The Self-Empowerment Pledge
Seven Simple Promises that Will Change Your Life
Thursday’s Promise: Contribution
This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people, living or dead, is strictly coincidental. The questions that follow, however, are very real – and answering them honestly can help you internalize the true meaning and purpose of The Contribution Promise of The Self-Empowerment Pledge.
“Build a human safety net and you’ll never hit the ground.” Harry Collins must have made that comment a million times in the years since he’d founded the Seaside Manufacturing company. This morning, he’d told his secretary that he needed some air, and that he would go pick up the mail himself. He did not want her to be alarmed by seeing that disastrous letter – at least not before he’d had a chance to think about how he would deal with it.
This morning, there was no safety net, human or otherwise, between Harry and the post office, a weather-beaten old brick building that squatted gray and ominous across the street. As Harry watched people disappear through the double glass doors, he was struck by the fantasy that more people went in than came out. At some point in the next few minutes, Harry would get up from his perch on the bench, walk across the street and through those double doors into the maw of the post office. And there, he would hit the ground.
He could feel the little paper slip from the U.S. Postal Service like a burning cinder in his pocket. He had a certified letter waiting for him. It could only mean one thing – the bank was calling his loans. He was four months behind on making payments. Right now, there was no way he could repay the entire principal. Of course, once the bank called their loan, other creditors would be upon him like ravenous sharks on a dying dolphin. “How do you spell failure,” he mumbled as he slouched on the bench, shoving his hands deep into empty pockets.
“Watch how you use those nouns, Harry.” Harry tried to simultaneously sit up straight and extract his hands from his pockets, and nearly fell off the bench in the process. Esther Pearson had somehow taken a seat next to him on the bench. She was the first full-time accountant Harry had hired almost twenty-five years earlier. He’d lost touch with her shortly after she left to start her own company nearly fifteen years ago. She hadn’t aged a day since then. “It’s like you always told us, Harry, verbs and adjectives do not create nouns. To have failed with a project – a verb, or to have been part of a failing enterprise – an adjective, does not make you a failure – a noun.”
“That’s not always true,” replied Harry, peering into the black shadows beyond those double glass doors of the post office. “Sometimes all the verbs and all the adjectives add up, and bingo, you are a failure.”
“I beg your pardon?” Harry looked up to see an elderly woman sitting at the other end of the bench, protectively clutching a shopping bag to her chest, where Esther should have been.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” Harry said, struggling to disguise his discomfiture. “Sometimes I just talk to myself. It’s a bad habit.”
The woman smiled and tapped her cheekbone. “My mother used to tell me that if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. That should go double when talking to yourself, don’t you suppose?”
“Yes, ma’am, I suppose you’re right.” They chatted for a minute or two before the woman excused herself, and Harry sank back into his gloom, contemplating how he would explain to his employees that his failure (a verb) was about to cost them their jobs (nouns in the strongest sense of the word). “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” he muttered in a mock rehearsal, then laughed at the thought that even though the statement was surely true, nobody would believe it.
“Pain is usually just fear in drag.” Harry felt a playful jab in the shoulder and looked up to see Mike Hamper, his operations manager during those tough early years, repeating a phrase that he’d learned from Harry himself. Mike was now a senior executive at General Electric. Like Esther, he did not seem to have aged a day since leaving Seaside. “What was it you always used to tell us, Harry? Give fear a name and it becomes just a problem; it’s easier to solve problems than it is to conquer fear. What’s the problem sitting inside your P.O. box over there, Harry? If it’s just a problem, then there’s nothing to be afraid of, right?”
Harry looked back over at the post office and could almost feel the postal notice crouching in his pocket, like a scorpion in a crevice. “Well, Mike,” Harry said after a moment, “some problems are worthy of fear.”
“I’m sure that’s true, but the name’s Bill. Bill Potter.” Harry looked over to see a young man sitting where Mike had been only seconds before. “You’re Harry Collins, aren’t you?” the young man asked
Harry nodded and extended his right hand. “Have we met?”
“No sir,” the young man replied, pulling a business card from his shirt pocket. “I’m just finishing up my business degree, and was hoping I could stop by and see you about an internship at Seaside Manufacturing.”
Harry took the card and made a note on the back. “Well, Bill, we really don’t have anything right now, but we do make an effort to find a place for bright young people who want to make a difference.” Harry inserted the card into his wallet. “Such as yourself. Why don’t you give me a call next week and we’ll see what we can do.”
“Thanks, Mr. Collins, I will.” Bill Potter shook Harry’s hand again. “That’s what attracted me to Seaside in the first place – that you guys don’t just want to make a profit, you also want to make a difference.”
Harry watched the young man disappear down the sidewalk. Then he slid back into the gloom that had engulfed this strange day, muttering to himself, “maybe if we’d been more concerned about making a profit and less concerned about making a difference, I wouldn’t be in this predicament today.”
“It’s a problem, boss, not a predicament.” This time it really didn’t surprise Harry to look over and see Anna Martin, who as director of marketing had helped Seaside make the transformation from an anonymous producer of commodity parts to a company that commanded premium prices for high-end products. “Predicaments don’t have solutions – problems do. A problem is an alcoholic employee; a predicament is an alcoholic mother-in-law.”
“Well,” Harry replied, “I don’t have an alcoholic mother-in-law, but I don’t see how that could be any worse than the problem I do have.”
“Well, bucko, I do have a drunk for a mother-in-law, and you don’t freakin’ know what you’re talking about. She makes life hell, 24-7.” The man sitting where Anna had been only seconds before must have weighed 300 pounds, and a hairy belly protruded from beneath a gray T-shirt.
Harry laughed. “I guess that does sound like a predicament.”
“You got that right,” the big man sighed. “She moved in with us last year. I’d go jump off a bridge, except my wife would kill me for leaving her alone with the old witch.” The fellow stood up and pulled his T-shirt down to cover at least part of his belly. “I don’t know what your problem is, man, but trust me, it could always be worse.”
“Yeah, I suppose it could always be worse.”
“Don’t you mean it’s never been better?” Isn’t that what you always told us to say when someone asked how business is going?” Harry looked over to see Peter Innskeep, the most productive salesman in the history of Seaside Manufacturing. Pete had retired two years ago, and moved with his wife to a condo in Maui.
Harry was reluctant to reply for fear that his words might cause Pete to transmogrify into someone else – maybe the big man’s alcoholic mother-in-law. “You know, “ Pete finally said, “I really never thanked you for this.” He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a laminated card, which obviously had quite a few miles on it, then handed it to Harry. “Remember how you always used to say that when the concept was understood, the words could be forgotten?”
Harry nodded. “Actually, I didn’t think of that one. I was quoting Lao Tzu.”
“Whatever,” Pete said. “I’ve gotten this promise memorized, crystallized, and internalized. I guess I really don’t need the card anymore, so why don’t you recycle it to Bill Potter when he comes on board?”
Harry accepted the card and read it, though he didn’t need to. He’d given one of these cards to every Seaside employee from Day One. Like Pete, he had it memorized, crystallized, and internalized.
The Contribution Promise: I will earn the help I need in advance by helping other people now, and repay the help I receive by serving others later.
“Thanks, Pete, I’ll give it to him when he starts. And thanks for the reminder.”
“Sure thing, chief. Keeping that promise to myself made me the Super Salesman I am, and it paid for our place on Maui. Now it’s time to pass it along to someone else.” Pete leaned in toward Harry, something he’d always done when he was about to go for the close on a big sale. “You told me one other thing I’ve always remembered whenever I got into a tight spot.”
“What was that, Pete?”
“You should always have an ace in the hole, but more important, you’ve got to know when to play it.” Pete stood up and shot Harry the wink with which he’d closed a thousand deals. “Come see me in Maui, Harry.”
“I will, Pete. Soon as I get this mess straightened out.” Pete disappeared and this time no other phantom arrived to take his place. Harry put the laminated card with The Contribution Promise into his wallet next to Bill Potter’s business card. He could not yet go to Maui. There were still contributions to be made and promises to be kept. And he had an ace to play.
Harry pulled out his cell phone and punched in a number. “Hi, Sheila, it’s Harry Collins. Is Mr. Parker in?” John Parker was CEO of Parker Products, Seaside’s largest customer.
As he waited for Parker to come on the line, Harry visualized himself hearing the answer he was hoping to hear, a technique he’d taught Pete Innskeep and all his other salespeople. “Hey, John, it’s such a beautiful day, and your company has been such a fabulous customer, that I’d like to do something special for you by way of appreciation.” Harry took a deep breath and listened to the silence on the other end of the line, then he continued. “You know that seven million-dollar order you have with us? Well, here’s the deal. If you pre-pay, I can give you an additional three percent discount.”
Harry knew, and he knew that John knew, the standard discount for pre-payment was ten, or even fifteen, percent. He also knew that John knew Seaside was struggling. And they both knew how many times Harry and his team had worked extra hours to meet one of Parker’s “impossible” demands.
As expected, Parker countered with a much larger percentage. “No, John, three percent is the most I can go.” Another long silence. Then Harry heard out loud the answer he’d already heard in his own mind. “Thanks, John, I really appreciate it. One more thing. Could you have Hank wire the money to our account this afternoon?” Another long silence, followed by the anticipated answer. “Thanks a million, John. You’re a superstar.”
Harry got up and walked over to the post office. There were only two letters in the Seaside Manufacturing box. The first was a certified letter from the bank. Harry put this into his coat pocket without reading it. He already knew what the letter said, and now, thanks to the pre-payment from John Parker, he also knew how he would respond.
The second envelope had a return address from Seaside Manufacturing, but the logo had been radically altered – instead of a stylized sailing vessel, it looked more like a futuristic rocket ship. Harry grimaced. Nobody was allowed to monkey with that logo without his go-ahead, which he never would have given. Clutching the letter, Harry walked back out to his park bench. Then he opened the envelope and unfolded the letter. It was dated nearly twenty-five years in the future. Harry smiled. Although this letter felt as real as a sunny day, he knew he was only imagining it, just as he had the other fantastic events of this incredible morning. Still, he was still pleased to see that whoever had changed his logo at least hadn’t renamed the company to Seaside Enterprises or some such thing. How can a nation be great if its companies don’t actually make things?
For a moment, Harry watched the clouds drift by, enjoyed the breeze floating in from the sea, and listened to a cardinal serenade him from a nearby tree branch. Then he read the letter:
I hope that you and Julia are enjoying your retirement, though I’m sure you’re both busy as ever. On a personal level, I want to tell you how much I appreciate everything I’ve learned from you. We had some really good times together, but we also had some pretty tough times. It was those tough times where I learned the most, including the eternal truth that the best way to work your way through them is to increase your contribution to others.
You once told me that you would shoot me if I ever put your name on a building, and I know you well enough to take that threat seriously! But I also know that your gentle wife would never do such a thing, I trust that she will prevail upon you to restrain yourself when I tell you that our new education facility will be dedicated as the Harry and Julia Collins Contribution Center.
This name is in recognition of the lesson you taught all of us over the years – that education is only an input that helps you increase your contribution output; that without contribution, education is like a seed that never grows. You will also be happy to know that The Contribution Promise you shared with all of us will be prominently displayed in the front lobby – right next to the portrait of you and Julia.
Harry, it will be good to see you again at the dedication ceremony for our new Contribution Center. With all good wishes,
Bill Potter, President and CEO
Harry folded the letter and put it into his coat pocket. He knew it would not be there when he got back to the office. He also knew that one day, in about twenty-five years, he would see it again.
Questions and Exercises
Read The Contribution Promise again. How different would your life be today if in the past you had really believed that you would take responsibility for your life and not blame others for your difficulties?
Think about the path that your life is taking right now. What sort of changes would there be in your journey if, beginning right now, you truly internalized The Contribution Promise – from today onward, you would own your problems, and your opportunities?
If you are a parent, are your children learning and living by the precepts of The Contribution Promise? What steps could you take to help them grow up to be owners, not just renters, of the problems and the opportunities that life will throw their way?
What is one specific action you will take within the next 24 hours to hold yourself to The Contribution Promise?
|Copyright © 2005
Joe Tye, America's Values Coach™