When I was unemployed in early 1982 I took a sales class where the teacher taught me something that changed my business and personal life in profound ways.
Because I was running out of money and had broken up with my girlfriend, I wrote two things on my mirror:
A short while later I found myself riding New York City’s M15 bus heading up 1st Avenue on my way to an interview at Morgan Stanley for what was only a few weeks work at a fairly low hourly rate. I was depressed and I was mostly thinking about how badly I would botch the interview, and how I did not really want the job—only the money. Somewhere around 23rd Street an elderly woman got on and stood in front of me. I was so deep in my misery that I hardly noticed her.
Then, all of a sudden and without thought or warning, I jumped up and offered her my seat. The suddenness of the act startled both of us and I have no idea why my child rearing chose that moment to kick in.
Before she could sit down a young woman pushed past both of us and took the seat. I said, “But I was giving my seat to this lady, not you.”
The young woman said, “So what? This seat is mine now.”
The elderly woman gave me a kindly smile and shrugged—the kind of shrug that says, “Oh well, what can you do? People are jerks.”
Now I felt even worse. Try to do something nice and what happens?Plenty of seats opened up at the 34th Street cross-town transfer, so I took one in the back. A young woman next to me said, “I saw that; it was nice. Please don’t give up.” That thrilled me because I was not thinking of myself as a nice person. I was thinking of myself as a loser. I told her I was going to a job interview. She told me she once spent a year in Korea as an exchange student. We did not talk much before I had to get off at 57th Street.
As we separated, I said, “I enjoyed meeting you. My name is Brooke.” Then I added, “Allen. I am Brooke Allen.”
She told me her last name too. For me, giving someone my last name says, “I trust you.” It probably means the same thing for women too, only more so.
At the interview, I felt wonderful and they offered me the job on the spot.
I was thrilled to discover that the young woman’s number and address were listed in the phone book, so on the way home I stopped by the United Nations gift shop and bought her a fan made in Korea. I mailed it to her in an envelope covered with UN stamps and included a note thanking her because I was sure that had I not met her I would not have been hired.
When I got home there was a message on my answering machine. It was from her thanking me because she had been blue for a while and whatever happened on the bus caused her sadness to fade away. I called and we talked for about two hours. We never spoke again but by the time we hung up I had a very strong impression that she was OK, and I felt for the first time in a long while that I was OK too.
Although that job lasted only a short while, I found the problems on Wall Street to be very interesting, and I was good at solving them. Soon I was getting consulting contracts that paid very well, and in the following year I made more than three times the most I’d ever made before.
Although I got the money I did not get the girl. But the three steps had not stopped working their magic.
On the morning of June 27, 1984 I found myself sitting next to a young woman waiting to hear a lecture at a computer conference. The conference organizer announced that the speaker had just cancelled. She came down from the podium and asked the two of us if we’d relay the message to others as they entered the room. It seemed selfish that the organizer wanted us to do her bidding so that she could leave, but we agreed. At least we had each other to talk to.
That young woman and I married in November, 1986, and our first son was born on June 27, 1988; the fourth anniversary of our first meeting. We are still married today.
I hate “tips” and “techniques” articles like “Five tips for attracting a mate” or “Eight techniques for closing the sale” but this feels more like a law of the universe, and if you look you’ll find evidence of it everywhere. The problem with seeing how this works in real life is that there are too many random things cluttering up the view, so a good place to start is with movies where it’s easier to extract a storyline and its motivations.
Watch, The Tao of Steve, a movie about Dex, a rather over-weight underachiever who is very successful with the ladies. Dex takes a younger, more handsome man under his wing and teaches him the secret of his success. Dex states the three step, which I had already internalized:
Step 1: Know what you want but remove all desire. If there is nothing you feel you must have then you cannot be disappointed, and others won’t question your motives.
Step 2: Be excellent in her presence. Don’t be checking out some babe on the street corner and fail to save a dog that gets run over by a streetcar. If you save the dog, you will win her heart.
Step 3: Let others have their desires. If she wants you, then let her, and if she doesn’t, let her not.
A few years ago I decided I would invest time in teaching others what I know, but to be effective I’d need to learn how to reach a broad audience. So I attended a day-long seminar on personal branding run by Brandcamp University. I expected talks on the four ways of getting a tweet to go viral or six things every press release must have.
They presented nothing of the sort. Instead, a general theme was repeated throughout the day: Be interesting. Be honest. Be authentic. Know yourself. Do the right thing. Be of value to others. If you aren’t those things, work on becoming those things and don’t worry about promoting yourself. If you are all those things, there are people whose full-time job it is to find you.
Last night I went to bed wishing for an illustration of how this has worked for someone else. This morning I woke up with my wish answered in the form an email that had arrived at 12:35 a.m. from my friend, Elissa Desani.
Three years ago I was hiring an assistant and Elissa was one of my candidates. She did not want to work for me as much as she wanted the flexibility to work on her documentary film about a girls school in India. If her temp agency would gave her enough work she could make a go of it, but money pressures convinced her to apply for a full-time job. I told her I could not give her that flexibility and I would not get between her and her dreams.
Instead, I told her about The Tao of Steve and the three steps for getting what you want. I suggested she practice being excellent at every opportunity, and then tell me what happens.
A few weeks later Elissa told me the advice was life-changing. On the way home from the interview she got stuck in a subway door. A policeman got the doors open, pulled her out and scolded her. She was disappointed about not getting the job, and now she was furious at the policeman. But rather than give him a piece of her mind the next time she saw him she decided to thank him. He almost cried and said, “Nobody ever thanks me.” She felt wonderful.
The next morning a recruiter called to see if she was available for the day. She already had work so instead she decided to do something she had not done before; she offered to see who else she could find for him. Now, every morning, she is his first call. She gets her pick of work and then she helps her friends pick through the rest.
We kept in touch all these years, and I have been rooting for her ever since.
In the email she told me she had just attended an event where a well-regarded producer stated quite clearly during the Q&A that it was not a pitch session. Some in the audience ignored this request, and afterward the woman was mobbed by people asking for things.
Elissa did not join the fray, but later found herself behind the producer on line at a coffee shop. They refused to break a large bill so Elissa offered to pay. The producer was intrigued by Elissa’s generosity, asked what she did, and became interested in her story.
Update: To learn about the science behind why these three steps work, watch this lecture by Martin Rossman, MD, at the University of California: How Your Brain Can Turn Anxiety into Calmness
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