Birthday cake sitting in coffee cups - that’s what my brain woke me up with today - and it’s exactly what I needed to see.

Okay, back up.

Every six months or so I have a night I can’t sleep. Sometimes it’s a brainstorm; the solution I’d been chasing at work. Or - like tonight - it coalesces in waking dreams until I decide to get up early.

This morning I dreamed of little slices of birthday cake sitting neat, squat and square, in round coffee cups.

And I think I get it.

I’m Blessed, Maybe?

It hasn’t been an easy year. I said goodbye to bosses I liked and coworkers I was lucky to work with. I’ve had to have some of the hardest conversations I’ve ever faced, left shaking with frozen fingers and toes afterward from nerves.

I’ve operated at a scale I thought I wasn’t ready for, in an organization constantly fighting confusion in a mercilessly tight economy as easy money evaporated and investors suddenly turned away from industries they once held as darlings.

For the past three years I’ve been working in business operations, which my video-game-making self of the past would never have guessed as a step along my path. You can’t make this stuff up - it’s the exact kind of thing fiction wasn’t built for, and the kind of thing life deploys every thirty yards or so on the regular just to make sure you’re paying attention.

We bought a home. We moved. I learned to fly. I coached and mentored a dozen people, and ran a team that spanned four states. I served on a board.

And I’ve had to do this more or less without travel, without in-person teambuilding, without the kinds of connection I relied on in my first years on the job to build a mesh network to support me.

I’ve Been Wondering How That Works.

I don’t remember the things I say - I’ve had bosses who’ve had to a keep a “quotes.txt” file to remind me of some of my more useful ones. And that means I’m not very good at knowing precisely how I work.

I’ll write you a P&P (that’s Principles and Priorities) document on any situation you put me in front of, even if it’s in a falling airplane with the wings ripped off (Principles would include “Landing is assured” and “All buttons will be tried”), but it’s rare to put the lens back onto me - my last real attempt was Virtual Charles, which is on v2.5 now, I think, and of course is now an AI you can interact with, but it needs a full-on overhaul.

There’s little things I can come up with, I know - buy the best webcam you can afford, and look right into it. or – always have three options and bring an opinion about which they should choose. or how about – in brainstorming, collect together, then curate solo, then discuss together again ..

But there’s something more fundamental here, something that has both powered me through this tough year, and is the signal I’m looking for to guide the next step in my journey. I saw two competing posts on LinkedIn that set the brackets on either side of the thing I’m trying to see:

Exhibit A: An engineer struggling with just finding a place they could code and flex their technical chops without the politics and pressure of working socialization -

Exhibit B: A nine-step guide on why “likability” was so critical to career success -

And then, in little stout blocks of cake sitting in coffee cups, my brain stood me up at 4am with it:

I’m the one that helps.

Are You Serious, I Paid $2 For This

Stay with me here. It’s not a platitude. It’s not empty. I know you’ve heard it before, but listen to it said slightly differently.

I will build a team that helps. I will choose the organization that helps. I will commit to training others to help.

It’s not likability. It’s not necessarily technical or domain mastery. It’s not fancy words I write in an article (stares awkwardly into camera. lens racks in.)

I talk a lot in my work about “social currency”, and I’ve wondered how, as we’ve grown further apart in distance in both the pandemic and - let’s be honest - big organizations were in 30+ countries before that, how are we able to continue to be trusted by one another, build friendships with one another, keep building the network even as it feels like it’s falling apart under us, turning into Zoom virtual backgrounds and emoji soup?

By being the one that helps.

I start my conversations with coworkers with “how can I help?” With those I coach and mentor, with “how can I be most useful to you today?” With my leaders with the question, “what can I do to help our organization today?”

It doesn’t come for free, helping. You’re signing up for work. More than is on your job description. More than you should have to do. Probably more than you want to do. And you won’t know how to do a lot of it because helping means reaching your hand out before you know the weight on the other side - it’s not done calculatingly, it’s not done strategically, you just do it.

But teams rely on it. Organizations rely on it. Whole companies rely on it. Without even realizing it, habits writ large by the small work every day, often invisible.

Take a second to look at the cake in the coffee cups, about a dozen of those big white office mugs each holding a miniature office tower of cake, a bit taller than it is wide. Somebody had to:

  • Get the mugs from where they were up on the shelf nobody goes for because they switched to paper cups forever ago
  • Figure out about how big of a slice could fit in there without mushing up against the sides because obvious there’s buttercream in the middle so if it hit the sides it’d stick
  • Divide up the cake into the slices making sure there’s a good amount of the green part of the frosting on each because of course the cake designer lumped all the green into one part of the design
  • Make sure that there’s just a little bit of space on each side of the cake so that you can fork off a piece of it and have a little space to move the piece into before you swing it up to eat it

Thinking about others, while exercising domain knowledge and perception, experience and creativity, having the willingness to make mistakes but improve - a fully integrated exercise whose origin and conclusion is all the same simple wellspring - the desire to help other human beings.

And I recognize now there’s a particular warm tone in what I hear in feedback when people describe working with me, that not only identifies that help is something valuable, something that’s noticed, but also something that it is seen as rare.

Am I Getting That Coffee Cup Cake or What

I do think helping is rare, at least in US-based businesses I’ve been a part of. I think it grates right up against some ingrained notions of independence and exceptionalism. There may well be gender biases about how helping is thought of, folks may think it beneath them, not worth their time, they may think it unhelpfully prostrates them in front of others they wish to appear powerful towards.

And I know helping can be taken advantage of. Organizations are full of people, but they aren’t people in aggregate, they can fall prey to the tragedy of the commons and exhaust their best helpers through a thousand requests each drawing just a little blood at a time until some tragic end or another in the third act when everybody already figured out who the murderer was like twenty minutes ago.

So those are the risks, then. The risk of embarrassment, and the risk of overwork. Scaaaaary.

But the rewards are so deeply worth it, so rich. Connection with other people in an increasingly disconnected world. A chance to learn new skills. Differentiation and rarity among the daily river of email addresses we all hear from. The opportunity for reciprocity when you need help.

We’re all too busy. We’re all overwhelmed. We’re all too hopeful that something will come and save us, and heaven knows we need it, but we miss it, right there, right up front.

It’s us.

Technology won’t save us. The markets won’t save us. Our leaders won’t save us.

We’ll save us. If we help.

If we build teams that help. If we train others to help. If we choose organizations that help.

In 2024, I intend to recommit to this, to remember this, to remind myself daily of this, because I think it’s what I’m here to do.

I wonder how I can help today. Did you get some cake?