“Nice Guy With a Knife”


So, this happened …

Help! Your partner has just been shot and is lying in the street, bleeding. You’re kneeling on the side, screaming for help.

A guy rushes up and says, “Step aside.” He looks at your loved one’s bullet wound and pulls out a pocket knife. He’s going to operate, right there in the street, to stop the internal bleeding.

You ask, “Are you a doctor?”

“No,” the guy says, preparing to cut.

“But you know what you’re doing, right? You’re an old Army medic, or . . .”

At this point the guy becomes annoyed. He tells you that he is a nice guy, he is honest, he is always on time. He tells you that he is a great son to his mother and has a rich life full of fulfilling hobbies, and he boasts that he never uses foul language.

Confused, you say, “How does any of that matter when my partner is lying here bleeding! I need somebody who knows how to operate on bullet wounds! Can you do that or not?!?”

Now the man becomes agitated. Why are you being shallow and selfish? Do you not care about any of his other good qualities? Didn’t you just hear him say that he always remembers his girlfriend’s birthday? In light of all of the good things he does, does it really matter if he knows how to perform surgery?

In that panicked moment, you take your blood-covered hands and shake him by the shoulders, screaming, “Yes, I’m saying that none of that other stuff matters, because right now, I just need somebody who can stop the internal bleeding, you crazy asshole.”

Simple Definition

The Nice Guy With a Knife:  The world cares about what you DO, not who you ARE.

Summarizing what it means

I love this quote …

Potential is a great thing to have when you’re 12.

And it’s true. When we talk about teenagers and we say, “They have so much potential”, then that’s a huge compliment. The world is their oyster – they can have anything they want.

Now imagine saying that about a thirty-something-year-old: “They’ve got so much potential.”


In relation to an adult in their 30s, what you’re actually saying is that they are under-achieving relative to their potential.

But the world doesn’t really care about how fundamentally smart you are, or that you have a huge amount of (unfulfilled) potential, or that you’ve got a musical gift. Your boss doesn’t care about how nice you are to your parents when your work isn’t meeting minimum standards. And your date doesn’t care how athletic you used to be when – right now – you’re panting & gasping just climbing a single flight of stairs.

Your genetics, your beliefs, your etiquette training … none of that matters if you can’t do what needs to be done.

We don’t care if you’re really nice. If you’re not a doctor then put that knife down and get away from my partner.

Discussing what it means

My original version of this story was about some bad hires I made early in my career. I hired them based on their very strong CVs. They’re hilarious stories (well, I can laugh at it now) and I might still share them in a future chapter.

On paper, these people looked amazing, with great potential but, even though they’d been working long enough to have achieved impressive things at work, the evidence of actual accomplishments was sorely lacking.

I cared too much about who their CV proclaimed them to be, when I should have been focusing on what they had actually done.

But then I came across a different story, one which I felt told the story in a more enticing way. So actually, the above story of the guy with the knife is not mine. I made some edits for readability, but it’s basically a few paragraphs taken from a longer article by Jason Pargin.

I hope I don’t get a take-down notice since I’m giving full credit (and much appreciation) to the original author 🙂  (In fact, I even tried to ask the author directly, but he doesn’t even exist anywhere on Linkedin! Fingers crossed!

Potential Somential

He’s got great genetics, but hasn’t done exercise in a decade, and has really let himself go.

She’s a smart kid, but doesn’t apply herself so gets average grades only.

He’s strong enough to lift 10 grocery bags in one hand, but he just sits there and watches the old lady walk past, struggling with her shopping.

She’s really nice to the people at the office, but nasty to the people in her close family.

These expensive shoes don’t fit at all, but they look nice so I decided to buy them anyway.

He always remembers his girlfriend’s birthday, so I should just let him operate on my partner with a pocket knife. For. The. First. Time. Ever.

What must they do?

Why do you need to hire someone for your team? If they work for you, what must they do? Think about all their characteristics that allow them to do what you need them to do, and forget all the things that are not ultimately contributing to their ability to deliver.

Forget what a good university it was that they went to 10 years ago, focus on what they’ve done in the last 5 years. Ignore gender, sexual preference, or age.

In #[The Hello Kitty Stapler], I tell a story about a guy who refused to use his girlfriend’s stapler for an important job application because it was a ‘silly’ style, and he felt he needed something ‘serious’. He lost focus on his goal (stapling paper) and ended up getting stuck on what the stapler looked like.

As we remember from Batman Begins:

It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.

In this chapter, we’re focusing on people not staplers. We’re differentiating between who they are as a person, and what they actually do. This isn’t about what they might be able to do if they just focused and practiced, it’s about what a person actually delivers.

Everything else is NOT irrelevant

In the case of the nice guy with the knife, you only need him to do one thing: surgery in order to save your partner from a gunshot wound.

Of course, in the Real World (TM), things aren’t that simple. You might be hiring a programmer for a software system, and thus be tempted to only ask about her ability to program. But if she is going to be part of a team, is she a team player? If she is going to be working under pressure, can she cope? If she’ll have to travel extensively for work, does she have that flexibility?

Too many people are charmed in interviews by candidates who are friendly and confident. And while it is nice that they’re nice, the real question should be whether they can do the work.

Yes, the main focus should be on “What must they do?” But if there are other aspects that will be important contributors to that person’s ability to deliver, then don’t ignore those other perspectives.

Only take into account what is relevant, but do take everything into account that is relevant.


In some ways, the concept of “Nice Guy With a Knife” comes down to trust. Lots of people have potential, many people have abilities – but unless you have a track record of actually doing things, then why should anyone trust you with any responsibilities?

I’ve had many people wanting to move from a technical role into a client management role in my team. They all said that they were interested in making the shift, they all promised that they’d learn what it took, but very few of them could actually demonstrate that they were already taking actions to be successful in the new role.

We have to do things to be trusted to do things. Being able to do things is only part-way there.

Remember to focus on outcomes

When you’re looking for a singing coach, make sure you hire someone who can teach you to sing, and not just someone who is good at singing themselves.

When you’re looking for a long-term relationship, don’t focus only on the lovely things they do while trying to impress you, make sure you also notice the little signs – their ability to show respect to people like waiters, their ability to be patient with long-term friends and family members.

As, as we saw in the Johnny Depp / Amber Heard court case, there is a world of difference between saying you will pay money to a charity, saying you have paid money to a charity, and actually paying money to a charity.

Now put that knife down and step aside – let a real professional through who can help.

Making it personal

What aspects of your life are currently being contaminated by “Nice guy with a knife” problems?

  • Have you hired people into your team because of who they are, even though they aren’t able to deliver what you need from them?
  • Are you dating someone who is generally a “nice person”, but they just don’t meet your relationship needs?
  • Are you still seeing a therapist (or a mentor, or a coach) because, well, you’ve been together for a long time and you enjoy your sessions with them, even though they are no longer actually helping you improve in the areas where you pay them to help?
  • Are you being sold to by the person who is promising to change the world by helping millions, when in fact they aren’t even helping dozens yet?

And where are YOU at risk of getting ejected in the near future?

  • Are you the “nice partner” who is sweet and polite and generous, but you’re not actually meeting your own partner’s relationship needs? If so, think about whether they are the right person for you, or think about how you can get your attitude right and start being there for them.
  • Are you at risk of losing your job because, although everyone likes you, you aren’t actually delivering? If so, perhaps this is the wrong job for you? Or perhaps you need to skill-up or knuckle-down?

If you’ve got a knife but don’t know how to use it, it’s time to make some decisions.

  • Should you step back and let a real doctor through?
  • Should you learn how to use that knife in a way that it’s needed?
  • Should you find something that you do know how to use, and try find somewhere where you can actually be helpful?

If you take this exercise seriously, you’ll be surprised at what comes up – just give yourself some time to explore your own reality.

Related stories

#[Hello Kitty Stapler]
#[Sometimes Kitt was sh*t]
#[Mistakes can’t melt mountains]

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