It’s generally viewed as a good thing to be scrappy: fighting against the odds, finding new angles, and mobilizing people and other resources to produce a desired outcome. But, is being scrappy always advisable?
In my experience, when scrappiness is relied upon more than real talent, when it is prioritized above human relationships, or when it causes people to be overly optimistic and unrealistic, it can run the risk of undermining the inherent value it brings.
I’ve built my career pursuing interests in education technology, gaming, and development technology. A couple of times I’ve held roles in early phase startups. In every new role, I had to get scrappy to be effective. This was often a painful and tedious process and I learned first-hand about the benefits and pitfalls of being scrappy.
Gotta Get the Skills First, i.e. the First of Many Learning Experiences
It was 1998. I was a recent college grad with a ton of ambition, so the most logical decision I could have made would be to pursue an opportunity in a venture capital firm. My background didn’t exactly set me up for success: I had majored in International Relations and German in college, and lacked the foundation in economic math or business administration that many of my colleagues brought. How I finessed my way into a job that was far beyond my skill set I chalk up to the hubris of youth.
Acquiring the knowledge and skills I needed took a lot more time and effort than I had anticipated—ONE YEAR of diligent attention to trial and error before I reached any meaningful skill development, before I confidently assessed my own deals. I learned the hard way that scrappiness is no substitute for professional skills (or at the bare minimum, the traditional education that would have set me up for success)..
Relationships Matter: Don’t Forget About People
Flash forward to 2005: as a founding member of the e-learning startup, The Academy, I decided to build a games production subsidiary. As CEO, I was responsible for budget, hiring, partnerships, securing initial customers…. basically, the viability of the company.
Even though I had held executive roles in the past, I had never been a CEO. It was exhilarating and daunting at the same time. One of the key tasks was securing production and marketing partners that had a real interest in helping our business grow.
In my first few partnership deals, I moved too quickly to get the deal done. In my haste to ink a deal, the unintended sense of urgency created an underlying distrust and distance between me and the partner executives. Realizing that I’d have to bridge the communication chasm to regain our initial momentum, I made a concerted effort to get to know the individuals at these companies on a personal level--not just as business managers. The result? Our new-found common ground made all the difference in building a strong foundation of trust upon which we could pursue our common interests.
The Power of a Heartfelt “No”
Scrappy people are often “can do” people; they aren’t easily dissuaded by an opportunity or challenge. But this can get them into trouble. As the co-founder of the ed- tech firm, Brightmind, I’ve been in several pitch meetings where an investor or potential partner suggests an idea for a business model or feature. It is tempting, as an entrepreneur, to say “of course we can do that!”
I’ve had to learn to wait a couple beats and, grounded in my firm’s business model and vision, speak a firm but well-reasoned “no.” Without this discipline, I may impress a stakeholder in the moment, but simultaneously compromise my firm’s long-term potential and, ultimately, my own enjoyment of my project.
Better Find Your Balance
There is certainly value in being scrappy, but it can’t be the only thing you bring to the table. I learned the hard way the importance of gaining a solid professional skills base to anchor my ambition. I also learned that relationships matter just as much as product or strategy. Finally, my experiences taught me the danger of too readily accepting challenges that run the risk of compromising my own vision.
The motivation behind the career skills platform Brightmind stems from my interest in helping scrappy people like me progress faster and avoid sabotaging themselves. At its core, Brightmind is a vibrant and supportive community of learners and experts who provide answers to urgent questions and contribute real world best practices. Supporting your study of every subject are targeted learning paths. The result is a platform that provides learners with access to customized career skills training and professional relationships.
If you’re the type of person that has more ambition than opportunity, Brightmind can help. As I look back on my career trajectory, if Brightmind had been available to me, I’m confident I could have avoided some embarrassing moments and hard lessons when my ambition outpaced by ability, when my scrappiness nearly derailed my vision.