Updated on 01.27.08

Review: Never Wrestle With A Pig

Trent Hamm

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

pigAn old friend of mine loaned me Never Wrestle With A Pig in the mail recently, with a little Post-It note that said “This is the best career advice I’ve ever read, even if I don’t follow all of it.” That note intrigued me, and I dove into the book headfirst.

Never Wrestle With A Pig by Mark McCormack offers up a ton of specific points of advice for building either a management career or your own business. In either case, the book basically assumes that the goal is to be in charge of some sort of organization. It also assumes that you’re just getting started in this process – big dreams, but not a lot of success yet. In other words, it speaks very well to a lot of people in their twenties and thirties.

But not to me. I’m not quite part of that target audience, as I don’t have any deep interest in management. I’m much more interested in self-employment or perhaps a very small business with just one or two employees. Does the book still hold something for me? If it does, it’s a pretty good read for any young person with goals – if not, it belongs just in the hands of people shooting for Let’s dig in and find out.

The Ideas Within Never Wrestle With A Pig

Most of these sections had many interesting points worth noting in them. Rather than having this summary turn into a book itself, I tried to pick the single most interesting point from each one and discuss it.

Giving Yourself A Reality Check
The book opens where it should, with the realization that you have to work hard to make it happen. Hard work underlines everything, and the moment you start slacking off is the moment you lose. My favorite point is that if you’re relying on luck to carry you through something, it probably won’t work – instead, your time should be spent making your position “luck proof.” Make sure all of your bases are covered as well as you can, and also go the extra mile to show that you’re a valuable part of the organization.

Speed, The Defining Factor
McCormack addresses time management here, making several astute points. The biggest one – and the one that I see many people not actually doing – is to set a very strict time for leaving work and sticking to it. Doing that ensures two things: one, that you have adequate time for personal growth and rest so that, two, during the time you’re actually there, you can be highly productive. I’ve seen people burn the midnight oil quite often – it works fine for a little while, but they usually wind up exhausted, underproductive, and bitter about things, none of which are helpful for your career.

Giving the Workplace a Reality Check
Most workplaces are dysfunctional in some way or another. They often reward being a “yes man” over being a valuable employee, encourage people to work less and network more, and discourage honesty and candor. Most of those effects, if seen, are indications that something is amiss at work. Another great sign: a consistent desire by everyone to minimize their workload and pass the buck. In fact, it’s much better to try to fill your day with work (but not overfill it). That way, you’re constantly producing – and that production will get noticed. It’s fine to foster relationships, but without the production to back it up, it’s not that valuable.

Office Politics
For many of us, office politics are a fact of life, especially when most of the people involved have the same goals: success, raises, and promotion. There are only so many slots to go around and only so much money that can be given for raises, so we compete – and that creates office politics. Many Machiavellian folks will encourage you to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” but McCormack offers another solution: focus on and cultivate friendships. The more friends you have in the workplace, the more likely that absurd backstabbing tactics will fall flat on your face. I personally live by this and attempt to befriend everyone at work – not just the people at roughly my same level, but people both above me (management) and below me (janitors, administrative assistants) on the hierarchy. I’ll gladly chat with the janitor for a while or help the secretary change printer paper, because I’ve come to realize that these people are often information brokers at work and it’s very worthwhile to be on their good side.

Acquiring a Power Base
This section may as well be called “How to Play Well With Management,” because that’s the focus here. Most of the advice makes a great deal of sense, but perhaps the most valuable piece is to not let your intelligence become a hindrance. Sure, you might be the person in the room with all the answers and you also might often recognize that others are throwing up suboptimal ideas, but it never pays to be the “smartass.” Don’t surround yourself just with other smart people – for example, if you’re in IT, don’t just surround yourself with the IT folks. Never brag, and never overcomplicate anything – try to make things as simple as possible for others to understand. When you get feedback, even if you think it’s wrong, accept it – it’s often a hint that something you’re doing is wrong, even if it’s misdiagnosed.

Promotions, Demotions, and Other Career Hiccups
The basic advice here is that the promotion game often isn’t fair and that your best weapon for playing the game is to persevere. Don’t give up, and don’t panic. Instead, constantly look at yourself and figure out what you can be doing better. Nothing is bad enough that it can’t be recovered from, and even a demotion is not the end of the world. The key is to constantly seek improvement, especially when you see signs that promotions and rewards may be going to others.

Rules for Deal Makers
This information mostly applies to people who are in sales or in upper management – people who need to make deals with other people and other organizations. Given that, there are still some tips that anyone can use. For instance, in a normal meeting (one where no one is directly presenting), you should never do the majority of the talking – if you do that, it will make you look bad, even if you’re saying the right things. Instead, let others talk and use just your best points – quality over quantity earns respect.

When You Are In Charge
What about when you’re actually in charge of a situation, and it’s your call? This section offers a lot of specific advice on various situations, but I found the hiring advice to be the most compelling. In a nutshell, the key to good hiring is to really understand what you want. Let’s say you’re hiring a programmer. Is that person just going to be churning out simple code, or is that person going to be solving large problems? There’s a big difference there – two very different skillsets under the same job description. The first one should have programming language skills all over their resume, but the other one should be able to solve a thinking puzzle right in front of you. Know what you actually need before you hire.

Etiquette for the New Millennium
The book closes with a few general etiquette tips, the strongest of which I hinted at earlier: be nicer to your subordinates and tougher with your superiors. Why? People generally thrive on respect and kindness from people above them in rank and will often produce better if given that respect. At the same time, people don’t like brown-nosers – there’s no need to be rude to superiors, but simple respect goes a lot further than bootlicking ever will.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

Never Wrestle With A Pig is a great book to read if you’re in the early stages of your career, trying to find that right balance of time and work and networking. It offers a lot of solid career advice in digestible little pieces, perfect to stick on the bedstand and read one or two a night before closing your eyes. Even better, unlike many books that are filled with so many small pieces of advice, most of these are action-oriented – it’s pretty clear what action follows the advice and the rationale for that action.

That being said, none of this advice is world-shattering, either. It’s strong, sensible advice that includes pieces that will help with your career, but it’s not a “sea change” book like Getting Things Done or Never Eat Alone.

Check it out from the library, put it on your nightstand, and read a little piece at a time. Let those ideas simmer in your head, and see what comes out of them. What you’ll probably find is that the catalyst for jump-starting your career is already inside you, but it just took a little nudge for it to come out. Never Wrestle With A Pig can definitely be that nudge.

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  1. vh says:

    Guy’s never worked in academia, apparently: “McCormack offers another solution: focus on and cultivate friendships. The more friends you have in the workplace, the more likely that absurd backstabbing tactics will fall flat….”


    My best friend got hired by another of my good friends, who was director of an academic program in the department where I was teaching. She got the job partly on my recommendation. Said “best friend” systematically undermined the program so that she could engineer a salary three times what her new position would ordinarily earn. The long & short of it: the program ended up without support staff and lost the office space its director had fought like a cat to acquire — “best friend” engrossed the position and the office space to build her own little empire elsewhere in the College.

    Since she knew our mutual friend would relay tales of this Machiavellian project, the alleged “best friend” cut off all communication with me and forbade her husband to speak to me. She’s making a ton of money in what is actually a support position — as much as the program’s director, a tenured professor with twelve years’ teaching and administrative experience at the institution. Hope it was worth it.

    Personally, I’d advise the exact opposite: make friends outside the workplace and build a polite but healthy distance between yourself and coworkers. Never do business with friends!

  2. Sharon says:

    Yes, I have always believed that one should be FRIENDLY at work but have FRIENDS elsewhere.

  3. Mrs. Micah says:

    I’ve certainly found it happy and useful to be friendly with everyone at work. The key is not to get so friendly with some people that you get involved in their dislikes of someone else. It’s hard to make that balance sometimes.

  4. Rob Madrid says:

    I thought the “Speed” was very interesting. As you move up in the ranks the pressure to work long hours intensifies. Jeffrey Immelt of GE fame is a good example. He has worked consistently a 100 hours a week (that’s 7am to 9pm seven days a week and your still short 2 hours)Think of the pressure that puts underlings under. My wife got a new boss and the feedback from the team was all the same. They can’t work 200% all the time. Working long hours is for many a badge of honour and often what drives talented mothers out of the executive suite.

  5. jake says:

    I do agree that being FRIENDLY in the work place is a good thing, but of course going too far as in be their friend, might be too much.

    Case in point, I am always friendly with the Janitors and Cleaners and they have always given me supplies right away when I ask. But on the other end I have gotten to be friends with a few coworkers and lets just say I wished i was not. What I mean is that they start to ask me to do all sorts of things just because they think I’am their best friend.

    On another note, where you say that people should leave on time. I have gotten different opinions from other books and other people that I have talked to. All of these people have told me that you should arrive early and be the last one to leave, so-to-speak. I have seen the staying late philosophy receiving more attention in my own workplace. My boss has mention numerous times various coworkers who have stayed late to finish jobs and they mostly have own employees of the month. I think it is more perception than anything, those who stay late are seen as those who are dedicated and hard workers. It might be good for you to leave early, but in the eyes of others it might not be.

  6. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    In my experience, the person who always stays late is the person who gets work piled on them and is denied promotion because they’re too “valuable” in their current role.

  7. vh says:

    Dead on about not staying late.

    After darn near dying of overwork and concomitant stress — with years passing and not even a COLA increase, to say nothing of a real raise in pay — I came to the conclusion that you should put in only as many hours as you are paid for. Then stop. So, eventually, did several of my colleagues.

    We now provide as much work as the Great Desert University pays us for, and no more than that. You are not paid to work yourself to death!

  8. jblee says:

    I think it really depends upon the goal of the friendship. There are some relationships that provide morale support, give advices or just plainly for enjoyment. There are also others that are not just there for morale support, but for having the same vision or goal in your life. Just like a husband and wife will have conflicts if they have different values and goals, so do friends.

    As for the staying late at work, it depends upon the culture of the workplace. If you’re still not getting a raise or promotion, why not ask for it? If they still don’t give you that, then I think the wise decision is to ship out and find a better job.

  9. The whole culture of staying late to prove you are working is slowly but surely dying (I hope). Have you heard of the system Best Buy (and other companies) have in place in terms of hours and time off? They call it Results Oriented Environment and it sounds like heaven. Kind of gives the corporate setting an entrepreneurial slant.

  10. Lurker Carl says:

    Be cheerful and friendly with everyone but not best buddies. Just as you shouldn’t lend money to friends, you shouldn’t get tangled up in the personal lives of your co-workers. Ugly situations develop as promotions and office politics progress.

    Staying late? Insist on overtime pay or compensatory time off, gainful employment is not a volunteer position. A good supervisor will reward subordinates who work late to resolve emergencies, but working late as a rule means the office is understaffed or unqualified to perform the workload.

  11. LisaB says:

    Work-Life balance is a hot topic. Staying late *might* get you noticed, but at what personal cost?

    This may be a case where we think in extremes: staying late vs. leaving early. What about getting in on time and leaving on time? Productivity is more important, I think. If we learn to manage our time then we can get lots of work done in the 8 hours we’re hired for. Maybe less chatter with the ‘friends’ at work, hmm?

  12. Kat says:

    I agree with his point on leaving on time. I will stay late if I have a deadline, which is rare these days. I worked in two offices were you were expected not only to stay late, but to work weekends on a moments notice. Needless to say I didn’t stay long. One place was just to small to do the work based on how the boss wanted it done(the long ineffcent way) and the other place had too many green thumbs running around doing work they were qualified for. And neither place wanted to pay a penny more for the expected overtime.

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