Sometimes a Little Stupid is a Good Thing
When I entered the working world, I developed some philosophies – and let me know if they sound familiar:
- Have fun, but don’t do anything stupid.
- Your reputation is built over time, but it can be destroyed in seconds, so make sure you don’t do anything stupid.
- When you get the chance to meet the powerful and influential, for God’s sake, don’t do anything stupid.
I think I made a mistake. Sometimes a little stupid is a good thing.
The summer after my junior year in college I worked as a “go-fer” in a Fort Lauderdale law firm, delivering mail, running errands, etc. On Fridays I’d drive down to Miami to record mortgages at the Dade County courthouse. It was the same routine every week: in and out of the courthouse in forty-five minutes and the parking fee was $1.50. Like clockwork. One Friday I had to file some additional documents at the Federal courthouse several blocks away. By the time I returned to the parking lot, the fee was $3.00. Unfortunately, I only had two dollars in my wallet. Stupid.
I tried to reason with the attendant: “You’ve seen me every Friday all summer and know I’ll be back next week. I’ll pay you then. What do you say?’
I got a sneer and a curt “Three dollars” in broken English.
I groveled. I cajoled. I yelled. I got the same response each time. “Three dollars.”
Finally, the attendant in the booth broke into an evil grin and pointed back towards the lot. The cars lined up behind me had to back up so I could re-park my car, which led to a furious exchange of hand gestures and salty language. It wasn’t pretty.
I went over to the steps in front of the courthouse and began asking people for money. Seriously. One dollar. I was ignored by most people and was twice told “No hablo Ingles.” Between raw anger and the Miami humidity, I started sweating like a madman. Then I saw him. SuperWasp. He was wearing one of those ridiculous blue-striped seersucker suits. Tortoise shell glasses. Wing tips. I smiled and said, “Hate to bother you, man, can you give me a dollar to get out of the parking lot?” The guy shot me a look like I just threw up on his wing tips, pushed me aside and muttered, “Get a job.”
Round two of hand gestures and salty language.
Out of all the bustle and street noise, I suddenly become aware of laughter. Señor Weasel was leaning out of his little hut in the parking lot. “It’s three seventy-five now!” he yelled, and then convulsed in laughter.
Great. I had my paycheck in my pocket, but my checking account was at a bank whose closest branch was thirty miles away. Then I had a stupid moment. I remembered that my father’s former boss was president of a bank in Miami. Surely he could get my check cashed. I looked up the address in a pay phone’s white pages and walked six blocks to the bank. I went up to the executive floor and told the receptionist who I was and that I’d like to see the president. She shot me a skeptical look, and then reluctantly placed a call, announcing “Mr. Sprague is here to see Mr. Bomar.”
Within minutes, Tom Bomar, the President (and the former Chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board), came running into the reception area, looked right through me, and said to the receptionist, “Is this a joke? I thought you said Bill Sprague was here to see me. “ Oops.
“Uh, Mr. Bomar, I’m Karl Sprague. I’m Bill’s son.”
To his credit, he quickly composed himself and asked what I needed.
“Three bucks,” I replied.
“Actually, can I get a check cashed downstairs?”
After my blue streak apologies for interrupting him, I told him my tale of woe. He escorted me downstairs to the teller window where they gladly cashed my check. They tend to be very accommodating when the CEO of the bank is standing there.
As he walked me towards the front door, my wallet now full of cash, he asked “of the dozens and dozens of things you could have done, what possessed you to come here to see me?”
I bit my tongue before I blurted out, “Dozens of alternatives? Wow. The only alternative I came up with was panhandling.”
Instead I told him, “My father talked a lot about you. He trusts you. I guess I was trying to keep it in the family.”
He laughed, slapped me on the back and we said our good-byes. As I walked away, he called to me.
“What are your plans after you graduate?”
“I have no idea.”
“Send me your resume. I think you’d be perfect for our management training program.” He slipped me his business card and we parted.
Until that time, I hadn’t considered a career in banking and wasn’t even sure I wanted to work in Florida. Now I had something to focus on. I came back to Miami on Spring Break of my senior year and he set up an interview for me. I was hired.
Go figure. I chickened out of panhandling money from strangers, so I went after one of the most powerful men in Miami. Stupid. But as I look back on my manic march on the Executive Floor, I’m amazed at the results. Because of that connection, I moved to South Florida after graduation, I met the love of my life at the bank, and launched a career that ultimately led me, decades later, to my dream job. But somewhere along the line I joined the dark side. Social conventions. Pecking orders. Overly concerned about reputation. You know, a conformist weenie.
Maybe I’ve been cheating myself out of some life-changing, right-between-the-eyes opportunities. People. Events. Contacts.
As I resolve to get a little stupid back in my own life, let me pass along some ideas for you:
- When you take a relationship risk, over-reach – don’t risk it on someone who is uninspired or uninvolved. Identify people who are making a difference: thought leaders, business leaders, master networkers.
- Learn how to network with purpose. Two great resources on intentional networking are Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi; and Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty, by Harvey Mackay.
- If you want to maximize the mileage you get from a friendly gesture, do a favor for someone’s child.
- Encourage spontaneity with friends, family members and colleagues. When spontaneity is safe, or even encouraged, it sets the tone. Then your random acts of stupidity won’t be regarded as occasional, out-of- character brain farts; you’ll be in good company.
- Risk-taking requires some ground rules. Make sure you don’t cross the line. No one should get hurt or offended by your actions. Designate someone you trust to be your conscience and give them authority to tell you when you’re acting like a jerk.
- Don’t take yourself so seriously. Learn to laugh. At yourself. Often.
What recommendations do you have? How do you attract opportunities by adding a little stupid into your life?