Monday, June 2, 2014

James and the Lawn Mower: The Power of Being Specific

Nearly every Sunday morning since last fall, I’ve had a short conversation with a man named James. He stands next to an exit off I-35W with a sign asking for help, so I stop on the way to church, give him a few dollars, and wish him well. He seems like a good guy who’s down on his luck.

Last Sunday was the end of a bad week. In my morning meditation, I decided that the problem was my selfish attitude. So I said a little prayer asking God to make me useful to other people that day. Being useful is a sure-fire way to forget myself and fix my attitude. Did it work? Well ...

Driving to church, there was James. But instead of saying good morning, he said, “Hey, do you know where I can get a lawn mower? I want to cut grass for people to bring in some money.” I replied, “I-I-I ... don’t know. But I’ll find out. Stick around, okay? I’ll be back in an hour!” James shook his head yes.

Pulling away, I thought, “What the heck did I just get myself into?” But I was confident I would find a lawn mower ... somewhere.

Now, I’m a lector at church, so I give the announcements at the end of mass. I told the priest about James and asked if I could ask the congregation for a lawn mower during announcements. He agreed. So here’s what I said ...

“I need your help. A resident of our parish has fallen on hard times. To make ends meet, he wants to mow lawns for money. He needs only one thing: a lawn mower. I would give him mine, but I don’t have one. So I’m asking you -- if you have access to a good, working lawn mower and you’re willing to donate or sell it to me, please meet me out front. I know you’re out there and I hope this message moves you.”

Not one, but two people were waiting for me outside.

A woman named Lucia had a more suitable mower, so I chose her. After getting her address, I ran to my car. A few minutes later, I pulled up at his corner and there was James. “I got you a mower, man -- let’s go!” I said. He jumped in and we sped off.

So far, this was turning out to be a good morning for James. But it got better.

At her house, Lucia told us, “My boys are off at college and I have a lawn service now. I don’t need this mower or this gas can. Would you like the can, too?”

“Yes ma’am. Thank you!” said James.

“How about this edger. Would you like that, too?” asked Lucia.

“Yes ma’am. Thank you very much!” said James.

James now had a built-in upsell (“Would you like edging with that?”) for his new lawn-mowing business. How cool was that?

Thanking Lucia one final time, James and I loaded his new equipment into my SUV and drove to his apartment. On the way I asked, “Have you ever asked anyone for a lawn mower before?”

“No, never,” he said. “I just got the idea this morning.”

“Isn’t that interesting?” I said. “I just decided to be useful this morning. Somehow this all turned into a new business for you. And you know what? If you’d asked me for $250 to buy a lawn mower, I would have turned you down flat. But because you asked for a lawn mower, you got it!”

Now, James and I talked about a lot of other things that are private to him and to me, about how Someone put us together to help each other ...

... but here’s what I took away from this: There’s great power in knowing exactly what you want, in your business and your life. Unless you know what you want, you’ll never know what to ask for. And you’ll never get it. But knowing and asking specifically can make a big difference. It did for James.

One last thing. I’ve never shared a story like this with a business reader like you, so I hope you found it useful and not too personal. Let me know what you think!

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  1. Not too personal and a great anecdote. I love this:

    "Unless you know what you want, you’ll never know what to ask for. And you’ll never get it."

    Great reminder for almost every avenue in life, whether its career, family, or personal growth.

    I'll be stashing this story away in my memory as one of those stories worth remembering!