Three Wishes from the Ghost of College Past

Thinking back to the classes I took as an undergrad, I didn’t actually learn a single thing about business or being a professional of any kind. I learned how to write my way into corners and out of paper bags. But when I think back to some of what I learned out of the classroom, here are the three pieces of advice that make more and more sense to me as time goes on.

“Always return phone calls.”

This nugget came from the friend of a friend’s father, a guy named Danny who occasionally used my college apartment as a crash pad on football weekends. Even though this piece of advice rolled out of his mouth randomly, the words resonate today stronger than ever. In fact, I’m finding that fewer and fewer business people actually live up to Danny's advice, which is probably my largest pet peeve as a professional.

Thinking back on 2015, I can't count the number of times I left voicemails, sent emails, dashed off a few lines of text to people who were actually expecting them and received something just short of crickets in reply. I’m still waiting to hear back from a former client on a message I left her…in JULY.

I get it—you’re busy. Or as the kids like to say, you’ve “got a lot on your plate.” Thing is, so does everyone else. And when everyone has the same excuse, then no one has it.

My first wish for your 2016:

May all of your emails, voicemails, and texts receive the replies they deserve. And may you dole out the replies as well. Don't leave someone hanging, and don't just shrug it off when someone "totally spaces" on getting back to you. Let them know that even burned out college kids know how to pick up the phone (or at least they did in the late 90s).

“Act like you know what the f*ck you’re doing.”

I owe this one to Pete, who was an amazing woodworker/carpenter/barroom philosopher I worked and drank with at this place right here.

Pete hired me to help him with some light carpentry and wood refinishing during winter break 1997. I was a complete idiot with power tools, but he needed a warm body to help him finish on time. We finished 98% of what we needed to before the restaurant reopened, which meant we had to finish the remaining 2% in front of a live and annoyed audience.

Pete was his usual jovial self until we got within two feet of the restaurant’s back entrance. Then he turned in a snap and grabbed my shirt collar like he was trying to shake the bong water out of my eyes:

“Act like you know what the f*ck you’re doing.”

I snapped to it, stood straight, and walked in like I owned the place, or at least like I knew how to change the paper on a power sander. Ninety-minutes later, I walked back to his truck feeling like a carpentry apprentice.

In the business world, I understand that nerves happen. But here’s a little truth for you: if the spotlight is on you, then you’re in charge. If you put even a shred of trust in yourself, we’ll trust you too.

My second wish for your 2016:

May you own the room, whatever room you're in. And may you tap your own inner woodworking sage and help the young pups find their feet when it's their time to stand.

"Don't play scared darts."

This one I owe to my father. He said it to me in 1998, when he and my older brother spent a lost weekend at my apartment and hustled a pack of college kids out of their drinking money, all while outdrinking us. Not to glorify alcohol consumption here, but that's what this particular weekend was all about: my father wanted to live it up the way he hadn't in a while. He wanted to check out our haunts. Above all else, he wanted to shoot darts.

It just so happened that every stop along the way had a dartboard and corresponding strip of duct tape on the floor to mark the line. That's when my father would snap into some other radar-focused mode of being. He may have been beer-blind, but he could see straight enough to whup anyone who wasn't smart enough to pick him as their shooting partner. By 1998 he'd been shooting darts and bringing home tournament trophies since before the rest of us were born. Drunken darts? For him, it was as easy as falling off a bike.

What are scared darts? It's the type of darts you shoot when you're playing "not to lose" rather than "to win." Maybe you had a solid first three frames, and you're ahead by 10 points. The scared darts strategy would be to shoot for singles in the hopes of tacking onto your score, rather than "risk" the tougher double or triple shots to really get ahead. In other words, you're trying to "win small" because you're afraid to lose.

My father called me out for playing this exact strategy when I finally found myself winning for once. By the end of that game, he'd made up the difference, gone ahead for good, and added my money to his pile.

Everyone plays scared darts from time to time. We stay on the safe road even when we're unhappy, or we stick around too long because our shackles are made of gold. Let's do it differently in 2016.

My third wish for your 2016:

May you no longer settle for "good enough." May you recognize the moment you're playing "scared darts" and opt for a strategy that's a little wilder. And if you're seeing triple, just close one eye and shoot for the middle--you may be closer to the mark than you think.