October 28, 2009
Simon Thornhill is a good friend of mine. He and his lovely wife own The Troubadour in London, the legendary restaurant and nightclub. Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan played there, back when they were still unknown. The Thornhills bought the place from the previous owners a few years ago.
Before that, Simon was an officer in The Scots Guards, a highly respected Scottish regiment in the British Army. He’s tough as nails, but a bit of a hippie, too. If you ever visit Earl’s Court, look him up. He’s terrific company.
I don’t know what we were were talking about that night in The Shackleton Room, but somehow the conversation got on to the subject of young Army officers. Some of the kids I went to high school in Edinburgh with ended up joining Regiments straight after finishing their exams, so Simon’s previous life wasn’t a world completely unknown to me. These kids sign up at age seventeen or eighteen, take their two-year training at Sandhurst, and the next thing you know, they’re in the field, armed to the teeth, and giving orders to experienced Sargeants and Corporals twice their age.
I don’t know about you, but I would find that REALLY intimidating. Those young kids must have cojones, I’ll tell you that. I was telling Simon how terrifying I thought it it must be, to be a kid barely out of school, with all the men FAR more experienced than you under your command, holding you in the traditional squaddies’ contempt reserved for all new, young officers.
“Yes, that certainly happens,” said Simon. “But then you finally have what they call in the Army, ‘The Moment’. The Moment when you stop trying to be your men’s new best friend, and actually start to lead them. That’s when you REALLY become an officer– not before, when you receive your commission.
“That happened to me when we were on a night exercise. I had only received my commission a few months previously. Things were going terribly wrong, nobody was doing their jobs. Everything was in shambles. Finally I had my ‘Moment’. I just pulled my finger out, and firmly said to the men, ‘I’m in command, you’re not, you will do as I say or I will have you all up on charges, Boys. Now fucking go do your jobs.’ Somehow they knew I wasn’t joking.
“And so they went off and obeyed their orders, without any fuss. A few of them were easily ten or fifteen years older than me… The thing is, they might not think much of the young kid giving them orders at first, but at the same time, soldiers do want to be led.”
As with Simon, I think we all need to have that “Moment”, eventually. That moment when we stop futzing around and actually start behaving like proper adults. That moment when we actually start acting like “Officers” commanding our own lives.
I remember mine. I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but over the years I realized just how key it ended up being.
I was a young freelance advertising creative, living in London, meeting a friend for a drink at my regular Soho watering hole, The Coach & Horses.
The bar was crowded and noisy that evening. The barmaid was a young, pretty Chinese lass, who’d only been in the country a short while, who spoke pretty good English, but not great.
I asked the barmaid for a glass of wine for my friend, and for me, a gin & tonic with FOUR slices of lime. I even held up four fingers to help make it clear to her.
So the poor barmaid ended up bringing me back five drinks– my friend’s glass of wine, with FOUR gin & tonics, each with a SINGLE slice of lime. Oops. We’re talking a round that I suppose easily exceeded thirty or forty dollars.
A simple misunderstanding, I guess, plus like I said, her English wasn’t very good. I told the barmaid about the mix-up. “No, I asked for a SINGLE gin & tonic with FOUR slices of lime” etc.
Up until that moment, like any young pub drinker, I probably would then have just asked the barmaid to take the surplus three drinks away, and add more lime slices to the remaining gin. Easy. But I didn’t.
Instead, I asked her, “Will this mistake be coming out of your wages?”
“Yes,” she replied. I already knew enough about the bar’s owner to know that she wasn’t lying.
The thing is, unlike here in the US, the people working in London pubs don’t work for tips, mainly because nobody really tips there. You might get five or ten dollars a night if you’re lucky. They get paid by the hour, usually minimum wage, in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Hence London bartenders tend to be really, really poor. The mistake the barmaid made would be, for her, extremely expensive. Two-three hours’ wages or so, maybe even more.
“Never mind,” I said. “Just put three more limes in one of the glasses, and I’ll pay for the other three gins as well.” Which I did.
Then it was just a matter of finding three random people in the bar who were not above accepting free gin & tonics from a total stranger with an American accent. This being The Coach & Horses, that took all of twenty seconds. “Cheers, Mate!”
A year or two before that, I would’ve just probably allowed the young barmaid to take the hit. “You made the mistake, not me, not my problem” etc.
London was being kind to me at the time; life was good. Whereas this young Chinese girl was living thousands of miles away from her family, and probably doing so very close to the poverty line. So I chose to take the hit instead of her. I know I didn’t have to, I was perfectly within my rights, but…
I didn’t want to be that kind of person anymore. I really didn’t. So that was my “Moment”.
And every enterprise I’ve ever started or been involved with, had its Moment as well. That moment where you finally decide not to cut corners, not to make excuses, even if you can get away with it. Even if 99% of other businesses wouldn’t have bothered.
These moments are gold dust, they really are.
Has your business had its “Moment” yet? If not, what can you do to make it happen sooner? Serious question.
[Update: Molly made a lovely point in the comments:]
The Moment is a confluence of empathy, understanding and clarity that enables you to elevate yourself to your next stage of development. I have a true Moment about once a year, and it falls within a different category each time (ie. Parenting, personal, professional).
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