The ‘one thing’ City Slickers can teach us about our jobs

Still not sure what the "one thing" in City Slickers was. But in our jobs, it's: "Know what you don't know." (Image credit:


Remember the movie City Slickers? Billy Crystal and his friends head out on a guy’s trip to drive cattle and find themselves. Crystal befriends an old cowboy named Curly, played by Jack Palance. Curly tells him the secret to life is “one thing,” and he holds up his index finger. Crystal seems to get it, he and his friends bring the cattle in, he keeps one as a pet, he goes home a changed man. The end.

I like that movie a lot, but two things about it always bugged me. First, they never really said what that one thing Curly was talking about really was. It’s just implied that Crystal gets it and it makes him a happier person. Second, you can’t have a calf as a pet living in New York City, can you?

Forget the calf for a second. The “one thing” analogy is the one we’re looking for here. Only I’m going to tell you what I think the one thing is. No Hollywood guessing games.  For me, here it is:

Know what you don’t know.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Maybe so. But for many people, it becomes a stumbling block in their career they can’t get past. Here are three ways people usually get tripped up:

1. Ego. This is the most common and obvious obstacle to doing your job well. A person who knows what he/she doesn’t know looks for others to be part of the team who can fill those gaps. My first boss used to say she always looked to hire people who were smarter than her because it made the team stronger. If you try to do everything, pretty soon you find out it’s impossible and you end up doing nothing well. If you are a sports fan, you know the phrase a team is only as strong as it’s weakest link. Ego is a good way to become the weakest link.

2. Ignoring the customer. One thing you will never know in any job without listening is the customers’ experience. If you create product and campaigns in boardrooms without any input from the people buying those products, your sunk. There was one guy and one company that has been incredibly successful building products behind closed doors with little input from research or listening. And since you are not Steve Jobs and you do not work for Apple, I’d advise the alternate route.

3. Lack of practice. Think about the time athletes put into preparing for the next game. They study film, analyze the playbook and practice like crazy. Why don’t we do that in the business world? We’re too busy, right? Too many deadlines. Don’t want to fall behind. Look, every time you pass up a professional development opportunity or networking event where you could hear a different perspective, you fall behind. I don’t know any sports team that just plays the games and doesn’t practice. Yet that’s how many of us approach our jobs. Doesn’t make a ton of sense.

One of the other scenes I always remember from City Slickers is when Billy Crystal’s boss comes in and plays this really bad “Pizza Guys” ad. Then he asks Crystal how he could put that on the radio and tells him he has to ask for permission before selling any more ads.

No one wants to be that guy. That guy who hates his job and gets demoted. Especially since most of us probably can’t afford a week trip to drive cattle, meet a cowboy named Curly who helps us find ourselves and have a happy Hollywood ending. So if you take anything away from this post, think about what you don’t know in your job. And use it to your advantage.

Also, don’t try to bring home a calf as a pet in a big city. I’m betting your landlord would be pissed.


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keithjosephmiller 5 pts

The one thing is: a person has to clearly identify what is the #1 thing that is really the most important thing to you in life? 


It"s not a hard question, but it might be a hard answer.  It is every person's duty to themselves to answer it, and to make themselves use morality to find their one true answer.

MattLaCasse 142 pts

Absolutely agree with all three points; most of all your first one. Ego, to me, is the number one thing that people stumble over. They are incapable of admitting to themselves they DON'T know everything and are unwilling to accept any kind of criticism or take responsibility for when they screw something up. It SUCKS to know you screwed up and something failed because of you. I know. I've been there. However, you end up learning lessons you never would have if you pass the blame and you gain respect from co-workers and superiors because you are able to own up to your mistakes.

Great post Justin. Also, we didn't even have pet calves growing up in Iowa. Why? Because they make better hamburgers than pets.

JGoldsborough 247 pts moderator

MattLaCasse Don't worry, Matt. I will not tell anyone from PETA where you live when they read that last comment :).

Ego is a huge stumbling block. Most of us are not Steve Jobs and we need to listen to the customer, understand his/her experience and learn from our mistakes. And you hit on a great point. Admitting you are wrong often earns you respect, not jeers. People need to swallow their pride. It makes them better leaders.

My latest conversation: 7 ways to go the extra mile on your pitches

MattLaCasse 142 pts

JGoldsborough Yes. It's amazing how often just admitting you aren't perfect helps solve difficult situations. As far as reporting me to People for the Eating of Tasty Animals, I can't imagine they'll be too upset. ;)