Sinclair Schuller August 17, 2022
My co-founder Rakesh often uses the word “unreasonable.” He doesn’t use it in a negative context; in fact, quite the opposite. He uses it to signal that our team will deliver the best outcomes for our clients: “unreasonable quality”, as he puts it. He and I have often talked about the importance of unreasonableness as a virtue. History tells us that those who’ve set unreasonable goals for themselves tend to move the needle not only more than those who don’t have unreasonableness in their mantra, but in fact, tend to be the driving force in moving the needle. These individuals not only overperform, but they set a standard for overall team/organizational performance. This is true in business, sports, orchestra – you name it. Why is unreasonableness so fundamental to overperformance? While difficult to provide a provable answer, there are a few observations of “unreasonable performers” I’ve made over the years. These “unreasonable performers” (dubbed UPs going forward) typically:
Use their unreasonable goals to fuel their optimism.
I gave a company-wide talk a number of years back after reading a Washington Post article about NBA star Steph Curry titled “The hidden price Steph Curry pays for making the impossible seem effortless.” Steph Curry set out to become the world’s best 3-point shooter. Curry set a goal for himself to massively outperform every 3-point shooter to ever be in the NBA. That was his unreasonable goal. He didn’t want to be marginally better: he wanted to be the best. He shot 250 3-pointers per day for years to reach that goal. I’m sure he had really bad days where he was a few standard deviations away from his moving average. But as a UP, I’m also sure that it didn’t faze him because his goal was much bigger than a day’s worth of performance tallies. UPs have figured out that by setting unreasonable goals, they won’t bat an eye at nearsighted failures. Their focus is set on something much, much bigger. When a negative event happens, they draw optimism from their focus on their unreasonable goals. This gives them the staying power to see their ultimate goal through to the end.
Underperform their goal targets.
In fact, I’d posit that almost everyone underperforms their goal targets. Why? Goals are predictions, and we’re not very good at predicting the future or at accounting for all the variables in the system-behind-the-goal. I’ll temper this by adding that I rarely see individuals be massively off-target, either. It happens sometimes, but on average, not often. This is because once someone sets a goal, they work hard to self-fulfill their prediction. As an example, I’ve hired multiple sales leaders and teams over the past 15 years, and when we work together to set a goal, we often come within +/- 5% of that goal. Is it because we have a scientific model we’re employing? No. It’s because once a goal is set, individuals align their efforts with goal-attainment. If you take this overall observation to be true, then would you set a $30M yearly sales goal because it’s an obvious goal target, or would you shoot for $50M assuming you had a plan (despite the stretch) to make it happen? UPs would choose the latter every time when setting their own goals.
Find themselves accidentally “leading from the front.”
UPs tend to relentlessly focus on the outcome they’re shooting for. They rarely jockey for position, worry about politicking, and don’t care much for “showing off.” UPs are purpose-driven. People around UPs often take notice, driving a sense of purpose in those individuals too. These inspired individuals often start taking direction and lead from the UP. This coupled with (1) is exactly what an early Apple employee was referring to when they said Steve Jobs created a “reality distortion field.” While some view a “reality distortion field” as a pejorative because of how hard Jobs pushed his team, it doesn’t have to necessarily have negative implications.
Redefine what’s possible when they succeed.
I’ve often witnessed team members roll their eyes or say things like “That’s outrageous and won’t work”, only to either nit-pick a UPs success or begrudgingly retract their commentary. The fact is that UPs act as an upleveling agent for an organization. Yes, there will always be detractors. A UPs success will never flip a detractor. But everyone else that gets to witness a UPs success will have a different mindset. They’ll have a new standard to follow when it comes to “what’s possible.” Going back to Steph Curry, average 3-point performance across the NBA exploded after his rookie year in 2009, up 50% from ~22% to ~35% of all shots taken. Before Curry, no one in the NBA even knew they had it in them. Want another example of the power of redefinition? Look to Mt. Everest: after the first person ever recorded to climb Everest summited, the number of people to subsequently summit exploded to the point of Everest being overcrowded.
At Nuvalence, we really care about our client’s outcomes. We ask ourselves as a team: what unreasonable goal have we set for ourselves and our clients’ outcomes? How are our contributions helping a client invent era-shifting technology? Do we understand what our client’s overarching goal is, and do we derive energy to move forward and succeed by focusing on that goal alongside our client?
Everyone has the opportunity to be a UP. It’s not an exclusive, gate-kept community. All it takes is having a healthy dash of audaciousness in your goal setting and enough bias for action to get working toward your goal.