Give more than you take

On the way home from the Best Conference Ever, I missed my connection in Chicago. I decided to have a beer in a dreary ORD bar and found myself sitting next to an obnoxious salesman. He wasn’t the worst guy in the world, but he used those fake sales guy techniques like saying the bartender’s name a bit too often, and he was beginning to get drunk. Tedious.

After my beer, I got up to leave, and as I gathered my bags, this guy was holding court with the people on the other side of me, getting more and more boisterous. Finally, in response to some minor slight, he playfully bellowed, “OH … so all of a sudden I’m an asshole?!?” and I couldn’t hold myself back – the words just slipped out, “Well, it wasn’t exactly all of a sudden!” Everyone around laughed. The guy grimaced and gave me the finger. I reached out to give him a high five (he accepted) and a manhug and explained that if he throws a lob like that, I’m obligated to hit it (for once I managed to say the line that usually only comes to me two days later). It all ended well.

In my own way, I’ve been that guy (“my name is Patrick Foley, and I am a recovering asshole”) … not that I’ve always been particularly boorish or flagrantly inconsiderate … but like 89% of the people in this world, I have spent most of my life thinking more about myself and what I’m going to get out of a given situation than thinking about others and what I can give.

Marriage trouble helped point this out to me. I’ve been married to my beautiful wife Paula for 19 years, and about 5 years ago, we started having some serious problems. I thought it was her. I found out it was me. Better yet, take blame out of the equation altogether: I love my wife deeply and want to keep my marriage and my family together … I can’t control my wife or any specific outcome, but I can control what I put into our relationship. I can give more.

This insight came to me while reading a wonderful book called Nonviolent Communication. It had me take stock of what I give and what I take, and in the stillness of my heart, I discovered I was a net taker. I discovered that I mistook the feeling of love for the act of giving love. I discovered that when I said “I love you” to my wife, I was really asking a question.

I don’t want to live like that. Where did I go wrong? I grew up Catholic, but I got more from reading Atlas Shrugged than the bible. I generally subscribe to the concept of “enlightened self interest” that Ayn Rand espouses, yet embodying selfishness was causing my world to fall apart and leaving me unhappy. I have to understand things, so I spent a couple of years analyzing my behavior and trying to reconcile a philosophy that made sense to me intellectually but that wouldn’t leave me feeling so shitty. I won’t go into all the details here (this is the short version!), but the preaching of Rob Bell at Mars Hill church was important to my journey, as was the writing of David Deida … along with the support and kindness of so many people.

I still believe in the merits of enlightened self-interest, but what I want more than anything else is to experience love (and I suspect most people share my desire). Before this crisis, the only way I knew how to experience love was to be loved. Now I know that it’s far more effective (and ultimately more rewarding) to give love. I can’t control someone else loving me. But I can choose to give love to others.

That’s a neat summary, but it’s not the sort of thing where I can do a face palm, yell "now I get it!" and be done with it. It’s more of a "one day at a time" thing. Giving love is actually quite hard, and I fail at it every single day. Lucky for me, I believe that nobody is irredeemable. I’ve made enough sincere improvements that my wife still chooses to be with me, and we spend more happy days together than I could ever ask for. My 7-year-old son, Gus, gets to wake his parents every day by snuggling between them. That’s a pretty huge reward. Every day we spend together as a whole family is a gift. One day at a time.

The same concepts apply to work. I do a podcast for startups with Bob Walsh, and he manages to book some really cool guests. One that had an enormous impact on me was Seth Godin. Reading Linchpin, I realized Seth was imploring people like me to approach work with the same passion and spirit that I learned to approach my marriage. I summed it up as "give more than you take."

The first example Seth talks about is Annie Leibovitz shooting for Rolling Stone. They paid her to take pictures of celebrities – a transaction. She fulfilled the obligations of the transaction but went well beyond it … she gave more. She gave her vision, her art, her unique gift for capturing people on film. She gave Rolling Stone and its readers a timeless gift.

This made me realize that the same thing holding me back at home had been holding me back in my career as well. I’ve been given so much – brains, talent, creativity, chutzpah (if I were tall, I’d be completely insufferable) – but I’ve never quite reached my potential with those gifts. Reading Seth’s book, I realized it was because I wasn’t actually sharing them. What good is my creativity if I don’t do the work required to allow people to consume that creativity? I walk around with operas in my head. Shame on me for not learning how to compose so that I can share them.

To a certain degree, it doesn’t matter what your gift is. I love the climax of Three Amigos (spoiler alert, but come on …) where our heroes ask the villagers what they can do to defeat the villains; what are they good at, what’s their gift? "We can sew!" they reply. The rest is history (they “outnumber” the villains with replica gunfighters that they sewed). It’s very silly, but I often think of that phrase when I’m trying to help with an oddball situation or figure out how someone else can help. We can sew! You never know, it just might work … all you can do is give your gift.

Why am I sharing this? Two years ago, this would have been therapeutic (like Robert De Niro’s character in The Mission dragging his penance around), but that’s not my motivation now. I guess I’m starting to believe that the greatest gift I can give is myself (and that the same holds true for you). I have an interesting story. I suspect others struggle with similar things. Maybe I can help. I work for Microsoft. We do big things, and we’re inherently relevant, but we’re sometimes “transactional.” Maybe I can help take my company beyond transactional, at least for my small corner of the world.

This was the subject of my lightning talk at this year’s business of software conference in Boston … give more than you take. Seth opened the conference, so I knew I would be “on topic,” and I figured many of the other speakers at the conference would also demonstrate the efficacy of giving more than you take with their real-world experiences. Joel Spolsky inspired a movement when he gave us his blog. Derek Sivers gave away his company to help more kids get exposed to music education, which was so important to him. Entrepreneurs like Neil Davidson, Patrick McKenzie, Jason Cohen, Rob Walling, Dharmesh Shah, Peldi Guilizzoni, and so many others … maybe they’re just smarter than the rest of us, but I think a key reason they’ve all succeeded is that they’ve focused more on providing value to their customers – focused more on what they GIVE to their customers – than imagining how their customers are going to bless them with a big pile of money.

scales

Giving more than you take doesn’t necessarily imply altruism. If you’re like most business owners, you want a big pile of money for your efforts, but if you focus on that pile of money, you’re not going to get it. If you want customers to part with their money, you need to focus on giving them something of value. What do your customers want? Quality? Great customer service? Solutions to their problems? Shiny things that delight them? None of these are trivial to deliver. All are worth working hard to give to your customers. If you provide significant value to your customers, there is a pretty good chance you’ll get rewarded for it, but you have to genuinely focus on providing that value, almost as if you were not concerned about the reward.

Almost. You can’t completely ignore the money side of the equation, especially at the beginning. If you create something “valuable” but nobody wants to pay for it, you’re not going to be in business for long. The lean startup movement has a wealth of guidance for figuring this out as quickly as possible so that you don’t go broke on an idea that’s not going to work. Read the works of Eric Ries, Rob Walling, Dharmesh Shah, Ash Maurya … there are so many great writers in this area; there’s no excuse not to learn from their experience and wisdom!

I’m basing these thoughts on my observations of other companies. I’ve never built a successful startup myself. I’ve worked on a few failures, and I learned a lot from those experiences. I wanted to build a consulting company (in retrospect, I wanted to build Atomic Object), but except for a few isolated cases, I never really grew past being a solid independent consultant.

Why? I didn’t give enough. I didn’t create enough value for my customers. I didn’t do the work. I didn’t share my gifts.

A company is a reflection of its founders. Balsamiq rocks because Peldi rocks. Hubspot is visionary because Dharmesh is visionary. Smart Bear blazed its own trail because Jason is a trailblazer. Your business is a reflection of you. If things aren’t working out the way you want, it might be because of you! That doesn’t suck as bad as it sounds … you have the ability to learn, to improve, to change … some things (like learning lean startup techniques) are just about erasing ignorance, but improvements you make in your personal life – in your character – might also improve your success in business. I think it’s all tied together. I can’t say for sure, because I don’t think I’ve realized my own potential yet, but I have made massive improvements to my character in the past few years (one day at a time), and I believe my career is beginning to show direction as a result. At least I like hanging out with myself more now. That’s something. And I’ve developed a genuine passion for helping software companies succeed. I am embracing that mission like a startup (a la Eric Ries), even though I have a six-digit employee number.

As for the spirit of “give more than you take” … I think some people do this naturally (my wife, for instance). My new friend and fellow lightning talker Portman Wills told me about being a mensch. Boy Scouts talk about leaving the world better than you found it. Joel Spolsky mentioned a Hebrew term for a similar idea that shaped his beliefs and actions. This is not a new concept, but it’s new and profound to me. I’m learning as I go. As I mentioned, I fail every day, because I do in fact want very much to be successful and praised and loved. I want those outcomes. Every day I have to remind myself to return my focus to the other side of the equation, to what I can give. And just to make it even more tricky, I’m pretty sure I have to give my real self – warts and all – not some pastel picture of myself (I can’t explain this – it’s just an instinct). One day at a time.

All this from a lightning talk? I really tried to give more than I took, but the conference was so amazing that I still think I got more out of it than I put into it. The more you give, the more the world gives back, I guess.

the actual lightning talks

A lightning talk is like a little piece of performance art. You have 15 slides that auto-advance every 30 seconds for a total of no more than 7.5 minutes. They pick a winner just to add more pressure. If you care about public speaking, it’s wonderful practice. The format requires a great deal of preparation and total confidence in your material. Humor and a certain edginess are valued almost as much as useful content.

There were five talks on each of the first two days of the conference. I was third on the first day. That meant I barely registered Joe Corkery’s talk, although I could tell it was good from the crowd reaction. Also, when they voted a couple of days later, we all got a couple of seconds to summarize our talk, and I remember Joe’s summary was particularly good. I can’t remember specifically what it was, because I had to think of something to say right after (and ended up producing gibberish).

Alyssa Dyer went next and talked about marketing and Kamikazes. I was too nervous for my upcoming talk to pay much attention, but I later commiserated with Alyssa about the whole experience.

alt

Then I was up. I put many hours of prep into the talk, even practicing it twice at my Toastmasters chapter (rewriting it after each time). I normally talk quite fast, so I thought I’d have to be careful to have enough content … I prepared "stretch" material for the end of each slide (last year’s winner, Mark Stephens, gave me that idea the night before). I included a lightweight joke on the first slide and was completely unprepared when people actually laughed! I never planned for that possibility, so right from the beginning my timing was thrown off. I had the opposite problem I normally have – I was struggling to fit all my words in. Luckily, part of my prep was writing out the summary point I wanted to make on each slide, so I dumped the canned words and instead just focused on talking up the point of each slide.

One of the brutal challenges of the format is that you become distracted by minor things. There was a 7.5 minute countdown timer, but my slides didn’t advance at :00 and :30 … they were 2 or 3 seconds off. I am NOT fast enough to figure out that math while panicking (an interesting detail to learn about myself). I had my fair share of "uhhhh" time. I could tell all the other LT’ers were aware of that little distraction as well. Someone should write some software for that.

I noticed my throat tighten up when I got personal. I also got the sense that people gave a shit about me. That was nice.

I finished with a cartwheel, simply because I can. It’s a competition … you gotta pull out all the stops, give ‘em all you got, and all those types of clichés.

Relief does not adequately describe how I felt completing this talk. I could barely watch the remaining two talks of the day, which is a shame, because I enjoyed meeting Ellen & Adrian and Brydon. You’ll have to get details of their talks from someone else. I was just too spent.

There was a moment at the start of the next day’s lightning talks when I actually thought briefly about the possibility of winning … but watching Portman Wills and Patrick McKenzie completely removed any worry about that. Their talks were both on another level in my opinion.

I think Portman was first … his talk was funny (I don’t want to spoil the video for anybody, but I bought his setup routine hook, line, and sinker), he gave information I wanted to know (about monetizing web apps), and he wrapped it up into a URL for later consumption. ON TOP OF ALL THAT, he somehow managed to completely nail the timing. I need to study his video when it comes out, because I think he used a simple technique I could emulate … whatever it was, his delivery was flawless. I knew I would have to vote for him. Bravo, Portman!

Then Patrick went, and he was amazing, too. He was so funny, I remember bursting out laughing at his hook (nope, not going to spoil it), and his message was equally insightful (why are you ignoring markets for women?). His overall delivery was incredible, but he was mortal like the rest of us at the timing challenge, so in the spirit of Toastmasters, I gave Portman my vote. Most people were not so uptight about the format as I was, however, so more people voted for Patrick, and he won the contest. Bravo, Patrick! Well deserved!

Winner!

At this point, I was pumped up from Portman’s and Patrick’s talks and so dialed into the conference in general that I was buzzing with enthusiasm (in a way that makes me kind of annoying to be around, unfortunately, but I was truly present). The next lightning talk was Corey Reid’s, and I watched it eagerly and intently. His talk was on the similarity between Kung Fu movies and software development. Another clever topic! (I’m just going to go ahead and spoil this one …) Corey roped me in when he used the example of a Kung Fu master who took out the perfect villain with a wet willy – a reminder to think outside the box. Things were going well, but then, on about the fifth or sixth slide, Corey experienced a dreaded technical glitch – his image didn’t show up. I believe the caption was “Bruce Lee gets kicked in the nuts,” so it was reasonably easy to imagine the missing picture, but Corey was clearly disappointed. We’ve all been there … I found myself tightening my own stomach muscles in “you can do it” solidarity. The next slide’s caption was “sometimes you get hit” … and yes, the image was missing again. At this point, I began to marvel at the relationship between what the slides were saying and what Corey was experiencing (some people thought it was staged!) … I was thinking that this was a pretty cool opportunity for Corey to show his true Kung Fu self.

The next slide’s title was “poise” and Corey was just about to call it quits, but the crowd would have nothing of it. I remember motioning to the title of the slide with a questioning look at Corey, thinking “dude … this is your moment!” (later, Corey told me he noticed my gesture … cool!). At this point, with the support of the crowd behind him, Corey steeled himself … he was going to finish his lightning talk no matter what. Everybody cheered as he continued (and the A/V person fixed the glitch a slide or two later). I’m getting goose bumps just writing about it. It was awesome … that was some serious Kung Fu, Corey – bravo!

Corey’s interest in Kung Fu reminded me of a friend from summer camp years ago who was similarly crazy about Mahler. I had just experienced my first Mahler – Symphony #1 with Benjamin Zander conducting at Interlochen – and was blown away by it. My orchestra- and cabin-mate explained that there were 9.5 more symphonies (counting Das Lied von der Erde and the unfinished 10th) and listened to each one with me over several weeks until I had heard them all. He helped make me a Mahler fan for life (new to Mahler? Start with the Adagietto from #5). Corey recently shared his list of essential Kung Fu movies with me, and I look forward to watching them all (none is available via Netflix streaming, unfortunately, so I haven’t even managed to watch one yet). I suspect he’s going to turn me into a Kung Fu fan for life. As my wife says, “when you find a goose bump, share it!” Thanks, Corey!

Down to the last two lightning talks. Mark Watts did a pretty good talk on how to succeed in life as a bum … but he didn’t use auto-advancing slides – so he didn’t get credit for the same "degree of difficulty" that the rest of us did. Sanjay Singhal didn’t go for that either, but his experiences with his company, Fusenet, were compelling enough to me that I would have been happy to listen to him for well more than 7.5 minutes. Maybe next year.

with Neil Davidson

That’s my lightning talk experience at BoS2010. A silly 7.5-minute presentation led to one of the best weeks of my working life. Thank you, Neil! I came up with an idea for another lightning talk on the way home, so I hope I make it back to share it for BoS2011. Maybe you should think of one, too! You can practice it at your local Toastmasters chapter. As I’ve mentioned many times, I’m a big fan. I’ve learned so much by practicing my speaking and also by creating and leading a geek-focused chapter. A credo of Toastmasters is "learn by doing" … I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s all volunteer, so taking a leadership position is a great way to practice giving more than you take.

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At a recent Toastmasters meeting, my friend Amanda revealed the key to being an effective networker. When most people meet someone new, they inherently think, “What can this person do for me?” … but if you want to be effective, you have to turn it around and ask, “What can I do for this person?” What is your gift, personally or professionally? What can you share – not in a quid pro quo way but in a genuinely giving spirit? The people who think this way are apparently demonstrably better at networking. I believe that if you live this way – if you give more than you take – you will be more successful at business and happier as well. I only have a “data point of one,” but it’s working out better for me so far.

Please remember that it’s my passion to help software companies succeed. If you think there is a way I can help you succeed (personally or professionally), please email me at Patrick.Foley@microsoft.com. I might not be able to help you directly, but I’ll give my best to help you find the right resource who can.

8 thoughts on “Give more than you take

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  3. Daniel Kuperman

    Great post, Patrick!

    I did a lightning talk back at BOS 2009 and can relate to the nervousness and stress… but it was one of the best experiences ever! Actually I think most companies should institute a rule that no powerpoint presentation should last more than 6 minutes.

    As for Atlas Shrugged, if you don’t know it yet they are coming out with a movie (http://www.atlasshruggedpart1.com). One of my favorite books too!

    Keep writing, you’re good at it.

    Reply
    1. Patrick Foley Post author

      Thanks, Daniel! If there is a video of your lightning talk, please post a link.

      No, i did not know about the movie. Wow. Hope it doesn’t suck …

      And thanks a lot for the support. Much appreciated – I need the encouragement!

      Reply
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