What have I done for you lately?

Sunday, May 9, 2021 by Louie Bacaj

When I was 22, a bartender in a nice family restaurant, an older woman named Rose Begnal, changed my whole perspective on life. She told me—Louie, no one gives a shit about what you want, but they all deeply care about what you can do for them. I recognize that this advice is doled out in many different ways, but it took that woman that day to tell me those words for it all to click for me.

Life is better when you can do something for others.

Rose was in her 70s back then, and she would only drink brown liquor; whenever she came to the bar, she didn't want me to make her a cosmopolitan or one of those wonderful signature martinis I used to make. The martini's still had the ice chips in them from shaking them so vigorously, and as an aside, the customers used to rave about them. Nope, Rose didn't want any of that; she only wanted scotch. And today, Rose is in her 80s, but she is still going strong.

On that particular day that she gave me the advice, Rose also told me my resume needed help and that she would be the one to help me fix it. At first, the thought that came to my mind was what does this lady know about getting a job in computer science; it turned out she knew a lot. Rose took my very matter-of-fact resume, sat down with me, and we completely reworded it. She changed every single line item's framing from a fact about what responsibility I held to something I had done for someone else. Things I had done for the business, the owner, the customers, other people; all of those things became my resume.

For example, she took the following:

We shortened further to only the relevant information, the years in management etc.

Which resonates with you more? Your resume, too, would be better off if it only focused on the things you have done for other people rather than listing particular technologies or skills verbatim. I see many engineers make this mistake.

The point of this is that my life changed significantly for the better after that advice; not only did I get a job, but I learned about my place in the world. I learned about what I should be focused on—adding value to other people. But there is a much larger takeaway here too, we all remember the people that helped us in our lives, and if they did so selflessly, we remember them even more.

Take Dr. Robert Schaiffino, a professor at Iona College, who heard my story about having a hard time of it in life a little over ten years ago. I held multiple jobs at once while doing school and had less than stellar grades in my undergraduate erudition. He listened to my story and reviewed my request to get into the Master of Science program, which of course, required excellent grades to get in. Shockingly, he decided he was going to let me in. Iona is a private Catholic college, and Christian Brothers run it, and it is not some for-profit institution that's looking to rip people off; letting me in was a risk. If I failed, that wouldn't help their name or their cause, and it would certainly say something about Dr. Schaffino's judgment to his peers.

Dr. Schiaffino took the time to become my guide through it all. It is remarkable because he was an accomplished and busy man. He was the head of that Computer Science department, teaching some of the hardest classes in the whole program, and a researcher at IBM. Needless to say, he had better things to do than sit with me and give me advice about charting the best course through the program.

Recently, I had a chance to nervously say a few words at Dr. Schiaffino's retirement meetup and how much his help, taking that chance on me, changed my entire career trajectory. For one, after graduating from that Masters of Science program, I actually knew what the hell I was doing, got out of it with stellar grades too, and made some great friends in the process. During the retirement meetup, lots of students and lots of faculty spoke up about the impact this man has had on their lives and the lives of countless other students over the last 40 years. But the point again is you never forget the people who selflessly help you, especially those who might even risk something, like their reputation, to help you.

We all know people like this, like Rose and Dr. Schaffino, that have drastically changed our trajectories because of some push, some help, some selfless act. People who may have faith in you when you didn't necessarily even believe in yourself yet. Even someone who did the small stuff like putting their name against a recommendation they give out publicly, you never forget.

We should all strive to be more like these people.

To the short-term minded person being more like these people might seem like wasting time for minimal payoff long term; I would like to argue the opposite and not in some religious or moral way either. The modern philosopher Naval says being ethical might seem like a waste of time in the short term, but it turns out to be "long term greedy." Being ethical leads to compounding relationships, but I will tell you that nothing compounds relationships like selflessly helping another.

From Naval, you can read it here or listen to it here:

“Once you’ve been in business long enough, you will realize how much of it is about trust. It’s about trust because you want to compound... You want to work with trustworthy people for long periods of time without having to reevaluate every discussion or constantly look over your shoulder.…
You want to be ethical because it attracts other long-term players in the network. They want to do business with ethical people.
If you build a reputation for being ethical, people eventually will pay you just to do deals through you. Your involvement will validate deals and ensure they get done; because you wouldn’t be involved with low-quality stuff.
In the long run, being ethical pays off—but it’s the very long run. In the short run, being unethical pays off, which is why so many people go for it. It’s short-term greedy.…
Negotiations offer another good example. If you’re the kind of person who always tries to get the best deal for yourself, you will win a lot of early deals and it will feel very good.
On the other hand, a few people will recognize that you’re always scrabbling and not acting fairly, and they will tend to avoid you. Over time those are the people who end up being the dealmakers in the network. People go to them for a fair shake or to figure out what’s fair.
A lot of wisdom involves realizing long-term consequences of your actions. The longer your time horizon, the wiser you’re going to seem to everybody around you.”

Now I am not saying that either Dr. Schaffino or Rose helped me or anyone else for some selfish long-term reason, but I genuinely believe that their good deeds will be rewarded. Even if they never did it for reasons, the world has and will return it to them via great relationships that compound and get stronger over time, via karma and goodwill that will come back to them in some form or another. The good deeds themselves may not even come back to them directly, but they may come back to their children or grandchildren who have had their lives transformed by watching their selfless acts.

The world is full of flywheels that never dissipate energy but always shift it to the next form and then eventually return it back to the source as more value.

Most of us will never have the chance to impact millions or even thousands of lives, but we all have the opportunity to impact a few. From my experience, it doesn't take very many; just a few acts will put that energy out there. It isn't just about the energy either; my life has become more meaningful when I think about each of my relationships and ask, "what have I done to help this person lately?"

Now that I am on my way to being an old man myself, I've had the chance to review thousands of resumes for different roles I have tried to fill. The best way to beef up your resume is to live a life where you can help a few other people. Then you won't have to worry about writing resumes at all; it will just write itself. In the memorable words of Rose, "that's all the world gives a shit about."