I had a conversation some time ago with Jackson, a friend of mine. It was one of those talks where you cover everything from how we had the best ideas to fix the national debt to “were you good at sports as a kid?” It’s funny how two guys talking over coffee seem to have a greater bank of wisdom than the president, congress, and all of our friends combined. And, since business mirrors life, we folded a lot of the conversation into how we behaved in our respective careers. When we started talking about how we made big decisions, Jackson said, “If I am ever at a loss as to which direction to go, I always think of what my father told me the entire time I was growing up under his roof.”
Jackson leaned back and said, “I can hear him now as we would both be working on the lawn. ‘Jackson, there are two ways to go through life, collecting receipts or building equity. Receipts are faster, easier, and usually more fun, but they don’t give you anything at the end. Building equity takes planning, discipline, and hard work, but you get more for your effort in the long run.
‘Take relationships, for instance. There are a lot of pretty women, and there will always be someone who will catch your eye. And, for a while, you should date and have a number of relationships. It teaches you who you are, and what you can offer somebody. But dating is just collecting receipts, not building equity. Equity is something you have at the end. It is something of value; something you own. Receipts are just a pocketful of paper. Dating leaves you with pocketful of receipts; quick memories of short encounters. Marriage builds equity.
‘Every relationship you have in life, whether at work, at home, or with friends, will either be collecting receipts or building equity. Now there is nothing wrong with receipts, as long as you know that receipts are what you want at the time. Not every friendship will last a lifetime. Some aren’t supposed to. Not every date will end in marriage, and not every job will last until you retire. But even the people you meet who will just be receipts should be treated as though they deserve your equity. There is a time in life when you want to think seriously about what kind of equity you are building.
“To be sure, dating is easier than marriage. If things get tough while dating, you can jump. And dating is a lot more fun because of the excitement of always meeting someone new. There is also a lot less stress when you don’t have to think about where you two are going and how you will handle the future. Dating is easy because it doesn’t involve anyone except the two of you. You get to only think about yourself. How great is that? But I have yet to meet a person that spent their life that way and felt really good about themselves in the long run.
‘The same is true for work. You can jump from here to there, collecting receipts along the way, but I haven’t met too many people who do that and are happy at the end. They never stuck around long enough to have a real impact, to make a difference. That’s what equity is, making a difference so you know that your time on Earth has meant something to other people.
‘So Jackson, you be a young man for now. Date different ladies, take on new jobs; see where your fancy takes you. But there will come a time when you need to start building equity so you don’t end up with nothing but a pocketful of receipts.’”
That’s the kind of story that puts the conversation on pause. It is also the kind that sticks with you. I know, because that talk took place about twenty years ago, and it is still fresh in my mind. So what does this have to do with business? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot. I certainly have a list of employees, customers, and clients who might feel like they were little more than receipts to me. It is true that not every relationship is meant to be lifelong. You can’t marry every client or staff member. However, when I remind myself that there is a big difference between being treated like just another receipt instead of like valuable equity, I think I do my job better.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.