Clear Yeses, Clear No’s

Adam Grant wrote the book on giving and taking. In it, he illustrated the power of generosity to create value for everyone – the person asking for help, and the person giving it.

Adam’s book showed that the most successful people in nearly every field are “givers:” their orientation is to create value for others, and they know how to strategically leverage their time and relationships to help those in their network.

The key word in that last sentence is “strategically.”  You don’t need to be a radical giver to cultivate this skill.

Rather, you can easily distinguish yourself by doing two things:

  1. Nudge your orientation and behavior towards more willingness to help than what feels comfortable
  2. Be relentless about saying what you’re going to do and doing it

The first point is the easy one, since it’s mostly about attitude and orientation. Because we often feel strapped for time and attention, we hold a zero-sum attitude towards responding to requests for help. Time spent on these requests, we think, detracts from time spent on “our real work.”  Our best approach, we decide, is to be frugal with the amount of time and effort we devote to others. This analysis is flawed: generously supporting others is value adding, not zero sum, as long as we learn to do it strategically.

This gets to the second point. As I’ve progressed in my career, my day-to-day orientation is increasingly outward: I spend the majority of my time either with customers, potential customers or investors, often forging new relationships (and often, in the last year, remotely). What continues to strike me is how easy is it is for people to distinguish themselves by clearly saying what they will, and won’t, do and then consistently doing what they said.

I suspect that folks are challenged by a combination of:

  • Not wanting to share that they don’t have decision-making authority
  • Wanting to please the person they’re talking to by saying “yes” to more than they can commit to
  • Getting caught up in the moment and over-committing

The end result of these largely well-intentioned missteps is a waterfall of unfilled promises. This, in turn, leads to time wasted on both sides sifting through a lot of chaff to get to a small bit of wheat.

Conversely, the person who clearly says, “Yes, I can do these two things, but I can’t do these other three,” and who then does those two things…? She distinguishes herself by her upfront clarity and the simple act of consistent follow through.

It turns out that saying what you will and won’t do, and then doing exactly what you said you’d do, is one of the easiest ways to stand out from the crowd.

 

1,000

This is my 1,000th post on this blog.

Now, I’m not a big believer in milestones. 1,000 isn’t different in any real way from 998 or 1,002, so why make a big deal of it?

On the other hand, one cannot be a purist about these things, and few would argue that there’s no difference between 1,000 and, say, 662.  And not quitting at 662 mattered.

To start, I hope that those 338 additional posts were useful to you. I hope that they’ve helped you to believe in yourself a bit more, to learn something you didn’t know, or to take a risk that you might not have had the courage to take, all so that you could serve others better.

Those 338 additional posts have also changed me. Most important, each time I think, “this might not work” I have 1,000 published blog posts that tell me to keep at it. I have proof of 1,000 times I didn’t give up, 1,000 times I thought something wasn’t good enough and I hit “publish” anyway, 1,000 times a blank page laughed at me and I laughed back.

Getting from there to here wasn’t a given. Yet for every time I wavered, for every doubt that cropped up, I saw someone raise their hand and share a post with a friend, or reach out to me to say, “this helped me, thank you,” or I glimpsed someone doing something with more bravery, care, and love. And, through those actions, the circle of gift-giving continued.

In trying to make sense of it all, I’m reminded of the fabulous meta-graduation speech given last week by Adam Grant, author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B, at Utah State University. In the speech, Adam analyzed other graduation speeches, pinpointed their themes and gaps, and gave his own insights that honored and expanded upon what he found.

His advice to graduates centers on the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, who believed that we acquire virtues by practicing them, but that virtues should not be lived at the extremes: we should be generous, but not so much that we end up having nothing left to give; we should be studious, but not so much that we miss out on building genuine relationships with others; we should be proud of our work, but not so much that we always place it above the work of others.

Adam ends his speech with a story of his early self-described failures as a public speaker, doing so to challenge the advice (given in more than half of all graduation speeches!) to “be true to yourself.” Adam wisely takes issue with this advice, arguing that we must learn to distinguish between being true to our authentic selves today and being true to the authentic self we might someday become.

In Adam’s words:

When I was in grad school, a friend asked me to give a guest lecture for her class. I was terrified of public speaking, but I wanted to be helpful, so I agreed. I figured it would be a good learning opportunity, so after the class I handed out feedback forms asking how I could improve. It was brutal. One student wrote that I was so nervous I was causing the whole class to physically shake in their seats.

My authentic self was not a fan of public speaking. But I started volunteering to give more guest lectures, knowing it was the only way to get better. I wasn’t being true to myself, I was being true to the self I wanted to become.

This blog has been an effort to be true to the self that I want to become. Like all projects of this type, it is a forever-unfinished process of unfolding, of evolving, of learning and adjusting and shifting and renewing of commitment.

My thanks go out to all of you for reading, sharing, challenging yourselves, and doing the important work that you do.

My promise, for the next thousand posts, is to keep on being a tree falling in a forest. What keeps me going is that you keep on showing up to hear it land.