Mensches, Lovecats, and Drive By Altruism

By Deane Barker on February 19, 2006

This weekend, I was struggling with a .Net / XML / XSLT problem. I’m not a big .Net guy, but I’ve been working with it for the last few months on a big project for Blend.

Brian, from MyHomepoint has been a huge help as I’ve gotten my feet wet in the ASP.Net world. But when I asked him for help, I promised not to bounce debugging-type issues off of him. He was my source for larger architectural issues, and I made a silent promise to myself never to send him code, lest I sully the relationship (now I’m wondering if I ever actually sent him code…I think I did, actually…).

Anyway — back to my point.

I posted this problem I was having to a public forum, and Portman Wills responded with some code to solve it…in .Net 2.0. I needed a .Net 1.1 solution, so he is — at the time I write this — installing Visual Studio 2003 in an attempt to help me out.

He calls it “being a mensch,” and he referred me to this URL, where Guy Kawasaki writes about it as such:

Help people who cannot help you. A mensch helps people who cannot ever return the favor. He doesn’t care if the recipient is rich, famous, or powerful. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t help rich, famous, or powerful people (indeed, they may need the most help), but you shouldn’t help only rich, famous, and powerful people.

Help without the expectation of return. A mensch helps people without the expectation of return—at least in this life. What’s the payoff? Not that there has to be a payoff, but the payoff is the pure satisfaction of helping others. Nothing more, nothing less.

This is a wonderful thing, but I thought I had heard it before. And, sure enough, I remember a little book I read years ago called “Love is the Killer App,” by Tim Sanders of Yahoo. To Sanders, a “mensch” is a “lovecat.” He says:

[…] tomorrow is upon us. And to succeed in tomorrow’s workplace, you need a killer application.

What is that application? Simply put: Love is the killer app. Those of us who use love as a point of differentiation in business will separate ourselves from our competitors just as world-class distance runners separate themselves from the rest of the pack trailing behind them.

So Portman’s favor brought me back to that book years earlier. I guess I’ve always tried to run my business this way, and hopefully I’ve succeeded more than I’ve failed. Recently, however, this theory of just doing good things keeps coming up, like The Man Above is trying to keep me headed in the right direction.

On Monday, two guys came down to Sioux Falls from a Fargo firm that specializes in IT placement. Joe and I got introduced to them through a quirk of circumstance, and a five-minute conversation turned into lunch. We spilled our guts about the IT climate of Sioux Falls, and over the next few days we sent emails of introduction to a half-dozen people we knew that might be in the market for what this company did.

Looking back, Joe and I weren’t completely sure why we were doing all that work. There was nothing in it for us except lunch. Sure, maybe these guys could refer some work our way, but the odds aren’t all that good. We were just in a position to do something nice and we responded.

In the big picture, I guess I feel like all this stuff comes back around somehow. Somewhere, someday, in some way, there might be a situation where these two guys can repay the favor we did them, just like I’ll repay Portman and Brian for what they’ve done for me.

What’s interesting and geeky about this whole thing is that the Internet has accelerated your ability to be a mensch and a lovecat because it’s made it possible for you to be in contact with so many more people you don’t know and may never run across again. If you wanted to, you could jump on Usenet right now and find someone who had a need you could fill in 10 minutes, then never see again.

I have a new name for it: “drive by altruism.” True, deep altruism usually involves extended commitment, but the Internet makes it easy to drive by someone and throw some love their way without compromising your own ability to do business or otherwise live your life.

So here’s to the mensch, lovecat, and drive by altruist in all of us — may they always show through.

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