Controversy builds success

The last thing you want to do is grow up in a bubble without disagreement

If you’ve been watching the news, you may know we have an enormous problem coming down the pike. It seems students at many colleges and universities are demonstrating against the appearance on campus of speakers who don’t share their views. Some of these demonstrations have even turned violent.

As I understand it, a major goal of education is to broaden minds, and it looks like we’re failing at that to a great degree.

Where do these kids think they’re going to work? Do they really think there are organizations that thrive without controversy?

Let’s say you’re going to be an engineer, and you get hired to help design new products. Most products are an amalgamation of ideas, some good, some bad. The best products have mostly good and very little bad.

As a bright engineer, you’re expected to contribute, so you have a brainstorm. You think of some doohickey that just might work. You present it at the next design meeting. You’re not the only one presenting. Maybe somebody else’s doohickey is even better than yours.

How are you going to feel? Suppose your colleagues point out the weaknesses in yours when they shoot it down? I can tell you it’s not going to feel good. What are you going to do? It’s your first week on the job and already you think everyone’s against you. They just don’t appreciate your brilliance.

On the other hand, let’s say your idea is accepted. You’re now the new whiz, and there are many benefits. You’ll be respected, get better raises and bonuses. People will seek your advice. You might even get invited to speak at a conference in some dazzling location and be allowed to bring your spouse.

Products are continuously updated. Let’s say someone comes up with a better doohickey than yours for next year’s model. Uh-oh — now you’re an also-ran. How are you going to feel, and what are you going to do about it?

Have you ever seen a résumé for someone who’s always jumping from one job to another? They just can’t seem to find anyone they can get along with, and recruiters are quick to figure that out.

The last thing you want to do is grow up in a bubble without controversy. You’ll never find a place where you’ll be comfortable. Rather, you want to try to understand all sides of the issues and learn how to deal with people with whom you don’t agree. You have to learn how to disagree without becoming disagreeable. Forgive, forget and dive right back in as if nothing happened.

Regardless of what they’re teaching you in school, if you aren’t learning to get along with people with whom you may not agree, you may have difficulty marketing your valuable skills. There are a lot of brilliant people nobody wants to deal with. If you’re incredibly brilliant like a Steve Jobs, they might put up with you, but that’s very risky.

In the words of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of that family’s fortune, “the ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee. And I will pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.”

So, you’re not going to be an engineer. Guess what? Even if you’re planning on being a one-person operation, you still have to deal with people. They’re called customers and can be especially difficult. Even artists and writers have to sell their work.

I don’t care what your major is, if you aren’t being exposed to ideas you find unsettling and learning how to deal with their proponents, you just might want to find another school. Why rack up all that student loan debt if you’re not learning what you really need to get and keep a good job?

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or

Categories: Business Advice