Reputation vs. What have you done for me lately?

I recently read an article in INC. Magazine titled 9 Beliefs of Remarkably Successful People, by Jeff Haden, and was struck by several of his key points.

In the article, which is well worth your reading, he points out a number of beliefs that will certainly set your ego-based brain thinking. A little reflection on each point would be a valuable exercise because you might discover something about yourself that you either like and need to emphasize, or don’t like and need to change.

One belief that struck me as particularly important is:

I have never paid my dues.
Dues aren’t paid, past tense. Dues get paid, each and every day. The only real measure of your value is the tangible contribution you make on a daily basis.

No matter what you’ve done or accomplished in the past, you’re never too good to roll up your sleeves, get dirty, and do the grunt work. No job is ever too menial, no task ever too unskilled or boring.

Remarkably successful people never feel entitled–except to the fruits of their labor.

We have all heard people say “I’ve paid my dues.” What this really means is that I have done a job that I didn’t enjoy, or that I now see as below me, and because of my past work I no longer have to do that task. The job should now be done by someone else. When I say “I’ve paid my dues,” I also mean that others, perhaps our boss or coworkers, should recognize my past contribution, my “history” in the organization, and give me credit for what I’ve done. It’s time for someone else to have their turn in the barrel.

The problem is, as Haden points out, history rarely counts.

Don’t get me wrong. Your history is incredibly important in creating your reputation. Your reputation is the mental picture others carry of you filed away in their heads waiting for just the right moment to bring your name to mind. It’s your reputation that opens doors of opportunity. It’s your reputation that gives people a positive or negative feeling about your skills, knowledge, and abilities.

But, it’s what you have done lately that maintains that reputation. You can have a long history of contributing to the company or organization, but if you are seen as no longer contributing, your prior reputation isn’t going to help.

If your goal is to be noticed, or to be seen as an asset to the organization, it is both the history of outstanding performance, and the current reality of continuing performance at an exceptional level that combine to unlock opportunity.

None of this is to suggest that you have to do every job in the office. Certainly not! That’s why there are many people in your organization. It takes lots of people, doing their jobs, to get things done. (For a little mind-twist on a related subject see the prior blog post 100% Responsibility.)

But, it is important to understand that when someone needs some help, or the work piles up and the whole system starts to grind to a halt, you are not exempt from pitching in, even if the job is menial, dirty, or boring.

In the end, no, you haven’t paid your dues. But, you have certainly created a reputation. I hope it’s a good one.


PS: It is probably important to note that there is a difference between your reputation and your character. For most of us the two are parallel. But, it is very possible to have a tarnished reputation while retaining an exceptional character.

Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing. Abraham Lincoln

This possible polarity might be a good topic for a future blog post.

Also, you might find the prior blog post Changing Minds – The Importance of Character interesting.

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Steve Cottle

Great post, Jim. I like the thoughtful distinction between having earned a reputation vs. having paid dues. There’s definitely a difference!

Andrew Krzmarzick

Thank you, Jim. I really like this post and the article you shared (bookmarked it, in fact!).

I once asked someone when they decided to pursue a particular career path. The person’s response: “this morning.” For me, this what stuck from that comment: You never arrive. You just keep on delivering value. It’s the right thing to do and it’s what brings dignity to work. Anything less than that, and you cheat yourself as well as the people you have committed to bringing value.

Jim Elliott

Hi Steve and Andy. Thanks for taking a look at the blog, and for the comments. I like the thought that you decide every morning to contribute, to make a difference, and to dedicate yourself to your profession. That is a particularly important concept for those of us who choose to serve our community, and our nation. Hope the two of you are doing well.