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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wisdom Not Taught in College

Ten life lessons from a long-time warrior in the battle of ideas

About 30 years ago, I was sitting in a rural roadside diner outside Milwaukee. My host, a wealthy businessman, had chosen the spot close to one of his factories. It was an all-day breakfast type of place.

I was there to pitch him for around $10,000 per year for The Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), and I was batting on a good wicket—to use a cricket term from my native England. I knew I was aceing the “ask” and the food was so good I started tossing easy pitches his way, which allowed him to talk and me to eat.

Out poured a ton of deep frustration with his alma mater. He agreed straight away that he would start giving us $10K, and while he deeply resented the same amount going to his Ivy League alma mater, he felt obliged—not happy—to do so.

On my flight home to Dulles I mulled on this, and back in the office next day I dictated (I realize this dates the incident) a letter thanking him for his $10,000 pledge. I went on to suggest that he also give us the other $10,000 currently reserved for the alma mater for my colleagues to invest in the few good free-market students and faculty we knew there. He loved the idea! (The college involved howled.) Other donors got wind of this and we soon had several college-specific funds.

Now, I could talk about making the same philanthropic dollar do two or three jobs all day long (see in particular the business model of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty) but the lesson here is this:

1. Listen more than you speak.

From that day on I have set a goal of speaking for 30 to 40 percent of the time and listening for the rest when in such one-on-one meetings.

Nine more lessons

Listen more than you speak was the first of 10 lessons I recently sent to Kayla, the daughter of my good friends in Tampa, Florida, as she graduated high school. Her parents, I hasten to add, had had the idea of asking for my input and they transmitted this and 10 other lessons to Kayla on her big day. Today, I would like to share them with other sons and daughters.

So what were my other nine lessons?

2. Do not speak at meetings just for the sake of speaking.

Do not be the person who thinks a meeting did not really take place unless they spoke—and hopefully very loudly and at great length. Be a sniper with a sound suppressor who always hits the target. Don’t be some manic machine-gunner who wastes half his bullets. Team members quickly separate the windbags from those who speak only when they add value.

3. You must treat all people at the same high level.

In one sense there are no VIPs; in another sense we’re all VIPs. Even if you have a mental model of VIPs versus LIPs (less) you will fail to implement it because you cannot obtain or possess the knowledge needed to make such a distinction all the time. You might score 90 percent, but suddenly some hobo will turn out to own 1 percent of Apple and you ignored him (you were even abrupt with him) while I opened the door, brought him a cup of tea, and listened to him.

Here’s a true story:

In 1983, as a director of IHS in Menlo Park, California, I was on the receiving end of a classic crank letter. It was hand-written using multicolored ink on paper that did not fit the envelope. The outside was littered with anti-USPS slogans—it was a miracle it got to me. The author argued that we should go into competition with the Nobel folk in Scandinavia so as to bring attention to liberty lovers.

Well, I scrunched it up and chucked it away. All day it sat there atop my bin and at some point I retrieved it, smoothed it out, and replied.

I wrote that going into competition would blow our budget; that with Hayek (’74) and Friedman (’76) and Stigler (’82) our guys were starting to win Nobels and I was sure more would come; and that there was much better leverage in doing what we were in fact already doing: “discovering, developing, and supporting young people who share our concerns and who have the potential to impact the war of ideas hopefully going further and faster with our support than otherwise would be the case.”

My reply went to a not very impressive address north of us in Washington or Oregon. Roll forward five years and IHS is now at GMU in northern Virginia. One day my mail contained a letter from a bank manager near Atlanta. Could I please confirm in writing that our mission was still “discovering, developing, and supporting young people who share our concerns and who have the potential to impact the war of ideas hopefully going further and faster with our support than otherwise would be the case” and provide already printed backup to substantiate this claim?

I was puzzled but easily and quickly complied. About 10 days later the bank replied that it was satisfied and was pleased to inform me that a client of the bank had used its legal department to write his will and had left IHS every last dollar/piece of land he owned, totaling several hundred thousand dollars. The name of the man rang no bells. I scurried downstairs and over to our ‘Alpha’ files, found his name, and felt my knees go wobbly on me—the only letter on file to this man was my reply to his multicolored crank missive. He was indeed from Georgia; he had kept his banking and will there despite moving to the Pacific Northwest where he . . . wait for it . . . mowed lawns.

4. The worst thing you can do is to make excessive promises and then fail to deliver on time or at the right level.

Don’t get so desperate for the work (or whatever it is) that you become sucked into overpromising, which inevitably leads to underdelivering—and thus a big dent in your reputation. Promise slightly under what you are pretty certain you can deliver. Then when you come in with more of whatever it is and say earlier than promised, watch your reputation soar.

5. Remember my friend Mr. Cadbury (and your cheeks).

Yes, that Mr. Cadbury. Our sons were school chums and his boy’s birthday party sure beat ours. Now, he has to buy raw ingredients in less developed countries where paying bribes is simply built into the local business model. His staff asked what they should do. His reply was that you may pay bribes on two conditions. First, you must get a signed receipt for the accounts department at home. Second, you must ask yourself: “Will I be ashamed if the story of this bribe appears on page 1 of the company newsletter?”  If you answer “no” and can get a receipt, then go for it!

So how does this translate to you? I suggest operating on the basis that, even if something is perfectly legal, you do not do it if the thought of news of your action spreading in your circles makes your cheeks turn red. (This is a variation on the “Front Page Test.”)

6. Learn how and when to say thank you.

Always say thank you, but not too often, and not over the top. These days an emailed thank you is so easy it is seriously devalued. It’s close to meaningless. When my younger son recently started a big new job I bought him a box of high quality notecards and envelopes with a supply of stamps. Keep these on hand, I told him, so when a thank you is in order you have the tools right there on your desk.

Here are two more wrinkles. One: The cards I personally use are unique to me—photos taken either near our place in Florida or near our summer cabin in West Virginia. People attach them to fridges or pin boards—I know because they tell me and then I see them when I visit! It keeps me in mind. Second: I write fan letters on these cards. There’s an old saying that for every 100 folk who think, “I should write that person a fan letter,” only one actually does. I write fan letters and also what I call “cheer up letters” when I read of folks who are down.

7. Only speak well of people.

Let me tell you the story of my friend Randy. Right out of law school he became a public prosecutor. The culture in his whole department was to make life miserable for everyone in the public defender’s office. It was the local year-round sport, a daily matter with all involved—except Randy. He did not complain; he just kept his head down and treated his opponents with respect and in a mannerly way. After a while, Randy went on the law professor job market. He was hired and is still having a brilliant career.

A few months after he started in his new job, the dean of his law school told him some background to the hiring decision. It turned out the dean had roomed at law school with the head of the public defender’s office. They still went to lunch or chatted for an hour every month. When Randy applied, the dean asked his longstanding friend for his view of him—a reference not listed on his CV. Well, the dean got a glowing reply on the lines of Randy is the only person over there who treats my staff with respect. And so on. Even Randy was astonished by the thought that those hiring him would seek out the opinions of the public defender’s office. One simply never knows.

8. Keep your word always.

When you give your word, you enter a contract. Your word is your bond, as they say. I once saw this close up, in action. A young woman named Mary had just graduated in special education, but the market was tight. In August she accepted a job at a small, private religious school paying very little. She signed the contract and mailed the envelope.

Later that very same day the local public school system offered her pretty much the same job at more than twice the salary. Her family was furiously trying to think of ways she could get out of her contract with the private school and she asked my advice.

Your word is your bond, I said. And you do not want to start a 40+ year career by breaking a contract. However, I went on, there’s no reason why you should not reply on the lines of:

  • Thank you;
  • I would love to have that opening;
  • However the the very day your offer arrived I had signed a 10-month contract to go to St. X school;
  • I cannot break my word, so I’m sorry to turn you down; however
  • If there’s an opening in the future please do bear me in mind.

Word of her principled response reached every senior regional educator in her field, and well before her just-signed contract expired, new ones were on offer. She took a short-term hit by doing the right thing, but doing the right thing paid huge longer-term dividends.

9. Work hard on your public speaking and writing skills.

Whatever your career path, you will be communicating. And far too many people just assume they can do it. Or they cop out. The biggest of all cop-outs is to have the lights turned down while the so-called speaker reads aloud from a series of slides. It is embarrassing and rude. If all the speaker is going to do is read, I might has well have been sent the slides and not be there. So work on those skills and watch the investment bring dividends.

10. Have a private internal commitment to excellence.

Never take on a job or assignment unless you can deliver at an A+ level. But even turning down an offer can bring positives—especially if, hand on heart, you can say, “Look, I’d love to help but Jay would do a better job on this one.” Remember: What goes around comes around. Eight A+ results always top 10 A- results.

Now, I had promised you 10 lessons. Remember what I said about overdelivering? In that spirit, here’s one more lesson:

11. Be super-cautious and alert to the dangers of social media.

We are seeing more reputations—rightly or wrongly—damaged more quickly than at any other time in history. Remember that anything you put on social media can spread like wildfire, and anything anyone else puts on social media about you can spread like wildfire, as well.

  • John Blundell (9 October 1952 – 22 July 2014) was a British economist who served as Director General and the Ralph Harris Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.