Subway Portrait

“Excuse me, m’am, may I draw your picture?” he says, white pad on his lap, fingers stained with charcoal.

“Pardon me?” says the woman sitting across from him on the subway, looking confused and a bit taken aback.

“Your picture…is it alright with you if I draw your picture?” he reiterates.

“Uh…sure.”

And then, as his hands glide across the page, his patter begins, not interrupting the drawing, which has to be complete in the two minutes before the last stop.

“This is what I do,” he says, “I draw pictures of people. Portraits. Been doing this for years, I’ve drawn 800 portraits of New Yorkers so far.”

She takes the bait: “All in one day?” she asks. Her guard is dropping just a little bit.

“No m’am, that would be impossible. Anyone who tells you they’ve drawn 800 portraits in one day, they’re lying to you. No, I’ve drawn 800 portraits since I started, and that’s why I can draw them so fast, because I’ve done it so many times. I’m an artist, you see, an artist. Don’t you like how that looks?” (he holds up the already – amazingly – half-finished sketch, which has gone from a few lines to, instantly, a pair of eyes, an outline of a mouth, a bit of expression, in about one minute).

She smiles, recognizing her likeness, the shape of her face, the crinkles around the outside of her almond-shaped eyes.

“See I knew that would make you smile! Now I can get that smile in the picture… Now I’m gonna give this portrait to you, that’s what I do, I’m gonna give it to you either way….Lots of people like these portraits, they hang them up, in their offices usually…And a lot of them pay me for them, even though I give them to ‘em either way, a lot of people pay me $10, or sometimes even $20…

(almost to himself) “Yeah, I try to get 10 people in a day to pay me $10 each, that’s what I try to do. Last guy I did this for he handed me a $10 bill, yes he did. And don’t tell me I’m not an artist, see? Artists make people smile and that’s what I’m doing here, I’m making something that will make people smile.”

Just a few more seconds for the finishing touches, and:

“So here you go, beautiful, here’s your portrait I hope you like it.” he says, handing it to her.

And she does.

And she pays $10.

 

In review: to create a situation where someone gives or buys, you must first create joy, a story, connection, a thing of beauty.

And in situations, like philanthropy, or busking, where it’s not clear what something is worth, it’s your job to tell them, to frame it for them, to say: this is what people who are happy and feeling a sense of connection in this moment typically pay. This is what the last 10 people did.

“I’m going to give this to you either way, but you gotta know that everyone else before you who liked their portrait gave $10 or $20 and hung the portrait in their office.”

Sure, she could decide not to pay, but if she does pay, you can bet it’s not going to be $1, which is what most people on the subway get when they ask for money.

His starting point was a $1 portrait. The story about the portrait, and the story about what people who like portraits pay, that’s what’s worth the other $9.

The Garlic Mashed Potatoes

For a period of about five years, whenever we’d go out to a restaurant either my wife or I would order the dish with the garlic mashed potatoes. They were so yummy and creamy and decadent, with heaps more butter and garlic than we’d ever dare cook in at home. It pretty much didn’t matter what the main dish was.

Once garlic mashed potatoes began appearing on every menu, the allure went away. But the power of the surprise, the power of the side dish, hasn’t. As in, I just ate a take-out bowl of lentil chili, and at the bottom of the bag I discovered a completely unexpected corn muffin, which was really good. Not great enough, on its own, to make me go back next week nor (better still) so good that it’s really worth talking about, but still pretty darn good and worth remembering.

The thing about the garlic mashed potatoes or the corn bread is that they allow you, for once, to define the terms of the game. You rarely get to set expectations  – expectations mostly arrive in force when your customers show up – meaning you’re usually running as fast as you can to meet/not meet:surpass those expectations.  But with a side dish, with an unexpected surprise, you have the luxury of competing in a category that your customer didn’t even expect. It’s like applying for a job that hasn’t been posted yet: yes, you still have to be amazing, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to blow people away when they’re not busy systematically comparing you to the other 500 people whose names came in over the transom.

The garlic mashed potatoes is the best handwritten note your customer got all week (they haven’t received any), the phone call when everyone is busy filling their inbox. It’s showing up in person when everyone else is calling; giving a presentation with no slides when everyone who came before you bored them with a thousand bullet points; doing something wildly generous when you really, truly, have nothing to gain. It’s not being different for difference’s sake – garlic mashed potatoes are still dinner, after all – it’s doing something fabulous and unexpected that’s relevant to the core story you’re telling them.

Go ahead, why don’t you whip up a hot, piping batch of garlic mashed potatoes?

Gifts – The Icarus Deception

The other day I received a massive, 40 pound box full of goodies from Seth Godin.

I was one of the 4,242 people who happily jumped in to support Seth’s Kickstarter project to fund his next book, The Icarus Deception.

Of course, for $111 I didn’t just get the book.  And I didn’t just get 8 copies of the hardcover book (to give away), which itself would have been a steal.  Those 8 books took up a tiny corner of this massive box, which also contained two copies of V is for Vulnerable, a alphabet book for grown-ups, with wild, wacky, beautiful illustrations by Hugh MacLeod, about leaning in, creating art, and having the courage to ship; a delicate, hand-made mug by Lori Koop, with a hand-written note from Lori that reads “Seth asked me to make this for you….this is my art. –Lori;”  an LP (yes, as in a record) whose contents I have yet to discover….I just need to get my hands on a record player; and a totally massive, 11 x 16 inch 800+ page full-color book that, impishly, has a bunch of rubber ducklings on the front cover.  It is a collection of Seth’s best online writing from 2006 to 2012, and it’s literally the heaviest book I’ve ever laid my hands on.

Icarus Kickstarter goodies

My experience of this whole thing is joy.  I can see Seth smiling as I smile; I’m wowed by the beauty and the irreverence of each and every piece, as well as the chance that each of them gives someone else – not just Seth – to shine.   And the whole undertaking is, literally, delightful – my high expectations are blown out of the water; even with inklings of what might have been in the box I was surprised time and again.

It really is possible to delight our customers, to thank our greatest fans, to make them feel special not out of a sense of obligation but because you want to and you can.

And going back to the massive, 800+ page book, I also think back to my many experiences of sharing Seth’s advice with others – whether on publishing or on courage or on pushing through the resistance.  Yes, tons of people get it and live it.  And then there are the folks who  say something like, “Well yeah, that’s interesting and that probably works for Seth because he’s Seth.”

When I take this book, which physically holds just a small portion of what Seth has produced in the last six years, the only thing I can think is: he’s Seth because he produced all of this.  He’s Seth because any bit of advice he’s giving is something he’s already been doing for years; he’s Seth because he ships; he’s Seth because he’s not afraid to take risk, to show up, to fail, to shine, or even to look a little silly.

Finally, as homage to all of this (especially the silly part) here’s a little video that gives you a sense of the mega-tome.  Of course it’s not just heavy, it’s also beautiful and it will transform the conversations you have around your coffee table.  And it will remind you not of what Seth can do, but of what you can do if you show up fully every day.

Lifetime guarantee

18 months ago I got a fancy work bag as a gift.  Within a year, the little ring holding the strap to the bag broke; a few months later the second one broke.

I finally made my way to their store in Soho in New York’s West Village to see if they’d fix or replace it.  Sure, they said.  It would take about a month to repair, and would cost me $150…to replace two little metal O-rings.

If you’re from the US you probably remember, way back when, when LL Bean was famous for taking back ANYTHING and always being willing to repair it or replace it.  This was long before the web or Facebook or social media yet, despite a lot more friction around messages spreading, that story spread – like the one about the guy who had 30-year LL Bean duck boots that finally gave out, he sent them in to LL Bean, and a brand new pair arrived, no questions asked.

This contrast got me thinking about what we see when a customer takes the time and the effort to bring back something that didn’t work or disappointed her.  Sure you could think her as a cost to be minimized.  You could make sure that the clerk she speaks to doesn’t have the authority to make a call to do something to help her, and you could definitely write a policy that’s going to minimize unwanted returns from people trying to scam you.

Or you could see her as someone who cares enough about your product to come back, someone who’s ready and willing to be wowed or disappointed right at that moment, someone who may as well be holding up a sign that says, “THIS IS YOUR BIG CHANCE: turn me into an evangelist for your extraordinary service!”

So of course you show that person the door…?

I don’t care much about the bag.  But it did get me thinking about the rare opportunities we have to really keep our promises.   It’s hard to imagine, even for folks in the nonprofit space, cases where a “lifetime moneyback guarantee” wouldn’t win you legions of loyal fans who will shout your story from the rooftops.

It’s not just the right thing to do, it also will pay off handsomely in the end.

Better

I was having a tough day.  Lots of work requiring real emotional energy.  I was feeling drained.

On my way home a guy is jamming on the jazz piano.  Just jamming.

I keep on walking.

Then I stop.

I turn around.

I drop $5 in the bucket.

We exchange a few words.  We both smile.  Both our days get better.

There’s joy in giving.  Real, actual joy.

Nothing intangible about it.

One great moment in a 24 hour delay

I’d love to chalk it up to bad luck – I continually have things go wildly wrong most of the times that I fly Delta.

Here’s what happened this time: for an 8:30pm flight to Accra, Ghana, we dutifully boarded the plane around 7:30pm, taxied out on time and began waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  Rains came, and then lightning.

Around 11pm the pilot told us that the storm was moving quickly, that “most of the other planes have returned to their gates but we are keeping our spot.”

Sometime closer to midnight he said that “there are 66 other planes looking to take off” but he still felt we could get out.

A bit after midnight I finally dozed off, and was in and out of consciousness until 2:30am when the pilot threw in the towel, took us back to the gate, and told us to wait by the gate for an early morning departure.  It was to be at 6am, then 7am, then 8:30am.  After waiting in a plane on the tarmac for six hours, and then sleeping in the terminal for another six hours, Delta cancelled the flight and rebooked us all on a new flight at 8:30pm that evening, 24 hours after our original flight.

Who knows what really happened, whether we actually had a chance to get out and the pilot made the right call.  Who knows if it’s true that the Accra airport has a curfew – though all of my Ghanaian colleagues adamantly say that’s not the case.

What was striking through it all was that it was no one’s job to handle the whole situation.  The pilot’s job was to get us to take off, which didn’t work out.  After that we were handed to a series of gate agents and other representatives, none with any sense of ownership or real responsibility.  It was one massive game of pass the buck: at no point did someone stand up and say “I’m the person who is taking care of this situation, here is what’s going on, we’ll have more answers for you by 6:00am.”  Divide and conquer can work when things are going smoothly, but it falls apart completely when things go off the rails.  This is probably why at one point the NY Police Department had to be brought to the gate to quell a brewing uprising amongst the passengers – complete with threats of barricading security (“if we can’t fly out, then no one can!”).

The one bright spot?  Upon lining up (again) the following evening to board the flight, the amazing level of openness and camaraderie amongst all the passengers.  We were all in this together.  Conversations amongst strangers started effortlessly.  We were all smiling and laughing about our shared predicament and the absurdity of it all.  One Liberian woman, beaming at counter when I checked in, struck up a conversation with me about how she’d decided to just be happy and upbeat and stop worrying and complaining – she knew it would all work out OK and that was the energy she wanted to put out from that moment forward.  I smiled, laughed, and agreed with her, and the next moment I found myself getting a joyful hug from this woman I’d never met.

So there you have it: the moments of genuine human connection brought joy and laughter in the midst of this mess.

And it makes me wonder if it’s when the world around us breaks just a little that we pull together and come together, and if in our hyper-efficient, hyper-virtually-connected world where everything works smoothly, the chances of the impromptu smile, laugh, or hug simply disappear.

The DO Lectures and Tim Smit’s nine principles of management

I had a great few days last week in cold, rainy west Wales, speaking at the DO Lectures about Acumen Fund, generosity, and how we need to reinvent fundraising (talk to be posted soon).

The DO Lectures are described by founder David Heiatt as “a cross between TED, Burning Man and Where the Wild Things Are.”  30 speakers over the course of four days giving lectures in a small, unassuming tent (hay bales and all) and just 80 total attendees creates an incredible egalitarian spirit and a shared sense of community.  You don’t just have the chance to ask one of the great speakers a question; you’ll probably have dinner together at a communal table, then make your way over to the pub for a few beers, and finally listen to some Welsh poetry together over an open fire pit.

(if it was this year, you’d also spend a good deal of your time talking about how incredibly cold, wet and muddy it was…but I’m told that was an exception.)

I’m still processing most of the great, eclectic talks, but the one unifying theme I took away was “the time is now to do things in radically different ways if you want radically different outcomes.”  From Joel Bukiewicz talking about how he created Cut Brooklyn, the only handmade knife store in Brooklyn, to Michael Acton Smith, who’s on the cover of Wired this month thanks to the incredible success of moshi monsters, there was a lot to take in served up in gobbing heaps of inspiration.

Probably the most energetic and fun talk was by Tim Smit, the founder and creator of the Eden Project in Cornwall.  The biodome project, which cost £141m to build, has attracted more than 13 million visitors and generated more than £1.1bn in revenues for the local economy – all on a rehabilitated manufacturing site.

The Eden Project

One would imagine that a project of this size and scope would require a massively buttoned-up approach to doing just about everything (the financing, team structure, ways of doing business, you name it).  With that in mind, imagine my surprise upon jotting down Tim’s Nine Principles of Management for the 700 staff at the Eden Project:

  1. You cannot start your workday before saying “hello” to 20 other people
  2. Intentionally read books (I can’t remember how many) that will spark new ideas that you normally would not read
  3. ..and plays
  4. …and movies
  5. …and concerts (for rules 2-5 I lost track of how many…the point was intentionally seeking out new ideas and inspiration)
  6. Once a year, stand up and “explain why you love to work for Eden” (said tongue-in-cheek, and explained as “if you have to do this, I believe that you’ll deal with all the reasons you don’t love Eden before giving your talk”)
  7. Eden’s top 80 team members must all do something unspeakably nice (a “guerilla act of generosity”) for other people at Eden at least once a year
  8. At least once a year, each employee must prepare a meal for the 40 people who make it better for him/her to come to work (apparently modified slightly in recent years given a distribution of cooking capabilities)
  9. All 700 employees of Eden must learn to play Samba drums together.  Seriously.  And they perform.   (70 drum captains, teams of 10)

The Samba drumming was what really got me – Tim said that it was not only unspeakably fun to have a team of Brits shaking their hips to samba, but it was impossible not to have a sense of optimism and hope (and, I bet, joy) result from this crazy undertaking.

Who knows what these feel like in practice – they’re pretty nuts to be sure.  I mostly love them, and must admit that doing things differently feels comfortable to me at a startup or at Google, but I’d never seriously considered that an undertaking of this size and success could go about their business in such a different way.

The words I was left with upon hearing Tim were “trust” and “discovery” and “respect” and “pride” (also his fundraising approach is apparently is to shake people by the lapels and ask them “do you want to be the guy who turned down the Beatles?!” along with other references to their tombstones).

My big takeaway is that we really can do things differently – not a little differently, not just at the beginning, and not only at a small scale – but we don’t because we’re dogged by the notion that there’s a “right” way, a buttoned-up, grown up way to do business.  The huge problem is that this “right” way has done a great job at creating mostly disengaged employees who check out the moment they show up to work.

Why have we so quickly and easily abandoned the notion that work can be joyful?