“You can get everything in life you want if you just help enough other people get what they want."
I’ve been on kind of an economics kick recently. If you don’t know much about economics (and even if you have studied it before), I would strongly suggest that you pick up a copy of Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson”.
The main point of that book is that in order to understand economics, you need to learn to trace the effects of a given policy throughout the entire system rather than just looking at the people directly affected. It’s easy to just look at the obvious consequences, but you have to train yourself to be able to look at all the effects as a whole.
That seems like good advice well beyond just for understanding economics. I’m sure there are quite a few applications of this idea. What immediately came to mind for me, though, was the way we look at other people.
There is what we see, the obvious qualities that this person has. Because these qualities are easy to see, we just fill in the blanks with our assumptions and judgments about the other person based on what we already know about them.
Instead, we must become aware of the “unseen”. Each person is infinitely complex, and their surface level qualities can only give us a surface level knowledge about them. We need to look deeper in order to understand what this person is really about. Only then can we truly understand that person’s strengths.
Being a good leader, or even just a good person to be around, means that you need to become adept at bringing out the best in the people around you. This is a skill, and a challenging one at that. But with a simple tweak in mindset and a few techniques, you can learn to do it.
Smith, Ricardo, And Comparative Advantage
In economics, there is a fundamental concept called comparative advantage. First proposed by Adam Smith in his “The Wealth of Nations”, the theory of comparative advantage was further developed and refined by David Ricardo in the early 1800’s.
While it is a fairly simple idea, the implications are mind-blowing. Most people today fail to grasp the concept, which hinders both their understanding of economics and, as we’ll soon see, their ability to relate to others.
A person has a comparative advantage in something if they can produce it at a lower cost than anyone else. This cost is not in dollars (or euros, yen, shekelim, pesos, etc.), but rather opportunity cost – the value of what is given up.
This may be a little bit confusing, but an example will make it more clear. Let’s say you and your roommate want to cook dinner together tonight, but there are a lot of dirty dishes already in the sink, so you need to make room for more. You’re roommate used to be a dishwasher in a restaurant, and you are a germaphobe. You’ve taken cooking lessons before, but your roommate always burns his “three cheese macaroni surprise”. The best way to handle this situation, of course, is for you to cook while your roommate does the dishes.
In this example, you have a comparative advantage in cooking, and your roommate has a comparative advantage in washing dishes. Your opportunity cost is to not do a terrible job washing dishes, and your roommate’s opportunity cost is a horribly cooked meal. In other words, these are both low cost ventures. That example was fairly obvious, so let’s change it up a bit.
You are still a decent chef, but you also have top notch dish cleaning skills. Your roommate is still a terrible cook, and he also lost three fingers in a crocodile related incident last spring break, of which you never speak of again. What happens now?
In a head to head contest, you could both cook a much better meal and wash the dishes somewhat faster than your roommate. You should just do both then, right?
You will still cook dinner, and your roommate will still do the dishes. Even though you are better at both tasks, your roommate has a comparative advantage in doing the dishes. Your ability to cook is much greater than his, but your ability to clean is only slightly better. When you give up cooking time to do the dishes, you give up on a great meal, which is a serious opportunity cost. There are still gains through a division of labor even if you are the best at everything!
This example is kind of silly, but it is instructive. The upshot is that literally everyone has a comparative advantage in something. You may think you are better than everyone else at everything (and even if it’s true…), but you are still better off if you can find other peoples’ comparative advantage and trade.
Find Their Comparative Advantage
This is all well and good, but I’m sure by now you are wondering how to pinpoint someone else’s comparative advantage in order to bring out the best in them.
Luckily, being aware of the concept and actually looking for it is already half the battle! Of course, you will have to train yourself to spot another person’s comparative advantage; rarely is it as obvious as it was in the example above.
In order to cultivate this ability to find someone’s comparative advantage, there are a number of ways that you can work on yourself that will help.
Don’t Assume Things
Well, you already know the cliché. And yes, I do recognize the irony of me assuming that. 🙂
We make assumptions about other people all the time. This is a survival skill; using tiny pieces of information, we can categorize other people in a heartbeat. This person just smiled at me: friend. That person is walking quickly while muttering under their breath: foe.
There is no doubt that the ability to make accurate assumptions about other people is an incredibly valuable skill. Do you recognize the key word in that sentence?
So many of the assumptions that we make about people are notoriously inaccurate. But you don’t necessarily see that, so your mind just makes another assumption: that you are correct.
For example, the person muttering under their breath doesn’t have to be crazy or a witch! They could just be in a hurry while talking on their Bluetooth.
I know I’ve made assumptions about people that turned out to be patently false. The guy with the ponytail at work is actually incredibly professional. The ditsy blonde girl is actually very adept at discussing philosophy.
To find someone’s comparative advantage, you’ll need to stop making assumptions about them and instead make an effort to find out for yourself what that person is like or what their skills are. Bringing out the best in others requires an accurate assessment of what their best is.
Really Pay Attention
While bringing out the best in others isn’t too challenging, per se, it does require the ability to pay close attention to detail. You must be finely tuned to what’s going on in another person’s mind.
If you are paying attention, it’s not all that hard to notice when someone’s disposition changes slightly. At work, you may notice that an employee of yours is putting more energy into a certain assignment, and seems deflated while working on a different one. Once you pick up on this, you have some insight into the types of assignments that you should be giving them.
The kind of details that you’ll want to be paying attention to include the strength and kind of eye contact someone gives you, their body language, voice tone, and of course, the content of what they say. As you pay more and more attention, you’ll learn a lot about people both collectively and individually, and this knowledge will give you an intuition about what each persons’ comparative advantage actually is.
It is critical that you develop an appreciation for people who think and act differently from you.
This can be one of the most challenging things to do. For me this is difficult because I know that I’m right all the time, and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. Chances are, you feel the same way.
Unfortunately, we can’t stay in this bubble all the time. At least not if you want to bring out the best in those around you.
Besides the fact that you can learn from people who have a different outlook than you, it gives you an incredibly valuable way to understand those people better. Once you’ve gotten inside someone’s head, you have a great tool for understanding the value that person can provide.
For example, I tend to be a contrarian. But to an authority figure (say, my boss), I might be afraid to express my views. Perhaps I could be useful to them by playing devil’s advocate, by voicing an unpopular opinion, or by seeing something that they may not have thought of. In an environment where dissent isn’t celebrated, these other perspectives may never be taken into account. Which is a shame because, again, I’m right all the time!
Stay True To Your Own Vision
In order to bring out the best in others, you obviously need to be mindful of other people. Duh.
But you must not forget about the end goal. Whatever that end goal is. Why are you trying to bring out the best in others anyways? Is it to get a team to work effectively on a project at your job? Is it to help you with your personal goals, whatever they may be? Is it to deepen your personal relationship with that individual?
No matter what your intention, you must always keep it in mind. If you have a driving focus towards some particular end, it can inspire the people around you. They will actually be excited to give their best work in service of your vision.
I personally was able to raise a lot more money for Dance Marathon because I was so excited about it myself; friends of mine who I hadn’t talked to in years came out of the woodwork and donated, or even came to the event to support me. I’m sure the same is true about everyone who was so into the idea of DM.
You can probably think of even better examples than that. Regardless, a clear vision will often get other people to find their own comparative advantage for you, eliminating much of the effort on your part. Nice.
More Ways To Bring Out The Best In Others
Some of the following ideas will help you find someone else’s comparative advantage, and some will more directly help you bring out the best in the people around you.
Draw Out Other Peoples’ Ideas
Wouldn’t it be great if you had a window into other peoples’ minds? It would make bringing out their best so much easier, wouldn’t it?
It turns out there is such a window; it’s called asking questions! It’s so simple, but so underutilized. You can get all sorts of information about a person this way (obviously).
But when you are trying to find their comparative advantage, there are a couple things you should be paying particular attention to, or try to get at through your questions.
Ideally, you will find out about what they are passionate about. Where do they direct their most intense energy, efforts, and attention? What kinds of topics do they enjoy discussing? What are they particularly proud of? As you ask questions, notice in what direction they try to steer the conversation, or what kinds of words they use over and over.
It’s really not hard to figure out where someone’s skills and interests lie. In fact, if you are having a good conversation and paying attention, it should be hard NOT to find out these things.
By this, I mean introduce people you know to other people you know.
See what sort of chemistry happens. All the things you were looking for when you were asking questions are things you can look for now too. What do they discuss, and where do they direct their most intense energy or focus into?
As you introduce other people, you also discover complementary traits between people that can lead to good teamwork. Obviously, this is always useful.
Ask For Favors
When you delegate tasks to others or ask them for favors, it gives you a chance to see what they are capable of.
Asking questions and introducing people to each other can give you lots of insights and ideas as to what someone else’s comparative advantage is, but getting them to do things for you will give you actual proof.
Besides the obvious benefits of delegating tasks or having favors done for you, it also functions as a test or a probe into the way people actually do things. You can observe how they work through an assignment of some kind and gain lots of perspective on the way that person functions.
An added benefit of asking for favors is that, for whatever reason, it makes the other person like you more. I don’t know how or why this is, but it’s definitely good to know!
The Pygmalion Effect
I can’t help but think of a scene from the Simpsons where Homer is in the process of joining a cult, and Lisa says to him: “Watch it, dad – you are the highly suggestible type.” Homer responds, “Yes, I am the highly suggestible type!”
A large part of human communication can be said to consist of various “cues”. We communicate our expectations of others with them. And the crazy thing is, people tend to respond to your cues by adjusting their behavior to match them.
If you communicate to someone else that you expect very good things from them, they will respond by changing their behavior in order to do better. This is the Pygmalion effect. (The converse, that communicating low expectations leads to poor behavior, is called the golem effect).
In other words, regardless of what you may actually expect from someone else, you should act towards them as though you expect high performance from them. If you communicate that you believe they are capable of doing a good job, they will begin to believe that and put in more effort.
Clearly, you should always act towards people as though you expect the best from them. This doesn’t mean putting pressure on them; if you truly expect them to do well, then you wouldn’t need to put any pressure on them. Just show them you have confidence in their abilities.
Commitment And Consistency
If you make public your intentions to do something, you are far more likely to actually do it. You have made a commitment, and you don’t want to appear inconsistent by not following through on it.
This is a very important idea with all manner of applications. For example, in your personal life, sharing your goals with your friends makes you far more accountable to them.
But you can also use the principles of commitment and consistency to bring out the best in the people around you. Compliment someone on their ___ ability, and they will invest more effort in that area to be consistent with your compliment.
Hopefully you can see how powerful this tactic is. I recommend that you give genuine compliments here, but it works even if you are being a little devious. You could compliment someone as a lie, and it will still make them want to act consistently with it. That being said, you’re trying to find their comparative advantage, so it should be something that legitimately deserves a compliment anyways.
Somehow, gratitude seems to slip its way into every post here, doesn’t it?
That’s because it works, and in this case it is no different. Show gratitude for what other people do well, and for however they manage to contribute to your life and your goals.
Not only will it make you happier, but displays of gratitude are a form of positive reinforcement for other people. Thank someone for what they did for you, and they are far more likely to do it again.
One of the most valuable talents in our world is being able to recognize hidden skills or talents that other people possess.
You are just one person, and you have limited resources. But if you can bring out the best in others, you gain serious leverage. When you find other peoples’ comparative advantage, you can accomplish drastically more than you could by yourself.
Do you have any other ideas for how to bring out the best in others?