Benevolence and the Three Pauls
You’ll win by doing good.
You won't win by being in it for yourself.
You won't win by searching only for money.
You won't win by endlessly seizing power.
You won't win by paying attention only to yourself.
You’ll win by doing good. Being benevolent.
Doing something insanely great is much more difficult than just making money. Anyone can make money because the path is so simple. Show up to work, do your job well, and money will follow. The unethical path is pretty clear, too: strive for promotions and focus on climbing the ladder. Be a little ruthless, throw somebody under the bus every once and a while, and...voila! You're doing well, even if you got there the wrong way.
Nobody is foreign to the idea of cheating your way into more money, but we know it isn't right. Most of us don't do it because money isn't that important. We wouldn't hurt others in the process to get it. Those who do have a perverted view of money as a whole.
You could compare it to a drug addict. They don't see the effects their actions have on others or even themselves. They're only looking for a way to maximize the next high—maximize the next payday.
That's what we do when we take greedy and evil action to make more money. Luckily, most people aren't this greedy. Most of us don't like to cheat and steal for financial returns.
I would argue that our reluctance to cheat and steal for money comes from one fact. We all know, at least intellectually, that money doesn't make you successful. It surely doesn't make you good in the sense of having done anything beneficial for others. Yes, money might make you the wealthiest man in the cemetery. The path you take to get there might also put you in the cemetery. That's no way to go out.
Maybe this is optimistic to believe, but you don't show up to work every day with the sole purpose of making money. You enjoy the job. You enjoy the lifestyle it provides. It might even make you feel better to show up. That's why you continue to show up. Good!
One step further, you might show up because you're benevolent. You're the opposite of the greedy, self-interested moguls you see portrayed on television. You care for the people you serve. You’d be letting someone down if you didn’t show up.
That may or may not be true for you.
I want it to be true before you finish reading this.
When I started thinking about benevolence for this piece, I immediately gravitated to these three examples. Later on, I realized that they're all named Paul. Hence, I call this piece, "Benevolence and the Three Pauls."
(Steven) Paul Jobs
Of all the people that I could mention in a talk about benevolence...Steve Jobs? Yes, the man who has been vilified time and time again for his treatment of employees. The man who refused to acknowledge the birth of his first daughter for a decade. He implied that the mother of his (first) daughter was a whore, parked in accessible parking spaces (without permission), and scolded waiters for no reason.
Steve Jobs wasn't benevolent at all, but he was crazy successful. Well, at least in one category—his products. His products saw extraordinary success, though his personal life was not so.
When you separate Jobs's life into two distinct camps, a pattern emerges. Let's divide them into his "product development" life and "everything else" life.
(Judging from the way he lived his life, that's how Jobs would have categorized it, too.)
In his product development life:
He cared more about the customer than anyone. The end user of his products was the boss.
He made decisions based on what would be best for the customer. (Even when engineers and technologists disagreed with him.)
Result: He made revolutionary products that we all love and use.
In everything else:
He didn't care about the feelings of people. Whether it was his kid, an employee, or a waiter at a restaurant.
He made decisions based only on his interests. Again, he didn't care if his interests conflicted with the interests of others.
Result: He left a trail of tears and an unfortunate legacy in his personal life. For many, this overshadows his accomplishments as an innovator.
What made him successful in creating products was his care for the customer. That's not to say that he was kind to his product development team or his designers. He wasn't kind to them, either. Steve Jobs was benevolent, however, towards the end user. It was his care for the end user that made him disparage anybody he thought would hinder the product for you and me.
That success immediately disappears when he was self-interested. There are countless stories about him scolding a waiter or insulting someone needlessly. What was in it for them? Did he stop to ask how this was helping the other person?
Of course not. If Jobs would've paid as much attention to them as he did his customers, this would be a different conversation.
Be benevolent by focusing on the customer.
In a live Q&A at WWDC in 1997, Steve Jobs was asked an unexpected and insulting question by an audience member. The question had to do with Java, OpenDoc, and Apple's treatment of those two. I know nothing about those things, and the questioner didn't think Steve Jobs did, either.
(The question was very hostile. It ended with: "And when you're finished with [the question]...tell us what you personally have been doing for the last seven years.")
It was a question from someone who cared more about technology than the customer. They were more worried about a technology standard that, to the end user, has no meaning. On the other end of this question was Steve Jobs, who cared solely about the customer in matters like this. He answered:
“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology. I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?’...I think that’s the right path to take.”
Jobs didn't care about the technology they had sitting in some lab if it didn't mean anything for the customer. The entire purpose of developing a product is to make something people want.
A couple of years later, Steve was being grilled on more issues of technology when Apple refused to support Flash for iPhone. Technical information aside, there was a feature missing on iPhone that Apple had no intentions of adding. Technologists didn't like this, not because it was terrible for the consumer, but because it was a standard technology.
For Steve, that didn't matter. He knew that Flash would kill the iPhone's battery and run slow. He didn't want to give the customer that experience, no matter how cool the technology was. If people want a smartphone with this technology, they'll buy our competitor's over ours. If they do, then we'll find a way to build the thing they want.
It's as simple as being benevolent—how do I make the best thing for our consumer? If you're asking that question first, then you will do great things for the customer. They're the person on the other end of your decisions, not the critics.
Benevolence brings benevolence (and business)
In an article by Paul Jarvis about how he would rebuild his web business from scratch, Paul gave advice that you might not expect from a modern marketer.
(For context: Paul Jarvis started his business as a web designer and now helps people to build better—not bigger—businesses through online courses and articles. He’s awesome.)
“I’d start by listening to people who were looking to hire web designers or who had already hired web designers...
And then I’d offer to help. Did they have questions? Did they want a second set of eyes to look at anything? Did they want a second opinion? Was there anything they wanted to know about the industry? And I would help them without offering my own services or charging them... a free consult.”
The result of this is two-fold:
For one, by helping others, others also want to help you. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the main one is the principle of reciprocation.
An example will illustrate best:
The Hare Krishnas struggled for a bit to figure out how to get more donations from strangers. At one point, they stumbled upon a fantastic principle: reciprocation. They would first approach people with flowers and give the flowers as gifts. They used too get immediately denied because they directly asked for a donation. Here, they start by gifting their mark with something. A gift, they say, with no strings attached.
Of course, they follow up with a request to donate to their society. This principle of reciprocation is powerful, and people pulled out their wallets to give..
The flower worked. The Krishnas used this technique to get staggering amounts of money in donations. All of a sudden, people seemed willing to donate. Why was this?
Once the mark accepts the gift, the instinct to return the favor kicks in and makes it difficult not to reciprocate. It's what Robert Cialdini terms a "click, whir..." response. It's almost entirely automatic when receiving a gift. We want and like to reciprocate. When we're asked to reciprocate, we do it, often whether we like it or not.
It's like your brain has a checkbook of all the things you have given and received. With every person, your mind is keeping track. Has this person been unyielding in their generosity? Have you given more to them than they’ve given to you? When there as an imbalance, your brain tells you to fix it. If they've given more to you than you've given to them, you want to correct that imbalance by reciprocating.
All this to say, if you decide to make your life about helping others, they will want to help you in return. That isn't always the case, but it's a good rule of thumb.
A note on artifice
You can't game the system of reciprocation. If you recognize the flower as a fake gift, you would either refuse to accept the gift or refuse to reciprocate. Either way, the ploy will fail, because it wasn't a real gift. It was a way to get you to comply.
When you are trying to deceive with "tricks" like reciprocation, people might not catch on for a while. In fact, they might never catch on. You could extract millions and millions of dollars from the gullible and vulnerable.
But that wouldn't be very benevolent. In fact, it would be pretty evil. That’ll weigh on you. Benevolence is supposed to make you feel good. We'll take a look at that soon.
Learn to help
The second result of helping others as Jarvis suggests is that you learn how to help them best. This is the core of any good business venture. You start by identifying a problem and then solving it. How can you solve anyone's problems if you don't know their struggles?
Focus on helping someone, and it will become apparent to you where your help is needed and where it isn't. Only once you're attuned to problems can you solve them. Not a moment before.
Mike Michalowicz' wrote an excellent book building on this concept called The Pumpkin Plan. Michalowicz calls for business owners to focus on their top two or three clients and "fire" the rest. There are many reasons that this is a great idea, and one of those has to do with benevolence.
When you fire your worst clients, you have more time to serve your best clients. Now you have time to pay attention to them exclusively. You give them VIP treatment. It's like they're your only client.
As you develop the relationship, you can be direct and ask them what they like and don't like about your company. You ask them what they'd like to see and how you could improve. You focus on making them happy. You build your service around their industry-specific problems. They love you for it.
Since you're able to help them so well, you start getting more referrals. The client has never experienced anything like this because so few businesses are as focused on benevolence as you are. Of course, you never tell them that they're VIPs. You let them think that this is normal for all clients. (It will be.)
You also develop a much clearer product roadmap. You gain direction, because you’re getting feedback from the few clients who matter most. It guides your entire organization.
Why weren't you doing this before?
The entrepreneur who can't fire a bad client and focus on the good ones is too worried about themselves. He'll hang on to every little client he can get his hands on because it'll make money. It's pretty greedy to think of clients only as a way to make payroll. Your business begins to suffer because you're keeping bad clients that waste your time, money, and energy. All because of the small paycheck they give you at the end of the month.
Get back to basics and focus on helping people again.
Benevolence increases morale
When you're benevolent, you do things for others, and it feels horrible to let people down. When you know there's a person on the other end of your decisions, you make better decisions because of it.
Paul Graham, the founder of YCombinator, gave a fantastic talk at Startup School in 2008. He spoke about benevolence as applied to startups. One of the most important points he made in his speech was on morale. Being benevolent—having a good cause—increases enthusiasm and keeps everyone on the ship.
Running a startup is hard. If you're lucky, you'll face a moment of truth where your startup is on the verge of death. Yes, you heard that correctly—if you're lucky. If you're not lucky, there will be multiple times where the business is on the verge of death. You'll be close to burning out, and you'll want to drop everything and give up. That's tough.
When you start by serving people with your product, those times become easier. You have a user-base that relies on your company. How could you let them down? You know there's someone on the other end of your decision, and if you don't show up today, they're not served.
It's a lot like having a family. You know that you have to make money and feed your kids, so you'll work that much harder to make sure you don't fail them.
When your startup has a benevolent goal, you wake up with purpose. People are relying on your platform to work today. There will be more of these people tomorrow. You have a big ol' family that you have to take care of. Customers turn into family members.
You'll hear lots of companies use the term "family" now. They want to focus on making you as a client or customer feel part of their organization. It's a great goal and beautiful language to use, but most of the time, it stops there. The benevolence ends with words.
Much rarer are the companies who, through their actions, show you they care. Their customer support staff is always happy and gracious—even when you aren't. Every email you get feels like someone made sure it would be useful for you—and they did.
On the other end of your correspondence with great companies like these, there’s an employee who thinks about you as a customer and not a number. Again, you'll hear plenty of big companies trumpet lines from the rooftops about how they treat you like more than a number. That's only true when the entire company's vision is to do good.
In a startup, if you only have the goal of making a lucrative exit as soon as possible, that's all you'll do. (If anything at all.)
You won't worry about the user as much as you should. This is especially so when the going gets tough—, and the money seems farther away than ever. You'll quit. You'll quit because you're self-interested and sane. If your goal were to get rich, no sane person would put themselves through this. They would take an easier route than trying to start and run a company.
In a sales organization, if all you care about is meeting sales numbers, that's all you'll do. (If that.)
You won't worry about the customer as much as you should. When a deal is shaky, you'll give up quicker. Why not chase volume and pay less attention to how you treat people?
This isn't to say that you should create a nonprofit or stop trying to make money. In fact, you should be trying to make money, but only in light of your efforts to reach your broader vision. If you want to make money in the long-term, you'll be benevolent. It’ll be the only thing to keep you going even when the money is distant. Otherwise, you’d never reach the end goal.
There are people on the other end of your decisions.
Frank Blake, a former CEO of Home Depot, told a story about a store they were building that would be his son's Home Depot location. At the time, Home Depot was opening around 200 stores per year. His son also worked for the company and would be leading this brand new location in Colorado Springs.
Frank decided to make a rare visit to the actual construction site to see the progress of the building. As he goes out to check on it, he can't even find the store. It's not in the right location. The disappointment gets worse. He walks the site and notices there are beams where there shouldn't be beams—even the building itself isn't going right.
At that moment, Frank realized something. This was his job. He was treating the new store like another number on a checklist. He didn't seem to understand that those numbers represent something real. He gave himself good advice:
“…pretend that there are people at the end of these decisions and focus on that, and don’t check a number box.”
I'll add to that, "...because there are people at the other end of your decisions."
In Daniel Pink's book on motivation called Drive, he cites an experiment done at a call center. The employees in this center were telemarketing for a university fundraising operation. The psychologist leading the investigation (Adam Grant) split the employees into three groups.
The first group was given brief stories from former employees. They talked about the benefits they experienced personally from working that particular job. (Money, career development, etc.)
The second group was given stories as well, but from people who had been helped by the work done in the call center. They were students who received scholarships and improved their lives because of the fundraising.
The third group was a control group and heard no stories, self-interested or benevolent.
So, the first group is conditioned to be self-interested. The second group is made aware of the benevolent nature of their work. The third group shows up to work as usual.
You won't be surprised to hear that the second group's results more than doubled that of the first group. (The self-interested group showed no improvement over the control group.)
Group two understood why their work mattered more than the others and performed better because of it. Their purpose had to do with benevolence—helping others. That's a natural purpose to feel right about. The stories they read made this much more clear and, thus, increased their performance.
Great leaders understand the power of benevolent stories in customer service. There’s a well-known resort & casino that instituted a practice among all the staff to share stories of exceptional customer service. These aren't random "kudos" that happen every week for someone at the office. These are extraordinary stories of someone going truly above and beyond.
One such story was of a family that had come to a hotel after driving 5 hours from their California home. They were there for a short time before they realized they had left vital medications at their home hours away. The weekend trip would be completely ruined if they had to spend an extra ten hours to get back and forth to their home to get the medication.
An employee at the hotel thought he could solve the problem. He first asked the couple where they lived in California. He recognized the town and said that he had friends there. He called a friend that lived in the area and asked the couple to tell their housekeeper that he would be stopping by to get their medications.
The employee then drove to meet his friend halfway and bring back the medications for the couple. All of this effort was expended by hotel employees to make sure this couple's trip wasn't ruined.
At the hotel, stories like these are plastered on the walls of their break rooms and other places for every employee to see daily. The idea is to celebrate the things you want to get. Here, they celebrate customer service that goes above and beyond. It's not surprising that there are many more stories where that came from.
“Whatever it is you want, celebrate and highlight it and tell stories about it.” - Frank Blake
There's another, side-lesson to be learned here: Being benevolent towards people with money is helpful. In a business sense, it's much better to be charitable to the California couple with a housekeeper and can afford to stay at a luxury resort than it is to be benevolent towards someone who can't afford what you have to offer.
However, that's no excuse to disparage people who lack money or influence. True benevolence doesn't care who you are or what you do; it cares that you are treated right. Benevolence is about doing the right thing. It just so happens that when you do the right thing for people with lots of money, there may be financial implications. That's not a bad thing, but don't focus on it. If you're focused on being benevolent for some reward, that will show and it won't be perceived as benevolence, but deception.
There's also the possibility that the people you're benevolent to now may soon have plenty of money and influence to pay you back. LeBron James' manager did not become his manager after LeBron made it. His manager has been with him since day one. Long before any championships or MVP awards. Now, that man shares a massive portion of LeBron's wealth simply by working for him and being his manager. It all stemmed from benevolence, even when no return was immediately apparent.
Perhaps he was a reasonable investor and saw that LeBron was going to be a player with one-of-a-kind abilities. Maybe he has an eye for basketball talent like no other, and he saw the potential from a mile away. That's probably part of the story.
The other part of the story, however, is that he had a longer-term view than his (the manager's) immediate success. Even if he did recognize that LeBron would one day come to be a basketball legend (not better than Michael, don't get me wrong), he also knew that it wouldn't happen overnight. It seems like common sense that if you see a massive payday two years in the future, you'll stay around until the payday. But how many times have we quit right before the big payoff came? We don't know, because we quit before we could ever find out!
How many athletes could have pushed for an extra step or three and won a big race? The problem is that in the short term, it's difficult. It's discouraging. It might feel like it's all for nothing.
The best way to deal with that is to realize that it is all for nothing. You're doing what you do for no other reason than that you know it is right. Yes, in a practical sense, you've got to make your money and stay afloat, but benevolence isn't about big returns. It's about doing the right thing.
You've got to have faith in that.
A test of benevolence
Who have you helped today?
In the past seven days?
In the past month?
To make these questions a bit tougher, who have you helped intentionally? You could create a narrative to turn something questionable you did into something positive. It might even be true, but that doesn't mean you did it with good intentions from the outset. (It might even signal the opposite.)
If you're having trouble with these questions, why?
Becoming benevolent as an individual is different than institutionalizing benevolence in a company. If you lead an organization, first you have to hire ethical people. Then, you have to put them in an environment where they're not incentivized to be self-interested. I'm not sure that you can teach benevolence, but you can try to instill it—or, bring it out—in your people. Create a safe work environment, and they'll do good things for you and the people around them.
As an individual, you don't have to wait until you show up to work to be benevolent. If you wait until you show up to work to invent an air of niceness, that's a bad sign.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a woman who is about to enter her forties and is disappointed with her current job. She feels her strengths are wholly ignored and under-appreciated. She's generally unhappy with her career as it stands. She wants change, and I don't blame her—she should be in a different position doing different things.
However, the dissatisfaction with her workplace went more in-depth than it appeared at first.
After a long conversation, it became clear to me what the problem was. She was not showing up to work to help anybody but herself. Even in her current position, she wasn't going out of her way to do that position in a benevolent way. It wasn't that her actions were evil, but she hadn't helped anyone or even thought about it.
This isn't her fault.
The companies we work for are influential environments. If nobody is celebrating benevolence in the workplace, it feels like there's less of it. And there is. Through more questioning about company culture, I found out that the company "felt different than it used to."
Previously, there was a focus on ethical values. An emphasis on benevolence. Family. Care. As the organization grew, nobody made an effort to champion these causes anymore. That's the responsibility of the leaders of that company.
However, she can't fix that, and neither can I. Some of you might work in not-so-benevolent environments sometimes, and you've got to make an effort personally to bring these values back to the forefront.
I asked who her favorite person to work with was. She answered she enjoyed working with the woman she sat across from in the office because of how good of a person she seemed to be.
I told her,
"Tell her how awesome she is. Don't just tell her, show her. Wake up a half-hour earlier for work tomorrow and buy her flowers and a card, because why not? You won't get anything in return, and that's not why you'll do it. There should be no such expectation. This is you showing genuine appreciation in a way that you haven't in a long time.
It will feel wonderful."
It's not a wild conjecture on my part that it will make her feel good. When you do good things for other people, a hormone called oxytocin is released.
Oxytocin is related to helping behavior. Oxytocin helps cells repair themselves, store nutrients and grow.
Translation: Being benevolent releases oxytocin, and that's a good thing for your mind and body.
Your actionable item
Your actionable item is simple: help somebody. Out of pure benevolence. That might come in the form of:
Thinking of their interests before your own (Jobs)
Helping them by offering your advice or expertise (Jarvis)
Re-realizing why you started doing what you do (Graham)
Telling someone you appreciate them
Deciding while thinking about the person on the other end
These are all ways to make benevolence one of your core values. It's at the core of all of us as humans to do good things. We survived for thousands of years based solely on our ability to help each other survive. There were no lone wolves in our packs. We developed an instinct to reciprocate for others because it works.
It builds trust. It makes you feel good. It makes other people more willing to help you. It keeps you going when times are tough.
Benevolence is your compass.