The Gift of Ourselves

The Gift of OurselvesDust, sweat & the smell of hard work clung to two teenage boys as the door swung open.

“Hi, Mrs. Harmon. We finished for today.” She found her pre-written check and waved it toward our grimy fingers. “We’ll be gone next week at youth camp, so we won’t be by on Tuesday like usual. But we’ll be back to do your lawn on the weekend.”

“Oh, where are you going to youth camp?”

“It’s a place called Latham Springs, close to Waco.”

“Is that with church?”

“Yes,” we replied, at the same time.

“My kids used to go to those. They’re grown now, but I remember how excited they’d be when they got home. You boys have a great time. I’ll see you when you get back.”

We walked back to our little Volkswagen Beetle with the Harvest Lawn Care trailer behind it and took off to our next lawn. My brother and I always followed the same routine:  mow the lawn, go to the door, talk to our customers, and collect our check. If they weren’t home, we’d ride our bikes by later in the evening and talk for a little bit while they paid us.

They’d tell us about their husband’s heart surgery or their daughter’s wedding. Sometimes they’d ask us about school or if we could babysit their kids. When we graduated high school, they gave us gifts and came to our sendoff party. I can’t remember a time when a customer didn’t smile at the sight of us standing in the doorway. We had always assumed that the quality of our work and our reasonable prices had enabled two teenagers to rule the neighborhood grass cutting market with virtually no advertising. We never received a single check in the mail.

When I started working for Motorola, I took the same attitude with me. If they worked in the same section of our massive building, I went by their office and avoided calling people on the phone. Those conversations always turned to things outside of work, as well. People shared their different faiths, pictures of kids, and stories of life before they worked at Moto. I shared, too: my poems rattled off cubicle walls, cleanroom floors, and into the ears of my coworkers. “Did you do that one about stepping in poop?” one of the office managers blurted, loudly enough to draw some awkward attention. “That one’s a classic.”

Call me an overhyped extravert. Chalk it up to personality. Tell me that you can’t do excellent work with your friends. My brother and I didn’t lose many lawns, if any, due to our shoddy work. And my team at Motorola got an award for being the first group to qualify an assembly for a new product ahead of schedule and with no problems. I still talk to some of my former neighborhood customers and fellow employees at Motorola to this day.

When life took me to stages around the world, I found no more important time than right after a show. Tales of hurt, joy, and triumph flowed like the streams of old friends from people I’d barely met. I wrestled with fatherless kids who relished every second of healthy, older male enjoyment. My brain swims through seas of conversations about hearts inspired to pursue their passion, reminders of loved ones who had the “same kind of energy and creativity.” An email I got from Sarah Barnett in California tells it best——

I thought about how the first (and actually only time) that I met you, you and Paul spent quite a long time talking with me. And for whatever reason, I really felt genuine care or some form of connection or something that made me remember that conversation, now 5 years later. I remember not really understanding why you guys spent so much time talking to me, but I thought it was a legit conversation and was happy to have had it :). I think you should keep doing that and I imagine you probably are . . . .

We expect people to buy our CD, book, art, or other product or service solely because of how well it works, how good it sounds, or how expertly we craft the words or images. But it’s their own story, how people connect their own feelings and needs to what we perform that actually sells all those things. We can find marketing phrases and advertising campaigns that draw people to our door. Once they’ve arrived, what better way exists to connect your story to theirs than to offer up your authentic self as a free gift in all of your business dealings?

“I’m always amazed at how many people approach you after you speak,” Steve Rae told me after a recent talk I gave at a Wizards on the Road Marketing Seminar in Toronto. “They want to work specifically with you, and it’s because you put yourself into your speaking. You don’t hide the crazy poetry you write or the excitement that you feel in life. It’s what sells your business.”

I guess I just always thought that people are more important than whatever benefit they give me or I give them. That doesn’t excuse me from ensuring the quality of my work or the fulfillment of my word. In fact, it makes those things easier. Two dirt-covered boys didn’t have to study a training manual or develop a well-rehearsed presentation to communicate authenticity and a genuine concern for our customers. But we did have to spend a little extra time talking about things that didn’t seem to have any connection to business. It just so happens that we gave the most valuable product or service we possessed: the gift of ourselves.

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