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Who Knew That Shaq Even Knew Aristotle’s Name?

June 9, 2016

He was the most dominate center of his time. Shaquille O’Neal was a monster on the basketball court. Off the court he was good for a constant barrage of entertaining quotes. Most of the time they sounded like something your junior high child might say. I remember him saying,

My new nickname is going to the be “The Big Aristotle.” 

I remember thinking, “I wonder if Shaq even knows who Aristotle is?” He was brilliant on the court, and the jester off the court. I had it wrong. Nearly everyone had it wrong. And in fact, we were about as wrong as we could be. 

Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest movie directors of all time. He directed or produced some of our most memorable and iconic films: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones movies. By anyone’s estimation, he was the consummate director. And yet, Spielberg lacked something that the youngest newly minted UCLA film graduate had. Spielberg, like Shaq before him, left school early before earning his degree. 

Spielberg, while making blockbuster movies that entertained millions, decided that he wanted to finish his degree. It would make no difference to his career, but it was important to him. He re-enrolled at UCLA and worked his way through the classes like any other student. The only consideration that the school gave him was they decided he could skip the senior project. That’s where students are supposed to write, produce and direct a 10 minute film. Yeah, he kind of met that requirement a few times. 

The point is that anyone who looked at Spielberg’s career might have assumed that as a successful director, he was a film graduate. Just as anyone listening to Shaq ramble on during a post game interview would rightly assume that he dropped out of college to become a professional basketball player. 

I was the team manager for a team of engineers who lacked “engineering discipline.” My manager wanted me to get the engineers to focus more on process and making sure we were properly considering the potential impact of changes. I decided that I could never get the engineers to change until they realized I was “on their side.” In an effort to connect with my team, it was important that they not feel threatened. If I asked them to change their processes, they needed to know that I wasn’t asking them because I doubted the technical soundness of the solution. No one likes working for a manger who is going to second guess their choices. That is especially true when they know more about their job than their manager. 

I approached most of my questions to my engineers with an attitude of “I don’t understand this. Help me understand why we need to do it the way your are recommending.” During this “teaching time” it let me ask questions that addressed my real concerns. 

Won’t that change destabilize the network?

Well, not if we manage to get the components switched up in less than 5 minutes. 

So, what happens if you run into a problem and it takes longer than 5 minutes?

Well, then it’s going to be bad.

So. . .how do we mitigate that?

 By being the one who “didn’t know” anything about the solution, I was able to hold non-threatening conversations with my engineers where they exposed their own process weaknesses. The system worked well and soon we were the envy of the department. My manager was pleased and my engineers felt like it was their idea to be more conscientious. 

I was talking one day to the project manager attached to my team. Carl wasn’t technical, but he was a brilliant PM. 

Carl, what would you guess I studied in college?

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe political science? 

Computer science.

Computer science? 

Really? I would have never guessed that.

And that was the point. I needed those engineers to not feel threatened. If they thought I was a complete neophyte when it came to networks and systems, they were much more likely to feel secure in their own knowledge. And the fact was, they did know more than I did about their systems. 

How people perceive us is not necessarily reflective of our capabilities. Like Spielberg’s lack of a degree, or my background in CS, sometimes it’s helpful to let people “get it wrong.” 

But, what about Shaq? Did he actually know that Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher? 

Probably. I’m sure that it is required information if you want to get a doctorate in Education. Shaq, a guy who let the world believe he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer was possibly the sharpest knife in the drawer. He left college early to join the NBA. But, he didn’t stop learning. During his career, he finished his bachelor’s degree, went on to earn a Masters degree and then earned a PhD. He realized that if people saw him as a big dumb fool, it only helped him to win more basketball games. He was often underestimated. 

What are people’s impressions of you? Are they accurate? If not, you have the power to change them. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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