Save it for Santa Claus

On what you want & why you should forget about it

You’re in a public place — the mall, a farmer’s market, your kid’s soccer game. A smartly dressed stranger walks up to you out of the blue and asks for $20.

I’m gonna guess what happens next.

You must have heard wrong, so you ask them to repeat the question — and now you’re stunned to find that, no, you heard right. Your “why?” comes out clunky and polite (“umm, may I ask…?”). And if you weren’t baffled before, you are now:

“Because I want $20.”

You fumble your way to some excuse or an awkward no, then spend the rest of the day wondering what kind of lunatic you just crossed paths with.

Bizarre...

And yet — people behave like this all the time.

I sometimes get asked by young professionals and job seekers for advice. I’ve also fielded questions (or requests or even pleas) as a hiring manager along similar lines: people want to know how they can go about getting that thing they want — that job, that promotion, that raise.

The want comes in different flavours. Picture someone in a job interview:

  • There’s the please-go-out-with-me approach, where their primary message is some version of “I really want this.”

  • There’s the what’s-in-it-for-me approach, where the person steers the conversation too much / too soon toward money, status, perks, etc.

  • My personal favourite — common in intra-company interviews — is some version of “here’s a list of things I’ve done to deserve this.” (Implying that you’re owed something is a statement of opinion, not fact, so you better hope that whoever you’re talking to shares your view. In fact, the only fact that you’re conveying is that you want the job.)

It’s not always as awkward as the stranger scenario, but the basic underlying premise in all of these is the same: “I want you or someone to give me X because I would really like to have it.”

My advice boils down to this: if you create value, you can capture it.

The best way to get something that’s of value to you is to give something of equal or greater value, first. Especially in the long run, the more value you create, the more of it you’re likely to be able to capture for yourself. So forget about what you want and focus first on what you can offer.

You might think that sounds manipulative, and in some contexts it is. (If I give you a gift for your birthday then hint at the fact that I’d like a pony for mine, you should probably unfriend me… (preferably after you buy me the pony.)) In a business or professional context, though, it’s not manipulative — it’s practical. A win-win.

In a job interview, devote 90% of your energy to conveying how you can help, and — so that you don’t come off aloof — 10% to conveying that you’re keen to do so. Don’t be arrogant, but be bold. These people are lucky you showed up. Show them exactly how their life (not yours) will be better when you come aboard.

And if you can’t do that without lying, resorting to how much you want the job isn’t going to help. Think about it... would you hire you?

Better yet? Prove what you can do, and — as a matter of fact — why even wait for an interview? 

If you really want to convince someone of your ability to help them, then… help them. Identify a problem they have and solve it without them asking you to. Even if it’s not a big problem, and maybe even if your solution isn’t great, just by taking the initiative you’ll go a long way toward proving that you’re someone worth having around.

(I’ve done this. Was hired within a week.)

This doesn’t just apply to job interviews — same goes anywhere you’re hoping to persuade someone to give you something. Want that promotion or raise or coffee meeting? Figure out how to be so valuable to the right person/people unsolicited that they’re eager to return value to you.

Of course, if you go down this path, you have to accept the possibility that — for one reason or another — you don’t get what you’re after. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that anyone owes you anything. But if you have this mindset and apply it with humility, it’s just a matter of time before the ball bounces your way.

“What if I don’t know how to help?” 

Ah, that’s where the work comes in — nobody said it would be easy. You need to get creative or, if it’s your actual abilities that are holding you back, shouldn’t you focus on improving those first? (Or were you hoping to trick someone into overestimating you?)

That brings us to the biggest win-win of all. In addition to making yourself valuable to others when it benefits you directly, make that a part of who you are — unconditionally. Fall in love with the process of improving yourself. Stop rushing to get things, or — at the very least — don’t expect to get more than you’re able to give. Optimize for learning, not short-term gain. Study those who are better than you. Stare down your pride. Ask yourself not what you do well, but what you don’t do well. Go fill those gaps. (Be prepared, it could take a while.) Identify and extinguish your ulterior motives. Look for ways to genuinely be of service to others and expect nothing in return. Find joy in doing so. Really, it feels good. Pay attention.

If you can consistently operate this way (hint: it’s hard), you’ll never again have to worry about what you want.

Now, if someone figures out this whole time-travel thing and Younger Me ends up reading this… you’re welcome. While I have you, do me a favour and put like $20 into this thing called ‘Bitcoin’ when you see it. Just trust me.