I was sitting at Starbucks across from a slick-haired salesman when he opened his notebook, clicked his pen and asked, “So Brian, have you ever heard of multi-level marketing (MLM)?”

As a matter of fact, I had.

He continued, “What are your thoughts on it?”

“Honestly,” I replied, “I had a pretty bad experience with a multi-level marketing company.”

“I see. Well hey, will you do me a favor? Will you forget everything you know about MLM for about 15 minutes? This is an exciting business opportunity that my mentor has shared with me. He’s an amazing guy, and he wanted me to share it with you, too.”

I’d been through a multi-level marketing sales pitch before; I knew what was coming next, and I had a plan.

“Sure,” I said.

~

I met Luke, the salesman, months before at a gas station. We were both standing in line waiting for our fast food orders when he walked up and said hello.

A friend once told me that I’m terrible at networking; we don’t talk much anymore, but I took his critique to heart. Since moving to California, I’ve looked for opportunities to build a more solid network. As Luke and I chatted briefly, exchanging short stories about our lives, jobs, and the weather, I felt this was a good opportunity to learn from a fellow young professional and maybe make a friend in the process.

Luke struck me as a pretty nice guy at first, and we concluded our chat on a positive note as we exchanged business cards and planned a non-committal coffee meet-up.

A few weeks later, Luke and I met for lunch. I asked him about his job as a salesman, what he’d learned from it, and what his goals for the future looked like. He asked me the same, and I shared with him my visions of writing books and starting a business later down the road.

“Oh, that’s awesome,” he said. “Hey, do you happen to know a guy named Josh?”

I know Josh from the local tech scene. He’s a bit older than me, mid-thirties. We’ve travelled in similar circles but never met officially. From my understanding, he has a good reputation, the kind of guy I could trust.

“Josh happens to be my mentor,” Luke added, “He’s taught me so much about business and myself. His family is amazing. They have it all. I kind of envy the guy. You know what? You, me, and Josh should get together to talk business sometime soon.”

“Sure, let’s all grab some coffee,” I said, suddenly feeling nauseous and but not knowing why.

And then Luke said something that surprised me, “I’m excited—it’ll look good to Josh if I refer you to him.”

That’s strange, I thought, the only time I’ve ever been “referred” to someone, I’ve been a customer. After our lunch, I decided to lay low for a little while and not press the meeting.

But Luke persisted. He made multiple phone calls, left voicemails, and follow-up texts saying things like, Brian, call me back as quickly as you can! Considering I’d only interacted with Luke for a combined 60 minutes since meeting him, I felt this was a bit intrusive.

I continued to “miss” his phone calls for the following week, until one evening when he called while my wife and I were at dinner. She saw his face buzzing on my phone and said, “Just answer this time. See what’s up. No harm in it.”

I answered, and he started, “Brian, where have you been? It’s like you dropped off the Earth.”

This gave me a sour, stalker vibe.

He continued, “Anyway, I talked to Josh about you, and he’d like for you and me to meet up to go over a business opportunity that we think you’ll really like.”

I knew at that point that there was going to be some sort of pitch during our meeting. In the spirit of curiosity and networking — ugh — I ignored my internal warnings and accepted the invitation for coffee that Friday.

Friday arrived, and I met Luke at a nearby Starbucks. We exchanged small talk for a bit, when finally I asked, “So, what’s the story? What’s Josh’s business?”

Luke smiled and pulled out a notebook and pen.

~

It was there at that table in Starbucks, presented with a multi-level marketing pitch, when my brain finally started to put a narrative together: the seemingly random interest shown towards me by a salesman at a gas station, the insistence on connecting with Josh, and the pushy phone calls. Of course. I’d even talked to him about my desire to start a business on the side. I’d painted a target on my back.

“So let me tell you a bit about this opportunity,” Luke said as he began his pitch.

He turned to a blank page in his notebook and started drawing crude illustrations: a four-step analogy on the concept of a scalable business, two squares to represent concepts he referred to as “suppliers” and “builders”, and a dozen arrows pointing to the various diagrams. Nothing made sense to me. After he finished his diagrams, there was a pause, which I took advantage of.

I was prepared for something like this. I knew the script.

“Let me stop you here for a moment,” I interrupted. “Tell me this: in one sentence, what does your company do?”

He paused, thought about my question, then began the pitch again. He used more than one sentence, but this time, he added an ingredient I was anticipating: the vague emotional hook.

“Our goal is to serve people and help them achieve their dreams,” he explained, “Imagine making more money. Imagine making your marriage better. I’ve seen the people our company has helped; I’ve seen the tears in their eyes as they share how they’ve achieved everything they’ve ever wanted. Look, I know you’re passionate about service to others, Brian (read here), so what do you say? Are you ready to learn more?”

I’d heard emotional pitches like this before, and they always turn me off.

“Hold on,” I said, “you didn’t answer my question. In one sentence, tell me what this company does. What do they sell? What service do they provide? Just humor me and try to explain it in one sentence.”

I strongly believe in the power of one sentence.

I could tell he was puzzled, so I elaborated, “If we look at a company like Amazon, you could describe them in one sentence by saying they ‘provide a high quality e-commerce experience for a variety of products and services.’ You could describe Google by their mission statement, ‘to organize the world’s information.’ So what’s your company’s core mission? What do you do?”

He reached to his pocket for his phone — I assumed to text Josh and get an answer from him — but he put it back in his pocket and said, “I’ll humor you. I’d describe our core mission around integrity, passion, and great service. Great relationships. Family-oriented. When Josh showed me this opportunity, I asked him, ‘why me?’ and he told me, ‘if you had the cure for cancer, wouldn’t you want to share it with the world?’”

I pressed, “So in that analogy, what is this ‘cure for cancer?’ I’m not asking for your company’s secret sauce. I just want to know what you guys do.”

We talked for forty-five minutes about the business. I never got a name of the business or a clear understanding of the business model. It was a black box, and Luke was struggling to entice me to look inside. But from the beginning, I knew this would happen.

There’s a common thread with the more nefarious MLM companies: those involved in them refuse — or can’t — describe the business in a simple way. Confusion is part of the indoctrination process. They keep you engaged with frequent meetings to discuss the business, but so much of the initial pitch is in the emotional hook, so by the time you actually get into the details of how to get involved, you’re emotionally invested; you believe that this business opportunity, no matter how toxic, will solve all your problems — no more debt, a happier marriage, no more illness.

“Would you be willing to talk about this another day?” Luke added, “Maybe you just need some time to let what I’ve shown you sink in. I wish Josh was here to help explain.”

I was glad Josh wasn’t there. “Luke, I have to be honest with you,” I said. “I don’t want to be involved in this company if it’s this difficult to describe.”

I think what bothered me the most was the feeling of being used. MLM businesses empower their customers to view everyone as a customer, a perpetual cycle that turns friends into dollar signs and causes money flow up to those who do the most recruiting. This is where multi-level marketing gets its common name: a pyramid scheme.

I realized that Josh indoctrinated Luke as a customer and profited off him. Luke was now on the hunt for customers of his own; this was his shot. But at this moment, I resented him for grooming me to be sold something he knew wasn’t in my best interest.

“Well, okay,” he said. “Listen, I understand that you might not be ready to dive in yet, but I have a book in my car that does a better job than me of sharing this vision. And then, how about you, me, and Josh get together next week to talk more about it. How does Wednesday sound?”

I pulled out my phone to check my calendar; it’s an instinctive habit when I know that something uncomfortable is about to happen. I put my phone away.

“No,” I said. “I’m not going to read the book, and I don’t want to move forward with discussing this with you and Josh.”

“Oh, well I think maybe I haven’t done a good job of explaining it,” I saw his face start to tighten. He was putting up his defenses, “But I have to ask, Brian: if you’re so passionate about this idea of providing service, why are you so resistant to join us in serving others?”

I thought for a moment, and said, “Because I don’t know your mission and you can’t even tell me what it is, and I can only assume that any service without a mission is self-serving.”

“I don’t know that I agree with that.”

“That’s fair, but I don’t agree with multi-level marketing. I don’t believe in a company that requires weeks of explaining just to understand what they do. I’ve been through this before.”

“So what you’re telling me is that you’re not willing to forget your past experience with multi-level marketing? You’re not willing to be open-minded here and take the time to learn something new?”

“That’s right.”

He shrugged condescendingly. I expected a salesman to handle rejection a bit better than he did, but I soon realized how deeply he’d entrenched himself in this. He started to open up, and I watched another layer of the narrative reveal itself.

“Look, I believe in this business,” he said, “I’m looking to make a lot of money in just a little amount of time. I have a ton of debt, I’m not in a relationship — and I want to be! — and I just want to hit it big and be significant. Josh has all that: the great wife, the great finances — everything I wish I had. And he’s showing me how to do it. I shared all my financial information with him, just like he asked. And then we shook on it — I dedicated the next five years of my life to him and this business. But yeah, honestly Brian, this is just a means to an end.”

It was all coming together: the desperate kid, eager for a quick buck and an escape from debt and loneliness, finds a mentor who takes him in and tells him that if he just pledges his loyalty, all his problems would be solved. It was an unsettling story, one that I’d seen and heard many times before, and it never ends well.

I asked him, “A means to an end? So what’s at the end for you?”

A tired expression gave way to a pained response, “I… don’t know. I don’t know my end goal here.”

I asked a final question, “have you considered using some of the skills or knowledge you have to start a business of your own? If you could share a skill or service with a group of customers, what would it be?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I would do.”

Luke and I parted ways, and I wished him well. But what he failed to realize is that he had nothing valuable to offer me in all his promises of success and fortune. I’ve found my richness in life, and it has very little to do with money.

He also couldn’t have known that when I was 19, I was him.

I came home from a MLM conference and met with my first potential sale. I told her how I could show her how to make her dreams come true — travel, money, success — and all it would take was about 15 minutes of her time. After explaining the concepts, she said she didn’t understand and that it all sounded like trouble. I got defensive and frustrated, just like Luke did. I’m still ashamed that I once viewed the girl I’d go on to marry as a potential sale.

These days, I stand beside a vow that I never want to be involved in something that causes me to view my loved ones as dollar signs again.

As for Luke, I have no hard feelings towards him—how could I, knowing that we were once in the same shoes?—and I hope he finds the significance he’s looking for, one way or another.

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June 15, 2017

Avoiding the downhill

I sometimes think about dying. But not in the suicidal way. I wonder what it’ll be like in the end; will I die in a fiery, explosive exit, or will I wither away from disease or old age? Will I leave life fully spent, having given away everything I can?

If life is a mountain, I’m on the climb: I’m enjoying my career, I started a new company, I love the life that me and my wife share (and our travel wish list continues to grow).

But I sometimes wonder what the downhill will be like. Is there an age when I’ll look at a problem or an opportunity and think, no thanks, I’m too old for that? Will there be a day when I decide not to learn something new because I can see the end ahead of me, and maybe I don’t feel like it’s worth my time? Will I choose to make my way down the mountain and retire quietly, having never reached the summit?

I hope not.

But then I remember that this mountain’s peak is as tall as I want it to be. I can keep climbing. Maybe the summit could reveal a new, taller mountain. But in the end, I can choose to keep going. I can choose to keep learning and setting new goals. When I’m 80, I can decide to write that next book or song, and maybe it’ll be my best.

Consider the story of a woman named Audrey Crabtree. At age 99, she finally received her high school diploma, 80 years after leaving school one credit shy of graduation. There’s a very cynical part of me that thinks, “but why bother?”, but I realize that people like Audrey, no matter their age, are climbers. Audrey’s early life regret turned into an opportunity to plant her flag late in life, and she didn’t turn to head back downhill and abandon her dream.

Be like Audrey. There’s a mountain ahead of you, so climb. Also, don’t look down.

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The problem is that they don’t know their own story. They’re living it; they don’t think it’s a story worth telling, so they ignore the fact that their successes, failures, and lessons learned could inspire others and provide insights into what many are seeking.

When we can look back over any period of our lives, recount the narrative, and wrap it up into something that can be shared with others, it’s a recipe for books, talks, projects, or companies.

Ben Chestnut took his expertise in email marketing, packaged up the valuable parts of his narrative, and turned it into MailChimp.

You have a story to tell; it might be one that’s​ new to many people. Take the time to dissect the threads of that story, package it up, and tell it to the world in a way that creates the greatest good.

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If you choose to lead, you must also choose to leave the field.

You must head to the sidelines and encourage your people to claim the victories. Advise offscreen and direct your team towards the goal when they need your help. Cultivate a passionate team, praise their strengths, and coach their weaknesses.

To win as a leader, be of service to those doing the winning.

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May 27, 2017

Life Currency

We all have a life currency—an area of our life (not including money) which, when we have it in abundance, we consider ourselves wealthy.

Some people’s life currency is in relationships. They attract friends easily and feel most accomplished when they develop a large friend community.

Others choose a life currency in travel. They feel most at home on the road or exploring the unknown. Their richness is derived from experiences.

Some choose to build their life currency from a career. They dedicate most of their time and energy to a cause or an organization, and they consider themselves wealthy from their professional accomplishments.

Others choose to build life currency in family. They set out to raise a happy and healthy children and dedicate most of their time to family upbringing.

With this in mind, remember that we all have our own idea of life currency. Not everyone shares your values or dreams, so be careful not to judge others if they’re not chasing your preferred life currency.

Also, like money, life currency is best used when given away. If you’re pursuing a career, build your skills in an effort to serve others and meet their needs. If you’re traveling, use those experiences to give back and enlighten the world around you. If you’re building relationships, build those relationships out of love, not out of a desire for acceptance. And if your currency is in family, raise a family built on values, so that those you raise can go out into the world and make something good of it.

Whatever life you choose, live it richly.

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May 27, 2017

Earn It

You have to earn it
every day
or what you know
will become what you knew
and what you do
will become what you did.

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May 25, 2017

The Great Directives

I believe that in life, there are three directives that are unavoidable and essential for a quality life. These Great Directives choose us from the moment we’re born, and we risk squandering life if we ignore them.

The Great Directives are as follows:

Use money for good

Money chooses us. We can’t avoid it, but many of us fear and misunderstand it. It comes into our life out of necessity, but often leaves our life through waste.

But to achieve a full life, we must choose discipline and control over our money.

Choose to use money efficiently and effectively. Choose to give it away when there’s a need. Choose to use it as a tool for good rather than a means of self-worth.

Become a wise master of money or risk becoming a slave to it.

Embrace your health

Our body is the greatest gift we’ve been given, and our health is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.

Our health reveals our discipline, passion, and vitality. While some may lose their health to age or misfortune, to knowingly abandon our health is to abandon our potential.

Improving your health is the only selfish act that creates a selfless outcome: to be healthy is to be present, mindful, and useful, and the world desperately needs more useful people.

Care for others

We live on a planet of 7 billion people, yet many of us choose to focus our life’s attention on just one — ourselves. No matter who we are or where we live, our life was created, influenced, and will be remembered by other people. We’re raised by a family, given knowledge by teachers, find passion in lovers, and inspired to greatness by leaders. To go through life without compassion for others is to forfeit our humanity.

Be compassionate, serve people, and celebrate life by caring for others.

Avoid these directives at your own peril.

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Here’s what I’ve discovered over my 4 year journey to financial peace.

Being broke doesn’t mean you’re broken

“I’m broke,” you’ll say, and you’ll hang your head and feel terrible. According to most people, being broke is the ultimate form of not having your sh** together. Running out of money means running out of life, energy, and opportunities.

We feel bad about being broke because we associate our financial situation with who we are as people. Our self worth is tied too closely to our net worth.

But you’re not defined by the size of your bank account. A rich jerk is just a jerk who happens to have money. But a compassionate person who’s broke is still compassionate; they might not have much money at the moment, but they’re still quite valuable.

Our resistance to financial change is built on shame

The heart of all money stress is rooted in shame. We feel ashamed that we struggle with money. We feel ashamed that we can’t afford to live like our peers. We feel ashamed in our inability to save even a penny for our future. It’s exhausting.

In my talk with Kyle Naylor, he described shame as one of the most destructive forces in our lives. It leads to depression, self-doubt, inaction, and many other negative physical and emotional effects.

But our positive money changes come from forgiving ourselves for past money mistakes and not letting shame dictate our actions. We’re all in need of positive financial changes and we’re all capable of making them happen. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Money habits reflect our life habits

We’re not the size of our bank accounts, but we are what we choose to do with those bank accounts. If we hoard our money, we’re hoarders; if we give it away, we’re givers; if we want more, we’ll take more until the well runs dry. The habits we build around our money are the habits that define our lives.

As Lynne Twist says in her book, Soul of Money,

Money is so intricately interwoven with every other aspect of our lives that when we take a stand to make a difference with our life, it has an organizing effect on our relationship with money, and when we take a stand to make a difference with our money, it has an organizing effect on every other part of our life.

So when we develop healthy money habits, we’ll develop healthier life habits as well.

Money management is a craft that can (and must) be learned

Most people approach new financial habits like they would a diet plan: they start on a Monday, quit their habits cold-turkey, find themselves growing restless by Wednesday evening, and accept defeat by Friday morning.

Money changes must be adopted slowly, and money management must be approached for what it is: a skill that can and must be learned through research and experimentation. Read a personal finance book, listen to a personal finance podcast, or seek out a reliable financial advisor. Just don’t fall for quick changes; in the world of money, that leads to being scammed, losing more money, or simply developing more destructive habits.

Take the time to learn how to manage money the right way. The investments you make in your financial education will pay for themselves.

Financial peace comes not from frugality or extravagance, but from balance

Ultra frugality creates misers; ultra extravagance leads to a joyless life; the spot in between is where you find financial peace.

When my wife and I paid off our debt and began looking to the future, we planned for the route of ultra frugality — we’d give up everything to save every penny we could.

And for what? We didn’t know.

We had a few vague goals in mind to fuel our ultra saving, but we knew that those goals didn’t align with our true passions in life.

While we’d love the opportunity to retire early (and we’re still on a path to do so), we’re already living a life of happiness by striking the balance of frugality and extravagance. We save most of our income, but we dine out often and love traveling throughout the year. We have business ideas, non-profit/charitable goals, and an extensive list of life quests to complete, none of which are cheap.

We live with balance, we’re happy, and we’ve achieved financial peace.

So remember: you’re not defined by the size of your bank account, but instead, what you do with that bank account; if money mistakes come along, embrace them and seek opportunities to learn how you can avoid those mistakes in the future; lastly, find balance in your financial life, and you just might find financial peace.

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A major part of my job is hiring talented software engineers and building productive, happy teams. Here’s what I look for when I interview and evaluate engineers.

Humility

Ego will kill your career almost as quickly as punching your boss in the face. I’ve seen arrogant people drag their teams through the mud, and I’ve seen smart people look ignorant because of a stubborn attitude.

I keep an eye out for ego when speaking to candidates. Do they make past successes all about themselves rather than praising their team’s involvement? Do they assume to know everything there is to know about their craft? A good candidate understands that there are always opportunities to learn, and success often comes from the influence of better, smarter peers and leaders.

Character

One of my favorite questions to ask candidates is: what are your core values? It’s a question that doesn’t have a cookie-cutter answer, and requires an honest response to avoid sounding cliché. Most importantly, it’s a clear indicator of selfish vs. selfless.

A candidate who values success and praise will ultimately choose selfish actions to achieve those values, while a candidate who values service and compassion towards others will abandon self to do good for those around them.

Collaboration

I once spoke to a candidate who, when I asked about his process in working with teams, described to me how he routinely goes over the heads of his teammates to get things done. Sometimes, he told me, he’d even go over the heads of his management. As he described it, he hated being wrong; if the team unanimously disagreed with his decision, he’d throw his hands in the air and say, “well, I guess we’ll all just be wrong together.”

This was discouraging to hear.

A great candidate understands that the strength of a team comes from mutual respect and collaboration among all involved. A member who thinks themselves better than the collective team represents a weakness for the group, and a team is only as strong as their weakest member.

People focus

Great products aren’t about the people creating them; they’re about the users who adopt them. A great engineer understands this, and places the users’ wants above their own. I look for candidates who are empathetic towards people from all walks of life and have an open mind to different points of view. When they successfully adopt this mindset, they’re better able to provide what users crave the most—genuine service.

Competence

It’s not just about being skilled at your craft—that’s certainly important—but I believe competence is shown in three key behaviors:

  1. Showing up on time when it’s time to show up
  2. Delivering what’s due when it’s due, and
  3. Delivering quality work at every opportunity

To me, this describes the “pros” that I’ve encountered and had the pleasure of working with in my career; I love hiring these people.

So if you’re a competent, humble, empathetic collaborator with a heart of gold, let’s work together.

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On Writing Well by William Zinsser

This book is great for anyone who’d like to write better non-fiction. In it, Zinsser outlines his four principles of effective writing: clarity, simplicity, brevity, and humanity.

I listened to the audiobook, which spans about two hours; after only thirty minutes, I already felt more confident about how to craft better non-fiction pieces.

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

It’s clear in reading this book that Sol Stein thinks awfully highly of himself, but his confidence is well-deserved. The literary genius gives us everything we need to know to write compelling fiction—topics such as how to start a novel, building strong characters, constructing plot, and understanding the form and function of popular genres.

After reading this book, you’ll have no more excuses; go write your novel.

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