The package was tall and covered in brown packing tape which a skinny, bed-headed guy in a corporate polo shirt was applying with enthusiasm. “See, now it looks more like a board or something,” he said, continuing to wrap. The cowboy on my side of the FedEx counter chuckled. The tape was quickly burying what appeared to be two tubes of cardboard squashed slightly flat. Just about the moment I realized that the long item inside was a shotgun, shipping boy said, “It’s not about what you can and can’t ship, it’s what you can and can’t get caught shipping.”
I hate dealing with people who try to get more out of me than they deserve, and so I tend not to ask for more than I think is reasonable. This attitude is, unfortunately, crippling. I’ve had to catch people sneaking into theaters and I know what a hassle it is and how angry I get for having to deal with them. The wealthy CIO of one of my former companies used to sneak into movies all the time. He carried in a used popcorn bucket, acting as though he’d been there all along. It wasn’t that he couldn’t afford the ticket or, for that matter, to buy the theater itself, but he somehow thrilled at figuring out ways to get around a system. That’s what made him good at his job. (Actually, let’s use “skilled at his job”.)
Ignorance, a bit of selfishness and a willingness to ignore laws and customs are powerful tools for accomplishing big things. You have to be able to launch into something first and find out later if someone objects. If you move quickly, the thing is already done. You’re already in front of the director by the time the secretary says, “Excuse me Miss…” You’ve already photographed the screaming politician before his aides shout, “you can’t film here.” Your company is already large and successful when someone asks, “wait, are these numbers right?”
A coworker of mine who grew up dirt poor in Houston ignored everything he saw around him and hacked his way through college and into a dot com. If he had done what he was told he would have gotten a job out of high school and been stuck there.
A filmmaker I know shot his first film on a camera he “borrowed” from work and two credit cards. Sure, the story could have ended terribly, but instead he’s doing well and if he hadn’t done a few things that are frowned on long ago, he’d still be working at the post office.
In the personal coaching world there is a concept called, “acceleration to failure.” The idea is that when someone suggests a whack scheme, sometimes the best approach is to leap in and help them reach the point where it fails as quickly as possible, so that they can believe in its failure and be truly open to alternatives. Another similarity I’ve noticed about these people I describe are that they are also excellent at making snap judgments. They will have already failed and tried a second tactic while I’m still mired deep in the process of making just the right choice. Worse yet, I’m wasting time whining at them about the fact that they haven’t thought things through beforehand.
So while my response to many behaviors in the past would have been to call them “selfish”, “judgmental” or even “illegal” and thought of those as negative things, I’ve learned that there is a lot of value in some of these approaches when used in moderation. The attitude that underlies them is crucial to breaking through the many invisible barriers to success that surround us.
It’s not that I’ve never seen the benefits of being an overly fair and, well, nice guy. In college, I missed countless final exams. During one English final, the professor got worried when she didn’t see me, asked the students for my number, and called me to make sure I came in. After writing down the wrong day for a physics final, I went to the prof with my story. Despite dropping his head to his desk, covering it with his arms and groaning dramatically, he agreed to give me the exam personally. (Better yet the test he gave me was the same one from the archives that I had studied the night before.) He trusted me to not be pulling a fast one, simply because I wasn’t the kind of kid who did. Of course, all of that said, in the end I got a terrible grade in the class in some part because I refused to work on homework with other students, which was technically against the rules.
As I look towards my next round of life and what needs to be done I’m more convinced than ever that my tactics are going to have to change. I’m going to have to be more aggressive, less patient, and spend less time looking for the right or accepted ways of accomplishing things. In the end, it’s about what I can get away with while living out the short life I have.