'Giving a favour is giving a debt or fulfilling one. It is entirely transacionable. Helping someone with no expectation of reciprocity is priceless.'
Bare with me on this one, its a long walk to a big point. There is a story in the middle, I talk about personal failures and then tie it all back around to the title at the end. All supper fun stuff so just hang in there, I don't do TL:DR.
I sat down to coffee with someone today, not really knowing what to expect out of the interaction. Without going into the specifics of the events leading up to this meeting, its safe to say that I had some trepidation, reestablishing contact after how things had shaken out previously. In fact, if I'm brutally honest, my anxiety around the interaction was so intense that, had I not run into the person on chance the week before, I may not have had the courage to reach out to them at all. But if I suppose if I am to be fair, I may not have run into them if I hadn't put myself in an avoidable position to possibly do so in the first instance. I think I have a subconscious knight gallant in the back of my skull who nudges me into doing the right thing, even when I really don't want to. It usually goes well.
Silly analogies aside, you may be thinking that I'm referring to a romantic relationship or close friendship but honestly, this was a business one. Well, businessish. Le-me 'splain:
I'd done some work for their company in the past. It was a start up in the really early stages of business and I was doing animator things for them. It had gone well and we were playing around with ideas and considering the next few steps in our professional relationship. They wanted to bring me in as a more senior role with their next project and were willing to offer certain offsets to make it worth my while as they didn't have a lot of liquid capital at the time in order to pay a higher rate. This is one of those situations where past me really shouldn't have been making decisions for future me because at the time I was in a place where I didn't mind and I had the focus to get it done quickly so I could work on other projects to offset that liability. It was interesting work and I liked the idea of having a team, even though it was a pretty flat structure. "What could be the harm?" was the thought that echoed through time.
It was around that time that I was getting pretty burned out due to other stuff I had going on and so I went to visit someone I knew down at the coast as a kind of halfway holiday, for about a week. This coincided with a period of time where their new project, the one I was looking at taking a larger role in, spun up. It was pretty poor timing but I'd planned the trip before hand and everybody seemed to be on board, plus I really just needed a break.
The holiday was great fun and when I came back I was in a really good place. I was recharged and feeling good. This is where I made my first mistake, I didn't immediately get back, move in and take charge. Instead, I sent an email. I knew I was in a faux leadership role even if the structure was pretty flat and I should have mustered the troops and got it all going . I knew I should have done that but I was still in holiday mode and I didn't know where the others were at so I figured it wouldn't be so bad if I just waited for them to get back to me and let me know what the lay of the land was. I didn't get a response to that email. So I sent another to one of the other guys in charge of the project. No response. I waited some more. I figured that they were probably out too, it was between projects and I figured they were probably doing the same thing I did. I logged onto the team chat with an old password and had a look. There was some intermittent activity but not a lot, so they couldn't be just too busy to send an email. So I waited some more. I didn't go in, I could have but I didn't. I wanted to stretch my relaxation time to the Nth degree and they obviously didn't need the help right then. Sounds reasonable? But here's the kicker, After about a week and a half of incommunicado, I decided that they must be working on other projects and might have shelved the one that I was on. I moved off to other work, figuring they'd let me know if it was still going ahead. About a month later I got an email from one of the head guys asking if I'd made any progress on the art assets for their project.
I emailed back, saying that I had done some preliminary set up work (not much more than I had before I went away.) I probably made it out to be further along and more complicated than it was. (Ego, sit! I definitely did that, that is a thing that I did.) I'm great at taking responsibility after the fact but sometimes in the moment my conscience knight is sleeping at his post and wakes up a little groggy. So, yes, it was coming along...slow and steady and all that...heh...(It was not.)
Awesome, said the message, how are the other artists going? I was perfectly frank this time, I had no idea. They hadn't been in contact. Again, they were supposed to report in but I could have reached out or checked in with them anyway.(I had not.) The team chat was by that point a list of messages from this one guy, asking for a status check from everybody else. I realised then that the month long silence had been just the worst kind of passive noncomunication from all parties that could have been averted with some minor leadership shown by their... (Cough)...supervisor...(Cough, cough). Some of the artists had been doing the work but not checking in or asking for feedback while others had been doing nothing at all. It was quite frankly a complete cluster....fluz.
I went into damage control mode at that point but I was having just as much trouble getting them to communicate with me as ever and now because there was no apparent point to be doing so, no one had been going into the collective office space which they had rented. About a week later I got an email from the one guy I could get hold of, saying that they were doing some restructuring internally and it may lead to the company splitting apart. That's about when I got busy on other projects and didn't hear from them afterwards. So I was left wondering what had happened and if it was my fault, not even having the time (Or inclination) to follow it up. Compound that with the lack of resolution and the afor mentioned anxiety engine then multiply it by elapsed time and you get an open loop that quickly descended into a slow boiling guilt nugget of no return. I knew I'd played my part...but how big was that part?
Fast forward to today and I was still wondering that as we sat down to coffee. Granted, I'd heard some tid bits around and it seemed more nuanced then I had initially known but I still held some trepidation. As it turns out there were more systemic and cultural problems, both hardware and wetware, such as one of their key team moving away and there being different ideas of where the company was headed (Probably accounting for the initial 'cone of silence'). I still hold responsibility for my part in that project failing but it turns out the company was having other issues at the time and at the end of the day didn't close at all. (Phew)
That was actually the least of what we ended up talking about over coffee. We took a couple of hours and talked about lots of stuff; feedback on other ideas, kickstarters being devised, we talked about the state of industries, career stuff and more. When I sat down, I was afraid that I had lost the respect of someone I respected, instead it turns out that it was overdue time I had coffee with a friend.
The humility I weathered, red faced, over this happenstance is a lesson to be learned and I still have to process this particular failure, drawing the nuance from the realities of my own actions. But that's something that will take more than a day to parse and I believe will have a far wider effect if I'm able to apply those lessons to my life in the future.
What I learned today, however; is more of a momentary connection based upon a slower realisation and it is the following: Even in business, we are all human. We all make mistakes. We are all entitled to both the empathy of others and the consequences born from our actions in equal measure and none of us bare them permanently or completely. If you operate entirely transactionally, as if every person you encounter is a black box, automaton you are living for the reward of your actions. That can be either positive or negative, yet; either way it is still part of that ledger based, transactional system. Who you owe what and what they owe you. Walking around with that societal debt is just as heavy as meeting a financial obligation but more insidious because it is based upon your perceived wrongness which is limitless for anyone with a sense of shame. Every action you take from within that framework will either be fulfilling a debt or creating one.
If instead you treat everyone you meet as somebody you are close to, hell, someone you love then the relationship is both reciprocal and non-conditional. So but what, then, is the alternative? Someone who was close to me at the time this story was happening taught me that you don't have to wait until a birthday or other occasion to get someone a gift. If you see something you think that they'll like, just buy/make/do it and give it to them. A birthday gift is a requirement and a burden in some cases. A surprise gift, based upon someone thinking of you is a delight. The same goes for business and professional relationships. Maybe not gifts per-say but time, resources and acknowledgements. People say, you shouldn't work for free and that's not entirely true. In exactly the same way as you shouldn't overcharge, you shouldn't work for less than the estimated value of your labour. You can however, work for things other than money. No, not 'for exposure' as I hear you cry but for real, genuine relationships. Loops in your tapestry rather than entries in your ledger. Think of it like people in your life instead of notches on your bedpost. You really should only do things that are worth doing and only do them for the full justifiable price or free, without expectation. 'Exposure' is still a commodity, overpriced -sure- but transactable. Gifts are priceless.
For Example, say you go onto my website and there is a section that promises I 'll send you an awesome art print, for free, if you sign up to my mailing list to fill out the application, it solves a problem (You get awesome art now) but it creates a debt (I'm expecting return on that, you can unsubscribe immediately and keep consuming my free content but try getting away with not buying me a coffee the next time you see me...) That is marketing and in marketing we have "Cost per Acquisition or (CPA)s,' a literal monetary value applied to your attention on my product or service. How much money, time, resource I have to spend on you to leverage what I want from you and I want you to be cheap.
On the other hand, we're now best friends and I go out, without being asked, and tell ten people about your awesome kick-starter. You don't know, maybe someone mentions how they heard about it down the track but it'd be too late then. In that moment do you think; it was a nice thing for me to have done for you or do you feel guilty that you didn't do something similar for me? The way you live your life can give you an easy conscience and lots of friends or a social balance sheet a mile long with the sword of Damocles above your head every step. I think I know which I would pick given the choice going forward. At the end of the day, it's either no strings attached or all strings attached. There is no 'in the middle.'
What do you think? Do you carry around an unbalanced ledger? Do you have people that support you when you falter without fearing the cost? Let me know in the comments.
P.s. The seed for the idea of social transactionable capital came from listening to the seanwes podcast and Sean's ideas around doing client work for "Full Price or Free." Its an interesting listen if you like thinking about this sort of thing. Feeding into that idea were some of the ideas Gary Vaynerchuck has been talking about on his Daily Vee Youtube series surrounding what is actually a gift and what is a transaction. Gary is exploding right now so if you're not taking a look at his content, which is everywhere, you should be.
That's all I have for now.