For close to a year I employed the unpaid services of a bright young man with a bachelor's degree in international law that was worth about as much in the economy he graduated in as an upside-down mortgage. He came to me knowing I had no budget from which to pay him, but needing to keep a gap from his resume and hoping to learn something along the way.
He did some good work for me, mostly spreading the Vital Speeches brand in the social-mediasphere. And he learned something—a lot, actually—about social media. (It is not at all true that every kid automatically knows all about social media. Many don't know squat.)
We quickly developed a jocular rapport, and even played golf together a couple of times.
But there were frequent disappearances, long and short. There were missed phone appointments without cancelations. There were excuses that didn't cut the mustard. Halfway through this period, I told him his unreliability was unacceptable. If you're going to work for me, I told him, you have to work for me as if you are being paid. Unless you are in fact paying me, there is no use in working badly.
"You're right," he told me dolefully.
But eventually, he went to work for a local retailer, and his work for me trailed off until I stopped hearing from him altogether. Eventually I wanted closure, and so I sent him the following e-mail.
M____, I hope you know, I think you know that I appreciate all the good work you did for me and for Vital Speeches in the months we worked together. You are smart, you are good-humored, and you work hard and learn quickly. That’s worth a lot, and it was worth a lot to me.
The only thing I can give you in return is honest advice.
You’ve got to become reliable. Only geniuses get away with erratic communication, and the older you get, the more you’ll understand: Geniuses are rare, and they usually don’t appear in the bathroom mirror.
I’m happy to be a reference for you, but I have to admit, I would be hard-pressed not to tell a prospective employer of yours that you sometimes go days and weeks, off the face of the planet. More than once I’ve told the [Vital Speeches] people, “I think M_____’s through with us,” only to have you call cheerfully, “Hey Boss, sorry I’ve been AWOL ….”
You and I have agreed that the fact that you weren’t getting paid could have no bearing on your work ethic: You either do it as if you are getting paid or you don’t do it.
Being reliable isn’t just something that’ll keep you from getting demerits; it’s something that will set you apart from other people of similar ability.
Be reliable, M____. Show up every fucking time, or call ahead and say you won’t be there.
It’s the only way to be.
Your pal and your golfing-superior and your some-day drinking buddy,
That wasn't bad advice, was it?
That was six months ago now. I haven't heard a word. I hope the next time I hear from him isn't to ask for a reference. I hope he tells himself: I'm never going to feel that way again. If so, he will have actually received something lasting in exchange for his work.