Never Eat Alone: Don’t Keep Score

This is the first of sixteen parts of a “book club” reading and discussion of Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz’s Never Eat Alone, where this book on building a lifelong community of colleagues, contacts, friends, and mentors is teased apart and looked at in detail. This entry covers the first two chapters, “Becoming a Member of the Club” and “Don’t Keep Score,” which appear on pages 3 through 22.

neaAfter the success of the recent Total Money Makeover book club (with lots of good discussion and a flood of great feedback), I wanted to give it another try – a nice, long discussion about a book that made me think about my money and my life.

This time, though, I decided to take it in a bit of a different direction with a more unorthodox book selection (at least given the “personal finance” nature of The Simple Dollar).

Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz is about building relationships, both professional and personal. The subtitle of the book sums it up: How to Build a Lifelong Community of Colleagues, Contacts, Friends, and Mentors.

Why discuss a book like this in such detail? It’s simple: I believe that a healthy net of relationships is the most valuable thing that we can build. With a wide circle of colleagues, contacts, friends, and mentors around us, we can rely on them for help when we need it and also receive unexpected help on a regular basis. All of these things “grease the skids” for great things in life (and help when the chips are down) in ways that we can’t possibly execute alone. Such a network can provide everything from material help, helping hands when we’re working on a task, advice, opportunities, information, companionship, and much more.

I’ve read many books on this topic and I keep turning back to Never Eat Alone. It packs together the ideas in an incredibly effective package.

Let’s dig in.

It’s Not About Quid Pro Quo
Ferrazzi offers this insight on page 7:

What many of my fellow [business school] students lacked, I discovered, were the skills and strategies that are associated with fostering and building relationships. In America, and especially in business, we’re brought up to cherish John Wayne individualism. People who consciously court others to become involved in their lives are seen as schmoozers, brown-nosers, smarmy sycophants.

Over the years, I learned that the outrageous number of misperceptions clouding those who are active relationship-builders is equaled only by the misperceptions of how relationship-building is done properly. What I saw on the golf course – friends helping friends and families helping families they cared about – had nothing to do with manipulation or quid pro quo. Rarely was there any running tally of who did what for whom, or strategies concocted in which you give just so you could get.

I read this bit and immediately thought about my father. During my entire life, it’s seemed to me like he’s constantly doing things for other people. He shares vegetables he grew with them, he shares fish he caught with them, he shares the wine he made with them, he goes to their homes and helps them out when they need help. He fills his spare time doing these things, engaging in hobbies where the product can be shared easily with friends or actually working with friends on projects.

What’s the end result? Every single day, a small army of people just stop at my parents’ house, mostly to visit my father. He spends a good chunk of the day holding court, talking to people in his garage or out in the garden. They constantly bring him food, information, and advice, and if he needs a hand with anything, there’s always help right there.

In just the last year, people have given my parents a kids’ bed (for the guest bedroom, which we use when we stay there), a new kitchen table, a small mountain of food, free repair of a lawnmower and of a vehicle, and countless other things I’ve not even heard about.

When Dad does something to help someone else, he doesn’t expect anything in return. Random people he’s never met before can wind up at our house, just to place a phone call or something similar, and within a half an hour they’ll be loaded down with garden vegetables and enjoying a glass of wine with him. He might never see that person again – but he doesn’t care. If that person leaves with a smile on his or her face, Dad’s happy.

After doing this for years and years, though, it’s returned to him in spades. He has more good relationships with people than anyone I know, and those relationships are constantly handing him advice, material items, and help when he needs it.

It’s not about a quid pro quo at all. It’s just about giving of yourself and not really worrying about the return.

Mutual Need
On page 16, Ferrazzi touches on the idea of mutual need:

A network functions precisely because there’s recognition of mutual need. There’s an implicit understanding that investing time and energy in building personal relationships with the right people will pay dividends. The majority of “one percenters,” as I call the ultra-rich and successful whom many of my mentees aspire toward, are one percenters because they understand the dynamic – because, in fact, they themselves use the power of their network of contacts and friends to arrive at their present station.

It’s naive to think that people enter into a relationship without expecting to get something out of it, even if it’s something as simple as companionship. The more time and energy we invest in relationships, the more valuable we expect those relationships to become.

What’s different here is to realize that you need each other. No relationship is one-way – you give to them because they need it, and they give to you because you need it. It doesn’t have to be perfectly in balance at all, but relationships that are completely out of balance collapse eventually.

The time to cement a relationship is when you don’t need it – and they do need it. If you continually step up when others need you, you’ll find that people step up for you when you need it. It might not be perfectly symmetrical, but it’s certainly present.

Stop Keeping Score
What about the tendency to “keep score”? What if you help someone and they don’t help you back? If you’re focused on that, you’ll never actually benefit from such a network. From page 16:

[F]irst you have to stop keeping score. You can’t amass a network of connections without introducing such connections to others with equal fervor. The more people you help, the more help you’ll have and the more help you’ll have helping others. It’s like the Internet. The more people who have access, and use it, the more valuable the Internet becomes.

A network is not about a series of one-to-one relationships. In any such relationship, it’s likely that one person will give more than the other – sometimes you’ll give more and sometimes the other person will.

What’s important is the aggregate. Overall, on the whole, you should be giving at least as much as you’re getting. The more you give, the more value you’re perceived to have overall. The more you take, the less value you’re perceived to have.

I can’t help but think of one of my old “friends” who was one of those “takers.” If you did anything to help him out, instead of helping in return, he would ask for more help.

What happened to him? To tell the truth, I have no idea. Virtually no one knows what actually did happen to him. He dropped out of my network after a while and, eventually, out of the network of everyone else I know. Last I knew, he had completely abandoned what had once been a promising career and had gone back to school, with virtually no connections at all in his old career.

He took more than he gave – and now he’s left with nothing except an older body and an older mind.

Where’s Your Loyalty?
On page 17, Ferrazzi makes a crucial point about the fundamental shift in trust and loyalty that’s happened in the modern workplace:

Where employees once found generosity and loyalty in the companies we worked for, today we must find them in a web of our own relationships. It isn’t the blind loyalty and generosity we once gave to a corporation. It’s a more personal kind of loyalty and generosity, one given to your colleagues, your team, your friends, your customers.

This is a theme that’s run through a lot of recent books on the modern workplace, from Escape from Cubicle Nation to Career Renegade. To put it simply, your loyalty should be to your coworkers, not to your company.

Quite often, that means producing in a way that’s beneficial to your company, but your loyalty should not be to the company. In fact, most of the time, it’s very difficult to distinguish between the two of them.

The difference comes about when people leave the company and move on to new things. That person may no longer be a part of your company, but they’re still part of your social network. You still have loyalty to them. You continue that relationship, sharing what you know (of course, without undermining the rest of your network) and helping when you can.

In effect, a network that includes a lot of people at other businesses is far stronger than one just including the people in your office. Let’s say you’re downsized – people in your own office aren’t going to be able to help. It’s going to require some help from people outside of your business.

Job Security
On page 21, Ferrazzi makes a great point about the true nature of job security today:

Job security? Experience will not save you in hard times, nor will hard work or talent. If you need a job, money, advice, help, hope, or a means to make a sale, there’s only one surefire, fail-safe place to find them – within your extended circle of friends and associates.

This is undeniably true. There is no significant job I’ve had in my life that wasn’t at least partly set up by a personal connection I made.

My first job in college was found by my academic advisor. We had several long discussions about the growing role of computer use in the life sciences and he decided to hire me to work in a public computing lab where software was used for simple biological data analysis. Later on, he also helped to place me in a research lab, a job I enjoyed but didn’t quite click with.

While working in that computer lab, I built a great relationship with one of the full-time system support people working in the same circles. He got me a job as an undergraduate researcher developing software for a scientist.

When I was about to graduate, that scientist was happy enough with my work that he essentially found me a full time position working for him – in truth, he seemed to craft it out of thin air. This was during the worst part of the job market in late 2001 and early 2002, where none of my fellow graduates seemed to be finding work.

Later (when the funding situation changed), he did everything but hand out bribes to get my foot in the door with a more permanent job with another entity doing similar work.

Every single job I’ve mentioned here was made possible thanks to relationships I’d built. How did I build them? I just worked selflessly, sharing what I knew with the people around me and stepping up to the plate when there was a real need.

My experience didn’t really help, nor did my knowledge or my degrees. What helped more than anything was the relationships.

On page 22, Ferrazzi drops the real key to building a valuable network:

Contribute. It’s like Miracle-Gro for networks. Give your time, money, and expertise to your growing community of friends.

In other words, the first step is always in your court. Do you have something to give right now? Is there someone you can help?

Don’t worry about getting back. Just give. Contribute what you know and you have.

Why not start today? Do you have a friend who could use some help? Why not give that help without anything in return? Do it a few more times, with other friends or work associates. Enjoy it. Then, see what happens when you make it a regular habit.

You’ll feel better about yourself. You’ll have friends and connections that feel better about you. And, in the end, you’ll have more value floating around you than you know how to deal with.

Do you believe in such reciprocity of relationships? Do you believe that by giving when others need it without expecting anything in return that others will be there for you when you need it? I wholly believe in it, because I’ve seen it again and again in my life.

On Saturday, we’ll tackle the third and fourth chapters – What’s Your Mission? and Build It Before You Need It.

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