Your company launches a search for an open position. The applications start rolling in, and the qualified candidates are identified. Now the choosing begins. Person A: Ivy League, 4.0, flawless resume, great recommendations. All the right stuff. Person B: state school, fair amount of job hopping, and odd jobs like cashier and singing waitress. But remember — both are qualified. So I ask you: who are you going to pick? My colleagues and I created very official terms to describe two distinct categories of candidates. We call A “the Silver Spoon,” the one who clearly had advantages and was destined for success. And we call B “the Scrapper,” the one who had to fight against tremendous odds to get to the same point. You just heard a human resources director refer to people as Silver Spoons and Scrappers — (Laughter) which is not exactly politically correct and sounds a bit judgmental.
But before my human resources certification gets revoked — (Laughter) let me explain. A resume tells a story. And over the years, I’ve learned something about people whose experiences read like a patchwork quilt, that makes me stop and fully consider them before tossing their resumes away. A series of odd jobs may indicate inconsistency, lack of focus, unpredictability. Or it may signal a committed struggle against obstacles. At the very least, the Scrapper deserves an interview. To be clear, I don’t hold anything against the Silver Spoon; getting into and graduating from an elite university takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice. But if your whole life has been engineered toward success, how will you handle the tough times? One person I hired felt that because he attended an elite university, there were certain assignments that were beneath him, like temporarily doing manual labor to better understand an operation.
Eventually, he quit. But on the flip side, what happens when your whole life is destined for failure and you actually succeed? I want to urge you to interview the Scrapper. I know a lot about this because I am a Scrapper. Before I was born, my father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and he couldn’t hold a job in spite of his brilliance. Our lives were one part “Cuckoo’s Nest,” one part “Awakenings” and one part “A Beautiful Mind.” (Laughter) I’m the fourth of five children raised by a single mother in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. We never owned a home, a car, a washing machine, and for most of my childhood, we didn’t even have a telephone. So I was highly motivated to understand the relationship between business success and Scrappers, because my life could easily have turned out very differently. As I met successful business people and read profiles of high-powered leaders, I noticed some commonality. Many of them had experienced early hardships, anywhere from poverty, abandonment, death of a parent while young, to learning disabilities, alcoholism and violence.
The conventional thinking has been that trauma leads to distress, and there’s been a lot of focus on the resulting dysfunction. But during studies of dysfunction, data revealed an unexpected insight: that even the worst circumstances can result in growth and transformation. A remarkable and counterintuitive phenomenon has been discovered, which scientists call Post Traumatic Growth. In one study designed to measure the effects of adversity on children at risk, among a subset of 698 children who experienced the most severe and extreme conditions, fully one-third grew up to lead healthy, successful and productive lives.
In spite of everything and against tremendous odds, they succeeded. One-third. Take this resume. This guy’s parents give him up for adoption. He never finishes college. He job-hops quite a bit, goes on a sojourn to India for a year, and to top it off, he has dyslexia. Would you hire this guy? His name is Steve Jobs. In a study of the world’s most highly successful entrepreneurs, it turns out a disproportionate number have dyslexia. In the US, 35 percent of the entrepreneurs studied had dyslexia.
What’s remarkable — among those entrepreneurs who experience post traumatic growth, they now view their learning disability as a desirable difficulty which provided them an advantage because they became better listeners and paid greater attention to detail. They don’t think they are who they are in spite of adversity, they know they are who they are because of adversity. They embrace their trauma and hardships as key elements of who they’ve become, and know that without those experiences, they might not have developed the muscle and grit required to become successful. One of my colleagues had his life completely upended as a result of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1966. At age 13, his parents were relocated to the countryside, the schools were closed and he was left alone in Beijing to fend for himself until 16, when he got a job in a clothing factory. But instead of accepting his fate, he made a resolution that he would continue his formal education. Eleven years later, when the political landscape changed, he heard about a highly selective university admissions test.
He had three months to learn the entire curriculum of middle and high school. So, every day he came home from the factory, took a nap, studied until 4am, went back to work and repeated this cycle every day for three months. He did it, he succeeded. His commitment to his education was unwavering, and he never lost hope. Today, he holds a master’s degree, and his daughters each have degrees from Cornell and Harvard. Scrappers are propelled by the belief that the only person you have full control over is yourself. When things don’t turn out well, Scrappers ask, “What can I do differently to create a better result?” Scrappers have a sense of purpose that prevents them from giving up on themselves, kind of like if you’ve survived poverty, a crazy father and several muggings, you figure, “Business challenges? — (Laughter) Really? Piece of cake.
I got this.” (Laughter) And that reminds me — humor. Scrappers know that humor gets you through the tough times, and laughter helps you change your perspective. And finally, there are relationships. People who overcome adversity don’t do it alone. Somewhere along the way, they find people who bring out the best in them and who are invested in their success. Having someone you can count on no matter what is essential to overcoming adversity. I was lucky. In my first job after college, I didn’t have a car, so I carpooled across two bridges with a woman who was the president’s assistant. She watched me work and encouraged me to focus on my future and not dwell on my past. Along the way I’ve met many people who’ve provided me brutally honest feedback, advice and mentorship. These people don’t mind that I once worked as a singing waitress to help pay for college.
(Laughter) I’ll leave you with one final, valuable insight. Companies that are committed to diversity and inclusive practices tend to support Scrappers and outperform their peers. According to DiversityInc, a study of their top 50 companies for diversity outperformed the S&P 500 by 25 percent. So back to my original question. Who are you going to bet on: Silver Spoon or Scrapper? I say choose the underestimated contender, whose secret weapons are passion and purpose. Hire the Scrapper. (Applause) .
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