April 17, 2017

The Service Mindset

In an early 2017 episode of How I Built This, Tony Heish, CEO of Zappos, described his company as such,

[Zappos] is a service company that just happens to sell shoes.

Zappos is seen as revolutionary in their commitment to customer service, an approach that Tony describes as somewhat nonsensical at times — doing things for their customers that their competition would never do. Their main goal is to make the customer happy at all costs. And it pays off; Zappos brings in an estimated $2 billion in revenue each year, and was acquired by Amazon in 2009.

What stands out most to me when reflecting on Zappos’s story is that, in an age of paying customers being dragged off of airplanes, the idea of offering genuine service is foreign to most of us. This only serves to reinforce a belief I’ve developed over the past few years.

Here’s what I believe.

We achieve higher career satisfaction, build better companies, and attract happier customers by adopting a servant mindset towards our work.

Your Career is an Act of Service

When we talk about our careers, what do we envision? A successful career looks like a long string of big promotions, big accomplishments, and an impressive resume. Too often, we believe that our career is about us. But I want to challenge this definition of a career.

Here’s how I’d define it:

A career is an extended period of dedicated service to a cause or organization.

It’s why we used phrases like, “serve as President”, “serve in the military”, “serve on a board of directors”. Achieving these positions is not an opportunity to dictate or wield unchecked power; it’s a call to greater service.

As our career develops, so too do our skills and talents that brought us into that career. But what are those skills and talents really for?

We use our skills to make the world around us better; we use them to serve our team, our company, and our customers.

To be truly effective in our work and build a great career, we must be willing to serve others and put their needs before our own.

How to Practice a Service Mindset

If we want to practice a servant mindset, there are 3 approaches we must take:

1. Drop the ego

Ego will bring you down, as well as your organization. We have to be able to admit mistakes and be vulnerable with each other.

True service doesn’t have an ego; we can’t assume we’re above an act of service.

2. Have an open mind

With a closed mind, we become selective about who we serve. We might withhold our service towards others who don’t share our viewpoints or position in life.

3. Avoid busyness.

I’m sorry, I can’t help you, I’m too busy.

Oftentimes, busyness is for us. We have to be careful not to hide behind busyness that could prevent us from taking a moment to help someone.

When someone comes up to your desk, take off the headphones, give them your attention. Simply giving people your time can be a major act of service.

Service Culture Attracts Happy Customers

If we adopt this servant approach to our work and put others’ needs before our own, what does it do for our business?

It breeds a culture of service. It creates an environment where, because we first served each other, we’re better able to provide great service outside of our business.

And by providing great service, we attract happy customers.

Who doesn’t love to be well-served by a company or a product, to feel like your needs and wants were truly met and exceeded?

 It’s an instinctive craving.

It’s why companies are investing millions in products that mimic the experience of having a person right there in your home, serving your every need (and why those products are so popular).

There’s no better customer experience than another human asking you, how can I be of service to you?

A Call to Service

As you walk into work tomorrow morning, commit to serving your team and your customers. With every interaction, ask yourself, how can I help this person?

When you treat your work as an act of service, it attracts loyal customers, it creates a great work culture, and it gives life to your career.

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April 14, 2017

Edit More

Some movies come together in the editing room. Most books come together with the help of skilled editors. And as flawed humans, it’s sometimes necessary to make edits of our own.

You can edit your health with new habits.

You can edit your career path with new skills.

You can edit your outlook with a good book.

You can edit your convictions with some self-reflection.

Edit more. You’re something good that’s coming together.

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April 13, 2017

Process vs. People

People come first.

When working with a team, you can either have a flawless process or a happy team.

Processes can be perfected, but this requires you to discourage failure and limit improvisation.

But people are at their best when they feel autonomous and can stretch beyond process. Failure leads to learning. Improvisation leads to fresh insights.

Don’t sacrifice people for process.

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April 11, 2017

The Littlest Bully

In fourth grade, I attracted a particularly nasty bully.

Sometimes, before class, he’d stop by my desk and slap me across the cheek. My response was always to clam up, and he always got away with it.

One day, while I was standing on first base during a game of kickball, the bully ran over to me and pushed me down in front of my classmates. When I looked over to the nearby teachers for support, I saw the bully’s mom–also a teacher—laughing at me while I brushed the dirt off my pants. It ran in the family.

An important detail here is that the bully was much smaller than me, at least by a foot. But I was a friendly, awkward giant and absolutely never stood up for myself. He knew this about me because we were best friends in first grade. I used to spend the night at his house and, on one occasion, we stayed up late and danced to the Macarena. It was new and cool then.

Then one day he jumped on my back during a basketball game. He screamed over my shoulder and said he wanted the ball. So I gave him the ball by smacking him in the mouth with it. It was an accident. But it must’ve hurt; he jumped off my back and responded in a way that I still remember vividly: he clenched his teeth, stomped his foot on the ground, gave a pained ugh! and walked away.

He didn’t pick on my anymore after that.

We went through eight more years of school together after the bullying phase, but things were different then. Sometimes I wished we could go back to first grade when we were friends. But he became a basketball star and I became a musician and our worlds never met again.

I looked him up on Facebook recently. I saw where he is in his life and I smiled. Good for him. Then I closed the tab and went on to other things.

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In 1999, NASA lost a $125 million Mars spacecraft due to a simple math error.

The navigation team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used metric units of measurement (meters, newtons), while the engineering team at Lockheed Martin used the English system of measurements (feet, pounds).

Rather than slipping into a stable orbit over Mars, the mismatch in measurements led to the spacecraft burning up in orbit.

There are two lessons to take away here.

First, check your work. Pay attention to details and avoid making assumptions. Re-read that email and make another pass at editing that paper. Better yet, get someone else to do it for you.

Second, unless you too are a rocket scientist at NASA, don’t take your mistakes so seriously. Those two engineering teams set the screw-up bar extremely high back in 1999, so you’re unlikely to make a mistake that extraordinary in your lifetime.

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Three years ago, my wife and I made the final payment on a $17,500 student loan bill. It took us one year using post-grad, middle class incomes, and we dedicated 40% of that combined income to debt repayment.

Beyond the initial excitement, debt freedom has had a tremendous impact on the trajectory of our life. Here’s what we’ve learned over these past three years.

Debt repayment provides valuable lessons

I’m thankful for my student loans.

When my wife and I were paying off our debt, we were forced to build good money habits. Overspending wasn’t much of an option if we hoped to climb out of the red. It was too stressful to ignore, and debt was holding us back from achieving our goals like world travel and buying a home with a respectable down payment.

Not only were we forced into good habits, there was an added benefit of discovering that, in our marriage, we didn’t need much stuff to make us happy. We were happiest when spending time together with a quiet night in or when we took a trip out for some cheap tacos and a matinee movie.

Happiness, for us, wasn’t expensive.

As a result, the months following our final debt payment were spent hitting the ground running. After a post-debt spending spree to celebrate, we got to work. We reallocated funds previously spent on debt repayment to investing in our future. We put money into index funds, increased our emergency fund, and started researching affordable and worthwhile options for world travel.

Lastly, with good habits in place, we found we were much less likely to slide back into debt. After three years of building our investments and cash reserves, debt is now a strategic choice for investment opportunities rather than a necessity for a comfortable life.

No more living paycheck to paycheck.

Net worth becomes a useful metric

Net worth is now our most-tracked metric of financial health. While we were in debt, we dreaded seeing the big red bars indicating our below zero financial standing. It was discouraging, so we avoided it.

But after climbing our way out of debt, we were able to analyze our net worth, watch for trends, and celebrate our monthly increases from investments and cash saving wins.

At every point in one’s financial life, net worth is either rising or falling. It’s important to remember that paying off debt is a rising action for net worth, so don’t be afraid to make monthly net worth checks part of a financial strategy early on.

Debt is a tool (that you’re probably not skilled enough to use)

You can only take advantage of debt as a tool once you’ve learned to live without it. If you’re falling victim to credit card debt or buying houses and cars you can’t afford, you’re the tool being used to generate a steady revenue for banks.

By comparison, someone who’s learned to manage debt effectively and not rely on it for basic needs can leverage it to start a business or invest in rental properties.

Credit cards can be incredibly useful if handled properly

When you’re not using credit cards as a means of buying what you can’t afford, they become an invaluable tool for securing inexpensive travel and other handy financial perks.

By aligning our credit card purchases to our budget and paying off our credit card in full each month, we’re able to take advantage of those credit card perks without paying credit card companies a penny in interest.

Money doesn’t have to be stressful

Debt freedom has many benefits, but one of the most important advantages is the alleviation of stress. In fact, contrary to the common marital stereotype, my wife and I don’t fight about money much these days.

Without debt, money troubles can go away entirely, if you so desire. Money becomes a tool to be controlled; it can be given away, used to travel the world, or a means to quit jobs and pursue passions.

Debt can control your life if you let it. It can determine where you live, what job you take, and how you think about finances. But if you find a way to remove it’s negative impact on your life, you’ll gain full control over your money, and by extension, the trajectory of your life.

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Regardless of your current mood or situation, make a point to give people a pleasant experience. Smile when talking to them. Give them your attention. Actively listen. Offer a genuine compliment. They won’t forget interactions like these.

Leave people better than you found them.

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April 5, 2017

Diminishing Returns

Looking back at the past ten years,
spending nine of those years pining for the new model,
waiting eight hours in crowded lines
for seven major version releases,
needing bigger pockets for the six plus
and choosing between five colors,
spending four days’ pay to impress your peers
and three days’ pay on the monthly bill,
promising two years to a contract you don’t understand
and being one of the millions who Thought Different,
it might be time to realize
that an iPhone isn’t going to make you happy.

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April 4, 2017

Don’t Ruin the Game

In video games, there’s a concept called “God-mode”, a cheat code that gives your character unlimited money, unlimited powers, max health, no restrictions.

And without exception, “God-mode” ruins the game.

At first, it’s fun to run around as an omnipotent being, breezing through the game without obstacles. But soon, you realize that having no obstacles means no fun.

The hook of a good video game comes from being given a limited set of resources and having to find a Win scenario.

See also: life.

Don’t go looking for your real-life version of “God-mode.” Don’t try to fill your life with more money, power, or possessions, and don’t avoid challenges. Crossing to the other side of difficult challenges and making the most of constraints can smooth the rough edges of life.

Start that company. Finish that book. Revel in your constraints and learn from them. Solve big problems, and enjoy the game.

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