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The right work isn’t cheap, but it’s a joy to share.

Most days our schedule is for the people who are paying us. Clients. Referrals. Customers. We go from appointment to task, email to tweet, for the payers. Coffee is for closers, no?

That’s why we get frustrated with people who “might pay us” – prospects who rush in, demand we stop everything, help them now, now, now, and then….. disappear. An hour call, three days showing them ideas, a half-dozen proposals. Then they fall off the grid.

Must we sometimes pay for coffee without a sale?

That’s why I prefer to think in terms of chestnuts. Growing up, I remember chestnuts being tasty but not cheap. When I lived in Bologna, there was a park nearby where, once a year, you could pick them off the ground by the handful, like manna from heaven. You’d take them home, almost secretively, and cook and share them with family and neighbors. Not because they were free, but because they’re more valuable when eaten with others, smiling and cracking into a rare treat together.

This crossed my mind today as I checked out of the doctor’s office. The office administrator seemed extremely stressed, yet it was only 8 a.m. She was muttering as I approached, so I asked if she was okay. A dam burst: She was already off to a bad year. Upset patients. Crazy computer systems. Office politics. She’d hoped the new year would be fresher, but it was the old grind.

As I listened, she caught herself. She changed the subject, picking a date for my follow up, then casually asking what I did for work. When I told her, she said, “I should attend one of your seminars. I could really use some motivation in my life.”

What could I do? I wished I had some chestnuts.

Then I realized I had some, in the form of a little encouragement. I gave her a 2-minute motivational seminar right on the spot! I suggested she try journaling to begin each day from a creative mindset. I told her the story of how I almost quit once, when everything was so chaotic, and how rediscovering my photography hobby re-energized how I dealt with traveling 165,000 miles from home each year. I gave her the name of a good book (Emotional Intelligence 2.0) to build skills for dealing with the office crazy. And I closed my “seminar” by telling her that if I could beat cancer twice, she could easily overcome little things to re-discover the joy of her career.

Two minutes and three chestnuts later, her entire demeanor changed. Her shoulders un-bunched. She smiled and blinked back a few tears. She shook my hand, but she really wanted a hug. I paid the co-pay and left, thinking about the work on my schedule for today’s payers. Then I smiled at myself, happy I’d made some time to share chestnuts with someone who could never repay me.

Epilogue

I wasn’t sure how I’d end this piece. I could have used a “moral of the story” cliche about paying it forward or investing in the future. Yet life is much more clever than I. Sitting in a coffee shop editing the above, an email arrived. It was a reply to a follow-up I’d sent to a prospect over five years ago. Back then, I’d done a little free work for them, coffee without compensation. That’s what many of us convert prospects to clients; and because I enjoyed the work itself, so it was fun.

Alas, it turned out to be a cup of coffee without a closing.

Or had it? Today’s reply to that five year old message included a request to participate on a significant project, for compensation. A delightful surprise that reminds me that we must sometimes work for the joy of the work, not just for today’s pay. I’ve always believed that if you do good work, the rest will come.

That’s why I share chestnuts when I can: It’s fun to inspire my barber, my accountant, and my doctor’s administrator – really, anybody who will listen. Ironically, I’m paying them while I’m doing the sharing. Yet the chestnuts come back, in the ways they should, sometimes business, sometimes friendships; sometimes just a little note that says Thank you, I needed that.

Proof that if you want to sit under a big tree tomorrow, you need to plant a chestnut today.

 

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