Just pick up the knife and bone it

by danyaneering

So, I just called my parents to get a refresher on this story, and they told it in perfect empty-nester style: in tandem, correcting each other as they went along.  “No, it was a farmhouse, not a country inn.”  “Honey, you didn’t say that.”  “Well, I must have said that because you were annoyed and I know that it would have bothered you.”  I love them dearly.

They went to Ireland (yes, it rained the whole time), and they stayed at a farmhouse (not a country inn).  The farmer’s wife was the cook, and the farmer himself was the maitre d’ and server.  This was my parents’ first night in the Land of a Thousand Welcomes, so they treated themselves to one: a gourmet, homecooked, celebratory meal.  They ordered fish, but, when it arrived in all its original glory (spine included), my mother had to call out, embarrassed, “Excuse me sir, but we’re American!,” implying, “We have no goshdarn clue how to eat this!”  The farm owner/waiter/husband turned sharply, looking at my now-epicurean parents with utter confusion, and snapped, “Just pick up the knife and bone it!”

That’s how you get what you want.  You just pick up the knife and bone it, and that was one of the many mantras I grew up with, among “savlanut!” (“patience” in Hebrew) and “it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it” (which was often repeated to me as I disingenuously apologized for being a typically rude teenager).   The fact is, if you want something, you have to pursue it pretty ruthlessly, with no hesitation or embarrassment, and using logic, smarts, and charm.  You use the tools at your disposal, but if you have absolutely no idea what to do with the knife, then you come up with plan B and rip apart the fish with your fingers, dodging potentially life-threatening bones as you enjoy the buttery meat between them.

What do we want?

Maybe you want a job that pays the rent and allows you to buy lots of amazing organic kale that you whip up with some seasoned shallots before heading out to your 96th Phish show (and you live in Portland, obviously).  Maybe you want to graduate from a school with elegant courtyards and old traditions, become a JP analyst, head to a top 10 b school no more than two or three years later, and ride the fast track to CFO-dom.  Maybe you’re aching to meet “the one,” get hitched, quit your job, and build a family, making your spouse and children the cornerstone of your life experience.

Right now, I want to live in Brooklyn, have a real hobby (and time to pursue it), to start building some savings, to volunteer, to exercise, to travel short- and long-term, and to see more of my family and friends.  Pretty typical, I assume.  I also want to surround myself with smart, curious, ambitious individuals whom I can learn from, to hit a steep learning curve and climb it fast, to be passionate about or interested in the work I do (whether it’s do-gooder or simply entertaining), to help others find what they’re happy doing and to help them achieve the growth they’re pursuing, and to build a reputation for myself as a successful risk-taker and dream-maker.

How do we get it?

Well, I’ve got a plan of action for myself, and whether I’m working towards long-term goals or simply getting a free drink when I’m out tonight because that’s what I want, I’m acting with these principles in mind (feel free to skim the bold sentences for the quick lesson, read the rest of the bullet points for personal examples):

Pick up the knife and bone it.

See above – don’t just sit around and wait for someone else to tell you how to succeed.  Figure it out yourself!  I’m really good about asking for help, and that’s gotten me far, but I think that my most valuable learning experiences – and many of the ones where I got what I wanted in the end – resulted when I forced myself to just give it a try.  The summer before my senior year in college, my parents were generous enough to agree to buying me a car to take to school.  But August was rapidly approaching, and we hadn’t found the right one – good price, good condition, not a minivan… There was this great little, red Honda Civic, but it was stick.  And my dad didn’t think I could do it.  My sister’s the one who taught herself how to change a tire by doing so when my mom got stranded on the side of the highway.  Not me.  But, because of my (sometimes unjustified) self-confidence and determination, I pressured my dad to buy the car, which he did.  While we had a few lessons, it was pretty much up to me to drive around the neighborhood, avoiding hills at all costs, for the one or two weeks I had before my dad and I were supposed to hit the road from New Haven, where I grew up, to St. Louis, where I was in school.  I stalled out every other block, got stuck at the top of a massive hill and had people honking and swerving around me, and I even got some sage advice from an 18-wheeler’s driver after he saw me cause a near-accident.  But I learned, and I’m pretty damn good, if I don’t mind saying so myself.  So good that I drove my entire family around the Tuscan mountains of Italy in a stick shift station wagon (not sure how much my parents had to pay for the burnt out transmission…).

Shove your pride where the sun don’t shine…and be overly confident.  (In a totally non-contradictory way.)

You can’t be embarrassed or bashful about getting what you want.  You can’t be afraid that other people will think you’re unworthy or unqualified, and you can’t be timid about asking for your pot of gold (or, at least, asking for help in your pursuits).  Part of the Danyaneering principle is that I’m pretty damn sure of myself, even when I shouldn’t necessarily be, and that’s why I win more often than lose.  Sure I get rejected and told “no,” but those moments are harmless memories minutes or short days after they occur.  I’m certainly not embarrassed to speak in Spanish to the guys at the corner deli near my office, because, even though they say things I can’t understand and chuckle under their breath when I say something incorrectly, they give me my veggie wrap for $5 instead of the official $6.75.  I’m not bashful about having created a profile on OKCupid, and since I didn’t mind put myself out there and I sent lots of messages (many of which I don’t get responses to), I did end up dating someone from the site for a few interesting and fun months; in fact, I’m so not embarrassed that I’ve told lots of friends about the dating site, and I’ve now helped at least 3 other people come up with witty, personal profiles.

Get all up in people’s business.

Warning: this obsessive and somewhat stalker-ish approach should NOT be applied to blind dates.  That said, do your research.  A LOT of it.  Google people.  Who are your common connections on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter?  Do you share an alma mater?  Ask – when/how do you prefer to communicate, i.e., email/phone/weekends/mornings?  We like to talk about ourselves (could you tell I do?) and to feel important.  We like to feel respected and to be thanked.  At work, it’s absolutely essential for me to have a pipeline of the most excellent graduating seniors at the schools in my portfolio, because those are the people whom I’m going to invite to meet with me, whom I’m going to email 6 times until they attend the alumni panel I’m hosting, whom I’m going to put my time and effort into building relationships with so that they’ll open their minds to the possibility of doing life-changing things (for them and their students) in the classrooms that need their leadership the most.  I Google, I Facebook, I search the schools’ websites, I talk to alumni, I chat with professors and academic advisors and friends.  Then, I send that email or make that first call, because I can now sit down with those students, shoot the shit for 10 or so minutes and bond over our shared interest in ethnomusicology or Chile, and then bring out my pre-prepared, personalized arsenal of stories, one-pagers, and statistics to show them how being a lawyer (advocating for the disenfranchised…) is pretty much right in line with being a teacher in a low-income school (where 4th grade students are reading Goodnight Moon instead of Harry Potter because they’ve been systematically denied the opportunity to be where their wealthier peers are academically and in the future).  Send thank-yous, FYI notes (“just wanted to share this interesting article with you!”), and calls to action.  Build a relationship and get personal – that’s how you convince someone to truly believe in what you’re selling, not just to say emptily that they’ll buy your product and then walk right out of your store and go with the competitor.

Know Thyself.

I know what I suck at and what natural gifts I don’t have, but I also know my strengths and unique traits, and I play them up to get what I want rather than let my limitations stop me.  Last year, after a lifetime of being the “non-technical” one in my family (my dad’s an engineer who challenged my younger sister to learn binary language and write her own program if she wanted a Game Boy), I decided that I was going to become a total early adopter and join the tech world (or, at least the world of social media).  I don’t know how to code, but I can talk to a wall and my job has honed my online research/stalking skills to a master level.  So, I signed up for the networking-heavy New York Tech Meetup during Internet Week, Googled around about brand new apps, signed up for Foursquare, and started reading Paul Graham’s essays.  Me entree into the tech world certainly wasn’t going to come from me designing a mobile app, but I met the right people, went to the right places, and did my research – because those are my secret weapons – and now I can honestly say that when I head to tomorrow’s NYTM, I’m going to feel a lot more like a sibling than a cousin three times removed.

You CAN (almost) always get what you want!  (Pardon the edit, Mick.)

Everything I just said is pretty obvious.  Like, if you can commit to being confident, knowing what you want and going for it no matter what, and being prepared, you’ll probably get what you want most of the time.  There’s more I could say – negotiate, try again and again and again and when you don’t want to give it another shot do it anyway, flirt and smile (yup, simple as that), enlist henchmen to help you do your dirty work – but I actually have a confession, now that I’ve convinced you that you have everything you need to score that million you’ve been needing to turn your start up into the next Twitter or to get that ridiculously clever and cute guy you met on NYE to call you.

There are, without a doubt, a zillion times when I’ve tried all of these tactics and more and still been turned away at the door.  This post is way to0 long to get into what happens when you DON’T get what you want, but since that’ll definitely happen to you, as it has to me, I’m going to save us all some energy and hold on to that for the next post…