When No One's Looking

One of my favorite things about waking up at 5 a.m. is that I see a very different kind of commuter than I would at rush hour. Mixed in with the lawyers and bankers are maintenance and food service workers, deliverymen stocking stores, and security guards awaiting the morning rush. They, unlike me, have no choice but to be at work before the sun rises.

My desk at the Centre for Social Innovation in Chelsea is quiet, save for the occasional background noise of the maintenance staff washing dishes and scrubbing floors. CSI is a co-working space in west Chelsea for social enterprises, nonprofits, and the companies that help them succeed. For everyone at CSI, philanthropy—giving resources to promote the welfare of others—is both a passion and a job. Yet when a philanthropic opportunity as small as washing a dish to save a low-wage worker twenty minutes, it’s no longer interesting or worthwhile. Even to the most philanthropically-minded people.

No matter how generous we try to be, the desire to be recognized for the things we do for others is fundamentally human. If you’ve ever organized an event, you know this phenomenon well. Invent an award to give someone and they’re far more likely to attend than if you simply invited them as an ordinary guest. But no matter how inevitable the desire for recognition, I think we recognize that it often has little to do with the true value of our efforts. So how might we re-wire our brains to minimize this cognitive bias? How might we get better at recognizing which achievements are fluff, and which really matter?

I met Ron Gonen, Deputy Commissioner For Recycling for New York City, the other night at a founders dinner. As the former CEO of RecycleBank, he had run by far the largest business of anyone in the room. He explained how early job applicants had all been passionate about RecycleBank’s social mission. But after the company had nearly $100M in venture backing, the character of applicants changed—they wanted to be there for a big exit. Ron was able to keep the quality of new hires high with a simple tactic: his assistant had full veto power. No matter how poised a candidates seemed during the interview, she could exercise a veto if she felt like they had treated her differently than her boss—when they thought no one was looking.

Even though most of us don’t have assistants to vet potential partners, investors, and hires, we can still get a glimpse into how people behave when no one’s looking. That’s why you build relationships with investors rather than pitching for the first time while you’re raising a round. That’s why a potential hire’s side projects and hobbies can be such a powerful indicator of whether or not they’ll be a good fit. And that’s why formulaic evaluations are next to useless when it comes to evaluating creative talent. It’s not enough to just give the same effort even when you are not under scrutiny. A real innovator gives more and loves the thankless work that produces success just as much as the success itself.