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Mental model: being a zero
18 Sep 2019 · 387 words

Here’s a useful mental model: be a zero. It’s taken from Chris Hadfield’s book: An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth.

The characters

In any new situation, you will be viewed as either a minus one, a zero or a plus one.

A minus one is someone who is actively detracting: the project orenvironment would be better off if they weren’t there. They could be incompetent and take the time of other resources. Or perhaps they don’t work with others well.

A zero is neutral: someone who isn’t negative, but isn’t a big positive either. They do small things that need to be done, but don’t deliver the big wins on a project.

A plus one is the person that really makes things better for their presence. They can develop innovations and push them through, they know what to do in a crisis, they have experience and can distill their wisdom to others.

The idea

Here’s the counterintuitive thing: when you are new to an environment, aiming to be a plus one is a mistake.

The problem is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You are likely to make a serious mistake or rub someone up the wrong way. That makes you a minus one.

Aiming to be a zero is much better. Look for things you can do that need to be done, like tasks that aren’t glamorous but are essential to the project. At the same time observe keenly and see how things are done. Wait until you feel confident in the environment; then you can start being a plus one.

Zero isn’t a bad thing to be. You are competent enough not to create more work for other people. First you have to prove you are competent, before you can prove you are extraordinary. No shortcuts

If you really are a plus one, people will notice. You don’t need to tell anyone.

To summarise

When you have skills but don’t fully understand your environment, there is no way you can be a plus one. At best you can be a zero.

If you proclaim your plus one-ness, if you arrive at a new environment and explode out the gate, you will wreck havoc and be a minus one.

Instead, bide your time and be a zero. Then transition into a plus one.

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