When I was 8, I drank toilet water. I was playing truth or dare with some friends, and even at that young age, I was never one to back down from a challenge.
The fact that I actually followed through on the dare and lived to tell about it is not what makes this story interesting, though. What makes the story interesting was my rationale as I confidently plunged my cupped hand into the bowl.
See, the way we played truth or dare, we didn’t ever really use the truth option. Instead we’d give two dare options and force each other into embarrassing situations that usually involved kissing boys. We’d make the alternative dangerous or super gross, so the only viable option was to kiss somebody or write a love note or make some other embarrassing gesture of affection towards someone you may or may not have actually liked. This is how Jolie was forced to kiss Carlos, and Nicole was forced to send a love note to the guy who sat next to her in science class. We made the alternative unthinkable.
So when “drink toilet water” was my alternative to declaring undying love for my most profound crush at the time, Andy Waltman, I jumped at it. “That’s stupid!” I said. “That’s not even a dare! There’s no tinkle or poop in there, it’s just water!”
And so I drank it. Then I smugly rejoined the group thinking that my intellect had allowed me to gain the upper hand in this game. (Those who know me well would probably say I have always been a bit of a know-it-all, even when – or particularly when? – such an attitude really wasn’t warranted.)
Now, as an adult, having cleaned and repaired several toilets in the course of my life, I understand the hilarious folly and danger of my young presumptions. Now I know that if the mineral buildup in the tank or the bacteria swimming in the bowl post-flush doesn’t kill you, the toxic chemicals we use to clean it will.
So what’s the lesson here?
Your ability to make good choices is limited by the degree to which you understand how things really work.
If you aren’t asking questions and seeking to understand how things really work behind appearances – though it probably won’t kill you – it will limit your opportunities for advancement (and possibly cause embarrassment). Knowing how your role, your team, your division, and your company fit into the bigger marketplace will help you make better choices and do better work.
See the thing is, if you’re doing your career the right way, pretty much every year or two, you’re putting yourself back into the position of being a relative 8-year-old. If you are challenging yourself, tackling a continually steep learning curve, getting promoted to more authority and power, and managing more and more people, at each turn, you’ll be in at least slightly over your head.
To really do your best work under uncertain circumstances, you need to know how your work fits into the bigger picture of what everyone else is doing, what the organization needs, and what your managers, clients, and stakeholders value.
Take the simple example of a model you are asked to build. If you don’t know who will use the model, what they will use it for, or what their objectives and priorities are, you may as well flush that thing down the potty. (A fact I know from sad, painful personal experience.)
Here is a quick exercise to do every day to…
Build Your Big Picture Awareness Muscle.
- Once a day, stop.
- Look at what you are doing.
- Ask yourself, how did this thing (hamburger, doctor, text book, website, cash machine, whatever!) come to be serving me right now?
- Ask questions and see if you can map out the supply chain or lifecycle of that product or service. Use the Four W’s + H: Who, What, When, Where, and How?
- Bonus step 1: On days when you have five free minutes, do a little internet research to validate your suppositions.
- Bonus step 2: talk to your friends about it. Put your heads together and see if you can actually answer some of the questions.
Here is an example of how that might look.
If you do it right now, you are probably reading this article on a smartphone or a computer screen. So consider, how did that device make it into your hands? Where did you buy it? How did it get to that store or online retailer? Where did it come from? And then before it was fully constructed, what pieces came together to make it? Where were those smaller pieces assembled? With what raw materials? From where? And how did the raw materials all get to be where they needed to be to make their way into the component part? Who designed that device? How many people with what different skillsets were involved? What parts of the process do you think are the most time consuming? The most expensive? The most deleterious to the environment?
You may never know the true answers to all of those questions. In fact, supplier and subcontractor relationships being what they are, I would bet no one person actually knows the answer to all of those questions for a given device. If you can answer even one of them with utter certainty, you are doing better than most people. And if you do a little poking, you’re soon going to learn that your iPhone is a veritable periodic table of elements and United Nations of manufacturers.
However far you take your research, asking these questions will begin to make you more aware of how the world works. And more importantly, it will also teach you to start thinking bigger picture. To not take the reality you see for granted and to think beyond the obvious.
Make More Confident Choices
Now you can apply your Big Picture Awareness Muscle to your own impact.
Today, you might be building a financial model, but understanding the outcome of that model, how it is used, and what decisions it helps drive, will help you seek opportunities to move up that chain of impact and advance closer to the position of decision-maker. It will help you understand what skills you lack and therefore need to develop to get to that next step. It will allow you to understand which relationships are most important to cultivate so that you have the right supporters and political allies to move upward quickly.
And perhaps most importantly, it will help ensure that when you actually get to the top, you won’t inadvertently and unknowingly make the choice that amounts to drinking the toilet water.