Working alone


The concept of the lone hero is deeply embedded in the American psyche. We love to tell stories about the dedicated visionary who persisted when everyone else thought he was crazy. Invariably, the visionary’s sports team wins the national title, his invention changes the face of modern society, or he single-handedly saves the whole city/country/world from devastation.

The lone hero appeals to us at a pretty basic level. We’ve all been misunderstood. Many (dare I say all?) of us have dreams that are simply too big to achieve. There aren’t too many who would spurn the chance for success. So we love hearing about the lone hero because we can’t help think, “What if?”

The truth is, it’s really hard to be such a loner. Even Batman had Alfred.

The trick is to show up again and again until someone notices what you’re doing, then give them something to do.

You don’t want fans who stand there and nod their heads in agreement. Once you’ve gotten someone to start helping, you’ve doubled your reach.




Patent trolls are a scourge.

According to  research from James Bessen, Jennifer Ford, and Michael J. Meurer of Boston University, patent trolls cost the U.S. economy somewhere over $80 billion dollars per year. These trolls take from the system but they put nothing of any value back into it. As general counsel of a software company, I have little patience for patent trolls and even less for the lawyers who represent them.

I keep a framed quote from Brigham Young on the wall above my desk at work. It says: “As for lawyers, if they will put their brains to work and learn how to raise potatoes, wheat, cattle, build factories, be merchants or tradesmen, it will be a great deal better for them than trying to take the property of others from them through litigation.”

I get lots of smiles when visitors see it. Most people seem to think that I keep it up there as a bit of not-so-subtle irony, that I’m just another lawyer trolling for laughs. I’m happy to let them continue thinking so (mostly because it’s true). But the main reason I keep it up there is to remind myself.

Patent trolls aren’t the only ones who take from the system. In business, we each decide every day whether we’re going to give to the system or take from it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a sole proprietor or the head of a multi-national organization, we all face that decision. The truth of the matter is we all take a bit from the system every day; that’s why we work. But the system really only works when, on the whole, we put in a little more than we take out.

Some people think like the trolls: they take because they can. They justify it to themselves, fooling themselves that because what they’re doing is legal (or at least, not illegal) it’s also right.  Some employees do it when they don’t actually work for all the hours they clock. Some employers do it when they say they can’t afford to pay their employees more when what they really mean is they don’t want to pay their employees more because the employees will work for less.

Adam Smith recognized the danger of pursuing wealth without some principle guiding the pursuit. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments he said “th[e] disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful . . . [is] the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue . . . has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.”

Brigham’s quote isn’t just another example of his dislike for lawyers. It neatly sets forth the same principle that Adam Smith realized more than a hundred years before: takers might prosper in the short run, but they do it at the expense of society and their own moral integrity.

The next step

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: this blog is not about replacing capitalism.

I went to a political rally tonight for Utah’s newest candidate for governor, Jonathan Johnson. I’m lucky to have known Jonathan for a couple of years, ever since my wife and I moved back to Utah after law school. One of my favorite parts of our friendship is our sharing of good books. Jonathan and I both read voraciously and whenever we get together for lunch we always spend the first little while talking about the good books we’ve read recently. So I was excited when we arrived at the rally and at each setting he had placed a copy of Leadocracy, by Geoff Smart. I knew it meant I was getting another of Jonathan’s great book recommendations.

Tonight before tackling this latest post, I read the first couple of chapters. Geoff describes the purpose of Leadocracy, which is to encourage us to hire more great leaders into government. His goal, he explains, is based on the idea that government is only as good as who is in it. He rightly points out that those great leaders come from the private sector. They are you and me. And he’s careful to explain that he’s not calling for a new form of government. Instead, he’s describing “the next step in improving the grand experiment known as democracy.” The rest of the book is his attempt to show us how greater involvement in government from you and me is that next step.

I write this blog partly because it forces me to focus on the question of how to make business better at least once a week. But more than that, I write this blog to encourage each of you, dear readers, to develop a business that serves its customers and its employees. My goal is based on the idea that capitalism is only as good as the purposes it serves.

Just like the great leaders Geoff is looking for, the leaders who will improve capitalism come from the private sector. That might seem obvious. And it is. But the leaders of tomorrow’s capitalism aren’t government leaders, they’re not even today’s executives. They’re MBA students and entry-level customer service reps and kids who grew up during the Great Recession. Hopefully, they’re reading this blog. Maybe, just maybe, they’re people who learned early to avoid debt like the plague, to work hard, and to create. Whoever they are, they won’t replace free markets with some other economic system, they’ll fine-tune capitalism to give better than it gives now.

If capitalism really is only as good as the purposes it serves, they’ll fine-tune it by learning to be otherish in business. Like Marley’s ghost, they’ll fine-tune it by learning that “mankind [is their] business. The common welfare [is their] business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, [are all their] business. The dealings of [their] trade [are] but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of [their] business.”

That’s the next step in improving this grand experiment known as capitalism.

Success, redefined

One of the most important concepts to come out of Alain de Botton’s TED talk about success is the idea that success is largely determined by how we define it.

That’s not shirking and it’s not just wishful thinking.

It reminds me of something Clayton Christensen said in his talk (also at TED) “How Will You Measure Your Life?” That is: “It’s actually really important that you succeed at what you’re succeeding at, but that isn’t going to be the measure of your life.”

That’s one of the first principles of this business ethos that I’m defining here. In order to accomplish any of the other goals I’m advocating for, it’s really important for us to succeed at whatever it is we’re doing in business. But as we do it’s essential not to lose sight of the fact that our lives aren’t about our businesses.

Our lives will be measured by how well we’ve helped the people around us be better people.

And so should our businesses.

New status symbols, new successes

A couple of weeks ago I told you that being otherish in business means adopting a really crappy status symbol. That’s true because it isn’t easy to spot someone who’s being otherish.

It’s also true because being otherish often means adopting a paradigm in which the status symbols you choose and the way you measure success simply don’t match those of nearly everyone around you.

This week I watched a TED talk by Alain de Botton titled “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success.” Alain’s talk focused on a couple of points that are very important to becoming otherish.

His first point explores one very negative implication of our modern, meritocratic sensibilities. That is: “if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top get to the top, you’ll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem merited and deserved and that makes failure much more crushing.”

I frequently read and hear about managers and executives who say things like, “we only want to hire the rock stars,” or “only the best of the best belong here.” As their teams accomplish their goals, it reinforces this ideal and they begin to look for more star players, becoming more and more selective as they try not to lower the output of the team by bringing on someone who doesn’t fit the ideal.

It’s not surprising to me that these managers often use sports metaphors as they reinforce these ideals to their teams. We all like to win, and we like to be part of capable teams that do what they set out to do.

But as managers of people, it’s important not to get lost in the metaphor. It’s even more important not to let our employees get lost. This is not to say that we shouldn’t expect a great deal out of our employees or each other. We absolutely should. But the more we tell ourselves that we only want the best people, the people who are pulling their weight and adding value, the more we reinforce the idea that those who get fired or don’t get hired aren’t valuable, can’t pull their own weight, and aren’t worth having around.

Unfortunately, this happens everywhere. I’m a reasonably smart guy. I grew up working 60-70 hour weeks on my dad’s landscaping crew, so I’m not afraid of work. I double-majored in genetics and English as an undergraduate with a wife and a kid. I graduated in the top 25% of my class at a top-20 law school in the United States while adding two more kids to our family and holding down two part-time jobs. And I couldn’t get a real job to save my life.

Professors I was close with kept telling me I’d find a great job when I graduated. But I looked for work for nearly a year after I graduated. I landed some part-time and contract work that got us through. But every time I interviewed for a full-time, permanent position with a law firm I was rejected.

It was incredibly demoralizing.

All around me, my professors, friends and family told me not to take it personally. Which was absurd. How could I not? I was interviewing with national firms, firms that loudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen how awesome their legal teams were. I had real-life experience and good grades. And I couldn’t get past a second interview.

Clearly I was not the candidate that the recruiters were looking for.

I was a failure.

Alain’s second point is related, and maybe more important than his first. It’s about success. “One of the interesting things about success,” he explains, “is that we think we know what it means.” But because we’re human we can’t be successful at everything. “So, any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on . . . And the thing about a successful life is that a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own, they’re sucked in from other people.”

I realized, sometime toward the end of that year-long job search, that I was chasing a vision of success that was not my own. I had accepted the law firm’s definition of success, and by extension, its definition of me, and it was driving me crazy.

So one day, after a great deal of prayer and meditation, my wife and I decided to let go. We packed our things, rented a U-Haul truck, and drove west. We didn’t have a plan. I scheduled some job interviews in Omaha along the way (just in case) and we knew that we’d run out of money for gas just about the time we made it to my sister-in-law’s house in Utah, where we had arranged to crash for a few weeks.

I hadn’t been happier in months. We still had no money, no real job prospects, and very little to be hopeful about. But we were working on our own vision. We were surrounded by friends and family, people who legitimately cared about our well-being. They reached out for us and made introductions. I started knocking on every door I could find with a renewed confidence. A few weeks passed and I found some contract work, then a full-time job offer that suited me.

I wouldn’t have found this job if I wasn’t looking. I also wouldn’t have found this job if I held on to the definition of success imposed by the system. And I certainly wouldn’t have found this job if my new boss had said “we only hire the best.” I was a first-year lawyer with little legal experience and nowhere near the sort of pedigree generally expected of a general counsel.

I’m no Pollyanna. Perhaps I won’t make as much money as I might have at a national law firm. Otherishness is not a panacea. We won’t catch everyone who falls.

But I can play with my kids after work. I’m writing this as I sit next to my wife and we talk about these ideas that I have. And someday, I hope to build a company that makes 100 other people millionaires.

I think I’ll stick with my own vision of success.