Recognizable or Recognized?

“Do you know so-and-so?”

In its best form this question may be the entree to an introduction by the asker, sometimes it is fishing for an introduction for the asker, most often it is a conversational calibration tool (i.e. if you know so-and-so the conversation will go one way, if not it will go another).

For many years I have taken to answering this question the same way:

“Are you asking if I know them… or if they know me?”

For instance, at one time I was the personal banker for a very well known businessman in Tucson. I did work for him on a weekly basis, regularly interacted with his sister and other members of his family, received personal thank you cards from him when I helped associates of his, my parents attend a rather small Christmas party with him most years. I know this man fairly well… but I don’t think he could pick me out of a crowd.

This question of whether I know someone or whether they know me, is at the heart of a tension between the states of being recognizable vs being recognized. A recognizable person knows the right names and faces. A recognized person is known by the right names and faces.

Recognized may seem self-explanatory in this context, but by recognizable I mean someone who has garbed themselves in the trappings and knowledge that (they think) indicate membership in the group in which they intend to become a member (to be recognized). Thus the recognizable/recognized distinction extends far beyond personal relationships. It includes potentially what you wear, where you live, what you read, how you speak, the ideas that you discuss and champion, etc. All of these are elements which can make you recognizable to certain groups and people.

Take a sports example. If I want to be affiliated with my favorite sports teams (the Arizona Wildcats or the New England Patriots) I have to put on a shirt or hat, I have to make myself recognizable. But if Tedy Bruschi (a standout linebacker for both teams) walks out his front door he is automatically recognized as a valued member of those communities.

It is not because Tedy wore the jerseys for a number of seasons, years ago that makes him instantly recognized by these communities (many now anonymous players did the same). It is the significant, sustained, positive impact he had on and off the field that makes him a permanent pillar of those communities.

However, being recognizable is generally easy (and thus of low value) because the requirements are relatively certain. Socially it could mean building the right contact list, attending the right parties, wearing the right clothes. Intellectually is could mean reading the right books and articles, using the right technical language. Professionally it could mean putting in the right amount of time, working for the right company, serving with the right community organizations.

All of these things could make you recognizable. People may be able to label you and you may be welcome in the communities you are targeting. If I walk around wearing a “Taxation Is Theft!” shirt and talking about praxeology, there is a certain subset of libertarians that will basically automatically give me a hearty welcome.

But there is something shallow about these signals which you know will convey the message you are looking to send. These certain things, these checkbox tasks, fall short of real impact exactly because they are certain. By definition you are retreading well-worn paths (that is why they are recognizable).

Impact, however, comes at the edge of the known path, in the dark and wild places of the forest, or at least those areas not fully subdued, domesticated, and cultivated.

Those things that make you recognizable don’t equal impact, because they don’t equal pushing on the limits of what is known or what is built. Those tasks which make you recognizable don’t equal the deeper recognition that signals real contributions.

These contributions may be intellectual, they may be artistic, they may be entrepreneurial, they may be scientific. Pushing the boundaries and making real contributions could be as earth shaking as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but far more often they are seemingly mundane, like creating a new form that is critical to a business process, writing a blog post that puts a slightly different spin on a policy topic, discovering a small improvement in a technology. Far more often than the world movers, those that are truly valuable contributors are those that make sustained, repetitive, quality contributions. Those whose efforts compound, bit by bit, year after year, decade after decade.

This isn’t to say that being recognizable is without any value. For instance, Tedy Bruschi couldn’t have had the impact he did if he had refused to wear the jerseys (i.e. they wouldn’t have let him play), but often promising people get stalled in this recognizable phase (or they settle for a cheap version of recognition) instead of pushing through into the foggy uncertainty of the hard work it takes to potentially have real impact and achieve deeper recognition.

Contributors of outsized impact are almost invariably those whose efforts come to be described as a “body of work”. They are people who develop a habit of contribution that leads them on a long-term journey of exploration and creation.

Recognition is a trailing indicator of this impact. Being recognized is one measure of value and almost always comes long after the efforts began.

Ironically, many of the most important contributions are only recognized by an exceedingly small group. That tiny group of adventurous foresters who are out there on the fringe with you. Who actually have stood at the edge of the fog (sometimes panting with exhaustion from their own work pushing the limits of the known and building where there was previously only wilderness) wondering what is next to be discovered and who will do the discovering.

So when you are asked, “Do you know so-and-so?” you certainly want to say “Yes!” when so-and-so is an esteemable member of your aspirational community, a person you would want as a fellow traveler, teacher or colleague, one of those explorers and thought leaders. The giants who came before you and the mentors who could work beside you are critical resources and partners for your success in whatever endeavors you choose. Knowing who the right people are is very important knowledge.

However, how much greater is the measure of your work, your contributions, than for someone to ask a mentor, “Who is doing great work in this area?” and yours is the name they provide?

To be recognizable may be an often necessary condition for impact, but it is a shallow measure of progress or success. To be recognized (by those worthy of granting recognition) is a deeper, harder, and vastly more valuable pursuit.


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