The Key to a Successful Career

Early in the oughts, I was sitting with a colleague to discuss the staff who worked for us. I commented on one of his reports, who seemed to be very intelligent, friendly, and competent. I was thinking of using her for some extra work on one of my engagements and wanted his opinion.

He winced a bit and said, “Yeah, but there’s a bit of an issue with her gas factor.” I paused for a moment, since my friend was Australian.

Sidebar – a note on Australians: Near the top of the list of troubling facts about Australians** is their decision, with a total population of like 50,000, that they needed an almost entirely new language to supplement the perfectly good English they were given when they were shipped to Oz and forgotten. It leads to endless confusion and furthers the perception that Aussies are in on some massive joke that the rest of the world doesn’t – and couldn’t – understand.

I struggled for a moment, wondering if I had heard his groovy Aussie accent correctly (“gehz”?), if this staffer had a flatulence problem, or if this was to be another addition to my budding Oz vocabulary. I finally gave up. “Gas factor?”

“She just doesn’t give a shit.” I instantly understood, but it was the first time I’d heard this as a formal “factor”. He could have described how she hadn’t taken full ownership of her work, how she’d been less than a consummate professional, how he questioned her drive and devotion to the cause, or how perhaps one time she had really stuck him with a missed assignment. But that would have been a waste of words, and his single sentence told me everything I needed to know about her.

Everyone Wants It, But No One Says It

Companies and people go to great lengths to describe a culture where a high GAS factor is important. Pages of narrative and countless inspiring anecdotes paint a detailed portrait of the values, the behaviors, and the philosophy that an ideal employee should have.

Matt Mullenweg (WordPress founder) gave an excellent interview where he described some of the keys to a successful culture (included: the CEO / founder needs to pick up trash on the floor). Tony Hsieh is famous for creating an incredibly powerful culture at Zappos, and details how candidates’ treatment of the shuttle bus driver is a potential veto for any hire, no matter how talented.

But I think I could summarize those countless words of insight for these two companies, as well as many others, with a single simple sentence: “We want people who give a shit.”

The GAS Factor, Applied

“GAS factor” quickly became my shorthand for the most critical professional trait. It summarized so many other things that are near and dear to me when I think of colleagues and staff. Do they take ownership in everything they do? Do they see the line of responsibility for their job and then step (or leap) over it? Are they friendly and kind to everyone, regardless of rank? Do they empathize with me and try to make my job easier? Do they treat the company like it were their own? Do they do great work whether it’s noticed or not?

If I have a choice between a C student who gives a shit, and an A+ one who doesn’t, I’ll take the dullard all day long. He will run circles around the person with the low GAS factor, because ability is a very distant second to attitude. And if you combine attitude and ability (oddly, they oft coincide), you have something special.

When I think of all of the nice things I’ve said about my former staff, the pinnacle is “His / Her give-a-shit factor is off the charts.” My bosses and colleagues knew that was the brass ring of praise from me, and that single sentence told them everything they needed to know as I pushed for someone’s raise, promotion, and recognition.

The Naked Face of Not Giving a Shit

At the dawn of my career, I was sent, alone, to Parsippany, New Jersey to review and gather a ton of bank documents for a potential investigation (jealous?). I went into a shuttered savings and loan to sort through thousands of boxes of underwriting reports and other fascinating records. I needed copies of everything important, so the partner at my firm went Tim Ferriss on me and said I should hire a professional temp to help out. Great idea!

I pulled together everything needing copies, made it foolproof, and gave it to the guy, who seemed smart, friendly, capable, and was like 20 years my senior. We really bonded, and he assured me he’d crush this easy task. I felt great and dove back into my sea of boxes.

When I checked back with him hours later, it looked like a tornado had hit the room. Originals and copies were everywhere in no order whatsoever, and it was going to be hours of effort to just get Humpty Dumpty back together again. My jaw dropped, and I asked what happened. This dude said, “Yeah, some of the pages got a little messed up, but they can put them back together.”

My brain couldn’t process that for a while. I just sat there, stunned, as he prepared his time card for me to sign. Finally, “Who is ‘they’? Do you see anyone else here? It’s just you and me!” He shrugged his shoulders, gave me a smarmy smile that screamed “I don’t give a shit!”, and said he was leaving.

Of course I had encountered lazy people with a low GAS factor before this, but this event was special. It was a controlled test. Normally, you cut people who suck some slack – you don’t know their situation or their problems. But I gave this happy guy everything he needed to succeed, and he destroyed a simple task my 6 y.o. could have done. I worked through the night (missing out on the culinary delights of Parsippany, dammit) simply because he didn’t give a shit. This was new for me – now I knew there were people like this in the world, and I hated them. I still give folks the benefit of the doubt, but if I ever isolate that someone’s only excuse for slacking is they don’t give a shit, it’s game over. I want nothing to do with them, no matter their personality or ability. Life is too short to spend it with people who don’t give a shit.

There Is No GAS Toggle Switch

I imagine, in olden times, everyone in a cave or little village had to give a shit. If you didn’t, you’d get voted out and eaten by bears.

Nowadays, though, the world’s so big people can do complex calculus on every action to see if it’ll give them an immediate payoff. If it won’t, many simply don’t GAS. Folks cruise through life as ruthless mercenaries, devoted to their own interest, “networking”, managing up, and working hard only when someone’s watching. Some folks even pull it off and make a full career of it, and that’s sad. But it’s a dangerous path because you’re building a house of cards. You may get exposed and really lose out. Or you may miss opportunities you never even knew were there.

Having a high GAS factor can change your life. A few times – both professionally and personally – I have been caught giving a shit when I assumed no one was watching and no one cared. I was very wrong. And I have a much better life because of it.

When you truly do GAS, you’ll realize there’s no way to turn it on or off. It’s not a toggle switch; it’s a way of life.

My mom had a great saying: if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. I really like that saying, and I’m going to use it with my kids until they’re old enough for me to give them even better advice: wherever you go, whatever you do, always make sure you give a shit.

 

Cheers to Russ for allowing me to borrow his go-to phrase. I haven’t seen him in yonks but we’re still good mates!

 

* I try to keep things pretty clean around here because:

  • I’d like my kids to be able to read it at an early age
  • I know some folks don’t fancy any cursing and I’d like them to stick around
  • Writing without F-bombs for dramatic or comedic effect has been a fun challenge, and may even make me a better writer

I obviously had to make an allowance today given the subject, but since it’s an outlier I wanted to clarify. Stay tuned for a return to my G-rated fare.

 

** Some troubling facts about Australians:

  • They are always happy. Can’t you have a single bad day like the rest of us? I have never met an unhappy Aussie. (No, Russell Crowe doesn’t count. He was born a Kiwi.) Very suspicious.
  • Their aforementioned secret language, full of bear traps and designed to confuse & embarrass non-Aussies. Fun game – pick which Aussie words are fine for mixed company: clacker, root, spoof, wristy (answer: none of them!).
  • They have the biggest crocodiles and seem surprisingly nonchalant when they eat non-Aussie tourists.
  • I’m sure there are many, many more. Feel free to add them in the comments.

 

Picture courtesy of Matty Simpson

5 thoughts on “The Key to a Successful Career

  1. I love talking to Aussies and their new-fangled words. 🙂 I’m sure we Texans sound just as strange to them.

    I have a low GAS factor at my job presently–I won’t lie. I know motivation should come from yourself, but when management stifles morale, it makes it difficult. That’s why I’m turning my focus to passion projects like cooking and blogging. I can at least GAS about something, even if it isn’t work. But I do agree that it’s best to have someone who genuinely cares over someone who might be a high performer with zero stake in the game.

    • If any state could compare with Aussies for colorful uniqueness, it’d probably be Texas, but even we may fall short of their impressive standard 🙂

      Forcing yourself to GAS with bad management is indeed a tough mountain to climb, and I’m glad you’re able to channel your passions in other projects. Here’s to the day when they become your full-time gig!

      Thanks for the note

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  3. The homage is unexpected but very much appreciated Paul. Not being an A+ student myself meant I had little choice but to turn my own GAS factor to 11. I believed then and still hold that it’s the key differentiator in finding good people. As I’ve grown old(er), I’ve come to the conclusion that a high GAS factor is not only important for hiring/business, but also for personal relationships – including parenting!

    • And thank you for the inspiration! It may have been an offhand comment, but it clearly stuck with me, and I’ve continued its spread. You’d get a chuckle if you knew the number and variety of places I’ve brought it to bear, as well as the warm reception it’s received. There’s simply not another good English shorthand for all it conveys.

      I also agree it’s important – perhaps most important – in personal relationships. Apathy is the greatest insult, and a high GAS factor is the greatest sign of love (take that, Shakespeare).

      Thanks for the comment and for being my Muse. No need to cite you’re not an A+ student – we know you’re an Aussie so you’re just being redundant 🙂

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