The Focus Course

Aim to Be a Zero

When you stop and think about it, much of life is affected by people.

From childhood to college, to first job and ever after. People are at the center of every interaction and almost every experience we have as humans. The actions, emotions, and words of others always affect us.

The same holds true of our affect on others. Our attitude, our actions, and our words impact those around us — for better or worse.

What is your affect on others?

When you walk into a room, do you impact people for the better?

Our influence becomes especially pronounced in team settings. Are we a team player? Encouraging and up-lifting. Competent and thorough with our work. Or, are we a liability? Hard to work with. General know-it-all. There’s no hiding.

When it comes to working in a new environment or context, the words of astronaut Chris Hadfield ring true, “Aim to be a zero.”

The Scale of Contribution

We’ve all worked with the self-proclaimed expert. There are few experiences in life I find more challenging. It’s hard to work with someone that already has all the answers and no interest in learning. While flaunting their plus oneness, that in itself results in being a minus one.

Let’s review the scale of contribution.

The minus one can be a liability at times creating unnecessary work for others. Has a difficult time learning from others and are convinced they already have things figured. Generally unaware of blind spots and do not easily receive feedback.

The plus one adds value to the team at every turn, not in it for self-promotion. Excellent in their skills and always pushing the limits of what’s possible. Awareness of the needs of their team and not too proud to do grunt work. They know their environment and limitations well.

The zero is competent and efficient. Learns quickly by observation and asking questions. Not afraid to get their hands dirty, and are reliable. If they weren’t so good at what they did, you may not even know they were there.


You may have twice as much experience as your collective team, but if you’re taking on a project in new territory, the rules change. This isn’t to say that your past experience is now obsolete, but there may be things in this new environment that don’t act the same way.

Whether it’s a new job, new child, new project, new anything, don’t be afraid to take a step back and just aim at being a zero.

The fastest way to come off as a know-it-all prick is by being one. Don’t. Nobody knows everything. If you’re truly good at what you do, let others be the one to figure it out.

By aiming to be a zero, you’ve given yourself a better chance of being a plus one.

What We Really Know

Have you ever noticed how the smartest people in the room usually talk the least and ask the most profound questions?

One of my professors in college held her doctorate in two different fields, worked in public education for 20+ years, and was then the dean of students for a tiny Bible school. She still taught a full course load and made time to connect with students. She was brilliant and one of the most influential voices in my education.

She made you feel like the most interesting person in the world, when it should have been the other way around. She would ask simple questions, listen to poorly articulated arguments, suggest opportunities or different perspectives, and let you figure it out on your own. She is the greatest example of a plus one I have ever seen.

My point being, even the smartest and brightest in their respected fields are quick to admit how little they know. They would run circles around us, and yet, there is a humility and honesty in their knowledge.

If the top scholars know 2% (made up figure) of everything there is to know in their field as it compares to the totality, and we know 0.005% (also speculative), then maybe our limited understanding isn’t the best way to do something. What we know is merely one way of doing things. There are questions we don’t even know we should be asking yet, let alone providing solutions to.

A zero is aware of how little they truly know.

Don’t assume you know everything, and try to be ready for anything. — Col. Chris Hadfield

Core Traits of a Plus One

With a plus one, there’s innate desire to be good — even great. We all want to hit home-runs and be viewed as the all-star. The introverts may not want the attention, but they want the recognition. The good news is we can hone the skills of a plus one even while silently crushing it as a zero. Here are a few core traits that make up the plus one.

Student: The plus one is committed to learning from anything and anyone. They’re comfortable being a student and unafraid to ask questions.

Team Player: When the team wins, they win. It’s not just their role and responsibilities, they clear the way for others. Nothing is below them, and they are willing to contribute in whatever way helps the team win.

True Humility: They’re honest about their strengths and not afraid of their weaknesses. Part of humility is not being afraid to come through big in areas of gifting, but it’s also about possessing the courage to ask for help in areas of weakness.

Excellence in their Craft: the plus one is good at what they do — not just proficient to complete the task at hand, but able to operate with a level of creativity. How could this be better? They are committed to improving their skill and always moving to the next level.


I’ve often reminded myself to be a zero in new settings. Especially instances in which I feel inexperienced. Aiming to be a zero means bringing your best so the team can operate at its best. Be curious, ask questions, and assume you don’t know anything. When you aim to be a zero, at worst, you’ll be seen as a zero. At best, you’ll come out looking like a plus one.

Just don’t be a minus one, nobody likes that guy.


Photo by You X Ventures via Unsplash.

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