On Doing Things That Are Hard and Slow

What’s the difference between a good candidate and an exceptional one? Sometimes, it’s not necessarily the fact that they can – for instance – run some Google Ads or build a Meta Ads campaign.

It’s about how they apply themselves. How they react to adversity, and how they learn.

That’s why recently, I’ve been fascinated by candidates who have excelled in areas other than performance marketing.

Let’s take the candidate last week who I discovered was an athlete. Not your ordinary ‘I go to the gym’ type of person, but someone who actually has a national ranking.

I’ve met – and hired – a few athletes already, sometimes by chance, but sometimes because I’m always on the lookout for people who have done something that is both hard and slow.

You don’t become an athlete overnight. It’s not like winning the lottery. As a mid-life cyclist, I can attest that you don’t suddenly start riding 100km rides, you start with struggling to ride 20km, and then you build and you build, you persist and you iterate. You display the ability to do something that is hard and slow.

Something that is full of setbacks and difficulties. Where you have to wake up early some days and accept that you’re not the best. But you’ll try harder to be better.

I think the same of musicians. I learned the piano when I was at school, and hearing my kids learn piano now, I can see how everything is a slow build. A layer-upon-layer of learning, and of solid application. And it takes so long to be good, you have to go through so many years of excruciatingly bad piano.

Someone once wrote that they asked candidates what they do that is analogous to a pianist practising scales. It’s a really good question, and one that gets candidates thinking – because a pianist doesn’t practise scales simply because people like hearing them. A pianist doesn’t practise scales because scales in themselves are an end goal.

They practise scales because:

  • They develop dexterity in your fingers
  • They develop independence of the fingers
  • They develop evenness of touch
  • They build strength in your fingers

Now imagine doing that to improve your performance marketing. We literally don’t do that, do we? Which makes the previous interview question so hard to ask.

But if our candidate search involve asking people about things they’ve done that are like this, then we might be finding some winners.

Finally, I’ve always had a fascination for linguists, but particularly those who aren’t born into a second language.

Yes, those who are bilingual from childhood have a particular advantage, as learning two languages at once gives them some kind of special brain power (I am so envious).

But those who are born monolingual (i.e. most of us), who then go on to learn a language in depth and at length, are often quite special people. And this is particularly useful if you’re assessing English speakers who are often the most disadvantaged when it comes to language learning:

  • Because schools aren’t very good at teaching it
  • Because the English language is a hybrid of multiple language roots – it’s OK to learn Italian if you’re French (and vice versa), but we don’t have a head start as English speakers
  • Because it feels hard-baked into English cultures that you don’t need to speak other languages

Looking for language learners when you’re trying to find growth marketers is crucial, because they’re displaying traits you really need:

  • They’re always looking to improve
  • They’re resilient
  • They’re open to other cultures
  • They know they’ll get things wrong once & then hopefully never again
  • The real linguists see learning language as the opportunity to unlock others
  • They view communication as important

My French has never been as good as that of a native speaker, and I’ve suffered French people laughing so hard at my mistakes they’ve had to leave the room (admittedly, in hindsight, it was funny). But I kept going. I persevered. I smiled through the humiliation and decided it would never happen again.

What ties all of these people together is that at some point, they discovered they had a talent or a love for something, even though they were perhaps not very good at it.

Even Mozart was pants once.

But they’ve found the perseverance and they’ve ploughed on relentlessly. They’ve overcome humiliation and disappointment, or they’ve told themselves that at some point, they’re going to be brilliant at this one thing.

THOSE are the kinds of marketers we want. That’s the level we’re after for our clients.


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