Advice sometimes comes unsolicited (like now) and other times it comes after you’ve asked for it (if you’re lucky). Some advice has the power to change your life. Here’s some of what changed mine.
Never say no.
I went on my first big-deal, manufacturers-rep business trip in 1978, which had me all agog. We were attending a convention in Atlantic City, NJ and the first casino had just opened. I felt like one of the big kids.
I was having dinner with a bunch of people from the companies we represented, and sitting next to me was the president of one of those big companies. We were a few drinks into the dinner and I asked him what advice he would give a person my age. “Never say no,” he said without hesitating. “If you say no to your boss or to your customers, they’ll go find someone who will say yes.”
That seemed simple enough but I was young and quite dumb at the time so I asked my second question: “But what if I don’t know how to make yes happen?”
“Just say yes and then go find what you have to do to get it done.”
Position the sharing of knowledge.
“Is there anything else I should know?” I asked.
I remember again how he didn’t pause before answering. It was as if he had been waiting for someone to ask this. “Yes,” he said. “If you have knowledge that can help your career, and holding back that knowledge for a while won’t hurt your company, then keep it to yourself until a time arrives when sharing it will do the most good for you. Always position the sharing of knowledge. Don’t just give it away freely. It has value. Make the most of it.”
This was coming from the guy who was president of a company we represented. Gosh.
I’ve been thinking about that advice for 36 years. I’ve considered it so many times as I’ve watched people wrangle their careers. I’ve watched people take the ideas of others and run with them. I’ve listened to people who lost control of their good ideas complain about the raw deal they got, and how this or that stinker got ahead of them by using their ideas. I’ve seen people go to their graves carrying that anger with them.
It seems to me that if a company creates a culture where everyone is rewarded when the company prospers then the advice the company president gave me in Atlantic City wouldn’t be sound advice. But he was a professional executive, a guy who had sat in many leather chairs over the years. He had moved around a lot, and always toward a better position for himself.
I think he knew that internal competition is the fuel that feeds the engine of most companies. He was being honest, and holding back that knowledge from me wasn’t going to affect his career one way or the other, so that’s why he said what he said.
And I’ve been thinking about that for 36 years.
You’ll be 36 anyway.
I was 30 years old and in this business for a decade. We had two daughters and two more on the way. Marianne hadn’t had a paying job since our first daughter arrived and I was working like a sled dog. I thought that if I could go to college and get a degree in something (it turned out to be Sociology, which is the best degree there is for this business) then I would be able to do better for my family. But it would take me six years of nights, weekends, and summers to get that that degree, and it would be tough work since I still had to pull that sled during the day.
I mentioned this to the wife of a friend who was about 15 years older than I was at the time. “If I go back to school part-time, I won’t graduate until I’m thirty-six years old,” I whined.
“So?" she said, “In six years you’re going be thirty-six anyway, with or without a degree. Your choice.”
A remarkable woman named Alice Kessler-Harris was my professor in a history course I took during those six years. She had us read a series of books, divided into brilliant pairs. Each pair examined an historical event from totally opposite perspectives. For instance, consider two books about the career of Lyndon Johnson. One is wildly supportive of the former president; the other is brutally critical. Both books are scholarly and absolutely convincing and the reader comes away quite confused. Week after week, Professor Kessler-Harris explained how the victors write the history and that truth is as malleable as taffy. It all depends on one’s perspective. I got it.
My term paper was about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I spent weeks in the library, researching and documenting. I wrote logically and methodically, presenting the case from all sides. I turned it in, expecting an A.
The paper came back to me with no grade but there was a short note written in blood-red ink at the top margin. It read, “NO DICE! See me.”
“I made my case from all perspectives,” I told Professor Kessler-Harris. “What’s wrong?”
“You didn’t decide,” she said.
“About what?” I sputtered.
“About the truth,” she said.
“But truth is as malleable as taffy! That’s been the focus of this whole course. That’s what you taught us. I believed you. That’s what I’ve learned from reading all those books that come at issues from opposite poles.”
“But what is your truth, Dan?” she said. “What do you think? What have you decided after doing your research? A good citizen must be well-educated, but a good citizen much also decide. You haven’t.”
She gave me the weekend to rethink and rewrite. I worked like a maniac. I made decisions and I supported them well enough to get an A on the paper.
You stuck on something. Don’t know what to do?
Take a chance.
Two years after I graduated, I took a hard look at my job. I had been with the rep for 18 years. I liked it there and I was making a decent salary. I had company-paid insurance and a company car but I also had those four daughters and they were growing like corn. It dawned on me that in 2000 they would all be in college at the same time. I would have two freshmen, a sophomore and a senior (and that’s how it turned out). How was I to afford that?
I went to my boss with this dilemma and asked if there was any possibility that I might someday buy into the company so I could do right by my children, as he had done right by his children. He explained that I would always have a good job there but I could never own a piece of the rock because there was family involved. I asked him what he would do if he was me, and just like that company president in Atlantic City, he didn’t hesitate. “I’d quit,” he said.
“And do what?” I asked.
“That’s for you to decide,” he said. “But I can tell you this, Dan. Nothing is going to happen for you unless you’re willing to take a chance.”
I decided, said YES, and arranged a time to leave that was right for both the company and me (I gave six-months notice). We stayed friends.
Nothing happens for you unless you’re willing to take a chance.