Can you see the invisible gorilla?
Updated: Mar 18
A determined Project Manager striving for promotion, hits a ceiling in his company.
In a recent session, Toby (for the sake of the article), Product Manager in a large African company, sat red-faced across from me on the edge of his chair, spitting accounts of the number of job interviews he’s taken in the last 12 months, for the exact same position, in the exact same company, all to no avail. After so much preparation, not to mention the consistent quarterly performances, what was it going to take to get to that next step, that he so badly needed? Having asked the recruiters for feedback, he was left confused, frustrated and under pressure to succeed, with no identifiable solution to work on.
“Insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” - A. Einstein
I quickly realised that in order to make any progress together, we had to take our foot off the pedal as Toby was out of breath simply from voicing his situation, “Toby, forgive me for interrupting. Would you mind if I suggest a quick breathing technique to help us slow down?” Without a word, Toby nodded, so we spent a few minutes on some deep breathing and grounded ourselves. Opening our eyes, I asked how he was feeling, “A little better. It feels like I’m constantly running, charging around…” he replied. “… and how’s that working out for you?” I enquired. He smiled nervously. We took the pressure off what he’s trying to achieve and switched the focus to the past, so I could learn how Toby found himself where he is today. I was able to draw out many of his professional strengths, many he hadn’t even realised he possessed, to the point where he explained that he had never even intended to become a Product Manager, but simply “fell” into it, being recruited from another department, previously as a Project Manager. We discussed this transition; how it had happened, why and his ‘being’ in that moment.
As Toby recalled that period of his life and transition from Project to Product Manager, in the same company, it dawned on him. He hadn’t made any effort to achieve that success, he hadn’t even studied rigorously nor overly prepared for interviews and he didn’t even possess a formal training in Product Management, “So how did you get hired for it?” I asked. “I started reading and learning about aspects of Product Management for my own enjoyment and because I enjoyed it, I learned quickly.” “Is there a difference between someone who is trying to grow professionally for money or status compared to someone who is in love with the subject?”. I enquired, “Can interviewers sense the difference between these motivations?” “Of course. I wasn’t attached to the result, I was just enthusiastic to be able to work in the field.” Toby answered. “Does it feel like you are forcing this promotion to happen? Is it possible that the role is not completely aligned with what you truly want to achieve?” He took a deep breath and began to nod, “You’re right… I just feel so much pressure. I want to earn more to support my family and give us all a better life, but perhaps this isn’t the right path, or only path for me?” He admitted. “It certainly might not be the only path.” I offered, “Sometimes, if we are so laser focused on one thing, we can’t see anything else happening around us. How many other opportunities are there in your company or others, for roles that inspire you? You might not even know because you’re not open to seeing them, yet… And what if you could find another job that you love, that pays more and you work less?” Now Toby was really intrigued, “Seriously?” “Well, would you like to starting looking for them?” Toby had taken the Invisible Gorilla Experiment but in real life. In the experiment, scientists show a series of videos to participants and once they finish watching, ask if they had noticed the big (human) gorilla walking across the screen. Most people don’t see it (incredibly), because they are so focused on something else happening at the time. This also plays out in life, when we are so concentrated on one particular outcome, we often miss other possibilities presenting themselves to us.
We continued to unravel Toby’s true passions within his field and possible associated jobs, companies and pathways. His action points were: (Temporarily) stop applying for jobs Relax and begin a 10-minute gratitude routine every morning Engage in more conversations and connect with more people, inside and outside work Keep eyes and ears open to new developments and developments in the field Toby may re-apply for the same job or find another opportunity, I don’t know yet, but he has created the space to explore by releasing the self-imposed pressure, to clarify what he wants and why, and be open to new possibilities that can now find him.
Good luck Toby!
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