Paul Jarley's Blog: Dinner at the College

Paul Jarley’s Blog: Dinner at the College

If you had three people in history you could ask to dinner, who would they be? It is a question commonly asked of interviewees. The response is frequently both entertaining and revealing. Ruling out dead people, I’d invite Ron Popeil, Mel Kiper Jr., and Snooki. I think Snooki’s speaking fee is a little high (ask Rutgers-they paid $35,000 to the horror of their students). If so, Kim Kardashian would do. We would serve rotisserie chicken, debate each others’ “up” and “down” sides in infinite detail, and probably cause enough drama to be charged with disturbing the peace—oh wait that’s the Housewives of Orange County.

Maybe inviting them to dinner is a bad idea, but I would like them featured on a panel discussion at COBA about personal branding and launching a highly successful career. Even this doesn’t quite give them their due for each of my guests did more than achieve celebrity status…they invented a whole new category. Ron Popeil is from my father’s generation. He is maybe the best pitchman ever, created all sorts of kitchen gadgets and perfected the infomercial. Mel is from my generation. He invented the professional “draft analyst,” became a fixture on ESPN and turned the NFL player draft into a two-day television event. Snooki is from my children’s generation and while it is fashionable to make fun of her, as far as I know, she is the first serial reality TV star—let’s hope that can’t be easy to do. The format is simple. Ron, Mel and Snooki will tell their stories. The students will be charged with identifying similarities in their stories and developing actionable career strategies based on our speakers’ experiences.

Our guests are what sociologist and writer Malcolm Gladwell calls “outliers.” They are unusually successful people and if we are to believe Gladwell, they are likely to share a few common characteristics. For one, outliers tend to come from a culture of entitlement. Not “the world owes me something” view we normally associate with this term, but rather from a perspective and tradition that says it is okay to challenge authority, pursue your own agenda, and take the initiative. (Helicopter parents take note.) Snooki, for example, has plenty of this, and can take a punch to boot. Outliers also have the vision or good fortune to see opportunity before others do. Mel Kiper credits his career in part to a discussion he had with an NFL general manager who spoke of the need for better information on players and encouraged him to turn it into a business. Finally, outliers get lots of practice developing their new skill before anyone else does. Gladwell is a strong proponent of the 10,000 hours rule—that virtually every really talented person spent the equivalent of five full years in practice. Getting extensive practice hours in before anyone else gives outliers important first mover advantages. Mel started his firm while he was still in college and I have no doubt that he spent hours poring over player numbers when he was eight years old. Similarly Ron Popeil came from a family of pitchmen, had perfected his pitch skills through years of practice and seized the opportunity when the broadcasting rules changed to allow long format commercials.

Another way to look at our guests is that they are all entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs tend to identify and advocate disruptive ideas—ideas that challenge conventional wisdom in an industry, turn assumptions upside down and revolutionize a market. I’m only guessing but the type of entitlement culture that Gladwell describes may also give people a natural advantage in generating disruptive ideas and thereby creating new market opportunities to get their 10,000 hours well before anyone else. For Mel, the disruptive idea was that only those inside the game—coaches and scouts—could evaluate talent. For Ron, it was that you couldn’t separate product development from marketing–that they are one in the same. If I’m right, opportunity isn’t a matter of luck, it is the product of a particular culture and hard work. Snooki isn’t on reality TV by accident, she executed a plan that involved cultivating a unique personality. Thomas Edison once quipped: “The reason so many people miss opportunity is that it tends to be dressed in coveralls and looks like work.”

In the end the question isn’t whether we would have the infomercial, draft analysts, or serial reality TV stars without our guests. These developments were probably inevitable. The question is they these developments are associated with the names Popeil, Kiper and Snooki. And, how we can increase the odds that the name associated with the “next big thing” is our own.

Ron, Mel and Snooki….have your people call my people and we will set something up.

Paul Jarley, Ph.D., is the dean of the UCF College of Business Administration. He blogs every week at http://www.bus.ucf.edu/dean. This post appeared on May 8, 2013. Follow him on Twitter @pauljarley