Better relationships start with four words

Self-help books are a lot like cults: tremendous followings largely attributable to master orations, exciting taxonomy, baiting titles and promises of getting a lot while doing not much at all. Most of their claims are questionable and only one or two books are every likely to work for you.

But last year, I read a book on relationships that is one of the few I’d recommend – It’s called Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. The first few chapters set out the philosophy while the balance applies it to numerous examples, some which apply to you and others that don’t. The book’s key lessons on relationships are gold.

It starts with a very natural temptation: you meet someone new at an event. Your default mindset is “how can you help me?” which leads you to ask clumsy, boring questions designed to probe for usefulness without detection.

The problem?

First, it feels kind of crappy to be on the receiving end of a usefulness assessment (So what do you do? Oh, that’s quaint! Excuse me a moment, but I’m dying to try the Malbec).

Second, it makes for unusual event dynamics, most commonly a corporate celebrity encircled by stunned followers waiting for their turn to say something inspirational – like ten new baby calves wrestling over a single teat.

Third, it doesn’t work that often. People know what you’re doing. We’re not silly. There’s a lot of people here for the same casting audition. There are people here that you think can help you and you really, really want to meet them.

Ferrazzi’s book flips all that on its head. Instead of asking “how can you help” me, start your career asking how you can be of service to others. In other words:


It takes practice, but it doesn’t take long to see the benefits of that shift in paradigm. Here’s why I think that it seriously works:

1 – It’s unexpected

Reciprocity is expected and common. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” is a merchant’s promise from time immemorial. That’s not what this is. Genuine generosity demands no favours in return. Although less elegantly phrased, it’s closer to “you scratch my back because it’s itchy and I can’t do it myself.” It’s an offer too good to be true that (impossibly) is true.

The fact is genuine generosity is both unexpected and rare.

We dedicate enormous energy preparing for the unexpectedly negative (hail, drought, redundancy, injurytheft, scams). Life makes us wary of unsolicited kindness. We assume deception. That’s why it’s a pure delight to enjoy benevolence without strings, traps or catches. Be the source of genuine kindness and helpfulness and you have built yourself a powerful currency.

2 – It’s easy

Some people think that maintaining relationships is onerous. It’s not. Even when you’ve only known someone for 10 minutes, there are stacks of ways that you can help them straight away. Here’s two:

First, you can actually listen to them. People have a million worries, thoughts and dreams in their head at once. Make it safe for them to talk to you about them and you help them enormously.

Even just listening can feel like a great conversation. I remember an event where someone fired corny jokes at me for a good 20 minutes. I contributed little – just laughing heartedly at the bullseyes and sympathetically at the duds. After he depleted his comedic arsenal, hethanked me for the chat commenting on how funny was.

Second, you can introduce them to someone. Even small networks contain serious experts on a lot of topics. Putting two people together costs you nothing, takes less than a minute (in person or online) and can make great things happen.

3 – It’s a great principle to live by

It’s also a rare occasion when you stumble across a self-help book that tells you how to can rule the skies and also try to be a good person. Astonishingly, sometimes the two goals collide.

It’s easy in the flurry of tips for professional ascension to lose sight of what we want out of life. Some business philosophies are barely disguised manuals for colleague sabotage and cheating without being caught. True professional advice should not only be consistent with your principles, but pursue them.

So let’s skip straight to the eulogy test: imagine the posthumous narrator of your life saying “and he was always trying to help everyone he met.” That’s a principle that anyone can take six feet under with great pride.

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