phrase has been hijacked from its normal usage in the English language.

The story goes somewhat like this. I'll give you the author's once-upon-a-time lead up to it:
Back in the early part of the last century, well before Silicon Valley, the world's foremost hub of invention and innovation was located in a series of large nondescript buildings in suburban New Jersey.

That place was known as Bell Labs. If you've ever studied organizational development in your pre-historic, dinosaur college years—when "that guy" could innocently be an alright kind of dude—you may recall reading a paper or two on studies about what made that place so phenomenal.

It seems that, at some point, people began wondering what was at the center of this powerhouse of innovation. What made it tick?

There were all sorts of obvious clues that might have been construed as the answer to that question. After all, brainiacs and scientists bring a special set of ingredients to the mix. But in examining all the variables that might have affected the collective genius of the place, nothing much stood out as an obvious answer.

Except for one thing. The "supercreatives"—the ones who had generated the largest count of patents for the company—had this in common: they regularly ate lunch in the Bell Labs cafeteria.

No, it wasn't something in the water. No secret sauce by the executive chef. The caveat was that this one group of scientists had lunch together with a specific connection: they spent their lunchtime with one particular co-worker.

This co-worker, an engineer, was the antithesis of the eccentric, dynamic scientists populating the company's labs and offices. Though he had generated his fair share of technological advances, he was quiet, reliable, hardworking, and so predictable as to become, as the author put it, "nearly invisible."

In building his case for why this Bell Labs employee was the key to an incredible run of paradigm-shifting inventions, author Coyle cited two personal qualities possessed by this individual. For one thing, he possessed a "relentless curiosity." He asked questions, delved deeply, but above all, was always looking for connections. Tempering that urgent sense of the quest of the mind was another quality: his warmth. In speaking with others, he had a way to make them feel cared for—but he could also draw them out, get them thinking, serve as a catalyst with his questions.

It was "that guy" who stood behind much of what the other scientists at Bell Labs were developing, through his way of igniting ideas via conversation. Coyle, in carrying that theme further, shared his idea on the best way to find "that guy" in any organization, by asking one question:
If I could get a sense of the way your culture works by meeting just one person, who would that person be?

While the author continues the chapter by describing others like "that guy" who had had such a positive impact upon their organization, my mind trails off in another direction. I begin thinking about how to spark innovation and creativity in the groups where I'm currently involved—namely, our local genealogical society. I want to surround myself with others who are getting things done, coming up with all the cutting-edge projects, making a difference. I want to pick their brains, see where their concepts cross-apply to my organization, and, hopefully, return the favor by adding some of my own ideas to the mix. Perhaps the blend of those "what-ifs" will be the synergy juice to make our efforts even better.

In short, I want to be "that guy." Not the one the nineties branded with that scornful negativity, but the kind of person who serves as connecting linchpin in the relentless collective pursuit of creating change in our organizations for the better.  


  1. With the advent of "smart phones" people seem to no longer "converse" while eating lunch.

    My brother worked at Bell Labs for a short while. He says the place was incredible.

    1. Conversations are that golden opportunity to let things unfold, but it does depend on how the participants choose to carry the topic forward. It's not only a skill, it's an art--and definitely one which can be lost if not practiced.

      How fantastic that your brother got in on the Bell Labs experience, Iggy. It must have been so inspiring. The place is quite the legend, even now, in some organizational development studies.


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