I got an email the other day from an old friend. A former coworker of hers was feeling down about her current job and wanted some advice on what to do next. I hadn’t met this person before, but I agreed to introduce her to a few people in my network and gave her my two cents on how to make the transition she wanted.
After thanking me profusely for the help, she mentioned that if there was any way she could return the favor, I shouldn’t hesitate to ask.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why you just wasted 30 seconds reading Medium’s most mundane humblebrag. Hang in there — I promise this isn’t one of those posts…
A few months back, I started a health and wellness company. We’re still very early, so I find that I’m almost always on the other side of favors (i.e. the one asking). Would you be willing to join our alpha? What do you think about this logo? Would you mind introducing me to that person? Could you fill out this survey? Share this post? Like this page?
At the end of every request, I usually find myself including that same “quid pro quo” statement. Letting them know (in the sincerest way possible) that even though it may not be today, there is definitely something in it for them down the line. Operating under the assumption that, in the business world, people don’t simply help others without getting something in return. Upholding the notion that “favors” are yet another form of currency we spend and accrue as we carry out our professional lives.
If you recommend me, I’ll recommend you.
If you let me post on your blog, I’ll let you post on mine.
If you forward my resume to HR, I’ll help edit your cover letter.
If you intro me to your contact, I’ll intro you to mine.
If you send me leads, I’ll send some your way too.
If you leave a 5-star review, I’ll do the same for you.
But not all favors are this calculated. Some people offer help because they believe in karma. What goes around comes around. Others do it because they respect the person who’s asking. We all have our list of friends we’d do just about anything for.
When I received the compulsory “thank you/if there’s anything you need” email a few days back, my first thought was: Is there something I need from this person?
I could ask her to spread the word about my new company. I could encourage her to join our alpha. I could browse through her network and see if there was someone she knew who might fund us…
But then it dawned on me… sometimes it’s just nice to be helpful.
Freshman year of high school I made the varsity soccer team (there were only 150 guys at our school, so this wasn’t uncommon). Like most freshman, I rode the bench most games and idolized a handful of upperclassmen who seemed to have it all figured out.
There was one kid in particular, a senior co-captain, whom I thought was the epitome of cool. He was part jock soccer God, part starving underground artist. There was a deep calm about him that made what few words he offered seem endlessly deep and meaningful. He loved photography and would eventually be published in The New York Times for his journalism work in Pakistan and Nigeria. I could keep going but I’ll spare you.
After practice one day, he offered me a ride home. I wasn’t really on his way, but he did it nevertheless. We shot the shit for a while, then I asked him how his college apps were going. He mentioned his interest in studying photography and a desire to document cultures that were fundamentally different than our own. Because of this, he went early decision to Tufts, a school that valued art, diplomacy and global citizenship.
At the time, he probably didn’t think much of this conversation or how it may have affected me. I doubt he even recalls this car ride at all. He couldn’t imagine that I’d go home and research Tufts University. That, come senior year, I’d apply early decision. That I’d eventually major in International Relations, learn to speak Arabic, and study abroad in the Middle East for a semester. For him, it was just another car ride…
Back to that email I got.
Now I’m not vain enough to believe that the advice I gave will have the same impact on her life as his did on mine — I’m habitually longwinded and just as lost professionally as the next 20-something. I do however hope that something I say or an experience I share will eventually help someone like her get just a wee bit closer to discovering what it is they want to do next.
As a society, we tend to dehumanize the people we meet in the business context. We view professional interactions more as transactions. We judge each new acquaintance by how likely they are to further our career path. We feel guilty asking for favors when we have nothing to offer in return.
Above all, we fail to put forth the same level of kindness and authenticity that defines the most valuable relationships in our non-professional lives.
So the next time someone asks for help, see what you can do. Try not to think too much about reciprocation— just take a few minutes and share your perspective. You never know how a small piece of advice or a short anecdote may affect someone. And you never know when you might receive some amazing, unexpected advice in return.