I had a business issue that was bugging me, more than the usual set of three or four business topics that are jumping around in my head at any given time. Usually, you have something to do and you do it; or you have a choice to make, so you weigh the factors and take the leap. This time, I wasn’t sure how to proceed.
It was about a month ago that I finally unburdened myself to a close friend, asking for her advice on the issue. We had a good talk about it. We looked at the problem from a few different angles. I was grateful for her time and her willingness to dig into my situation. At the end of the day, though, I knew, and I think she suspected too that we hadn’t really nailed it.
A few days later I had lunch with a different friend, and talked about her ups and downs and the things on her plate, and I tried again. I shared my business issue with her, and we talked about it some more. This second friend had a vastly different view on the problem than my first friend had had. That was fascinating, and enlightening. We pretty much came to the conclusion that the universe would sort out the problem. I thought to myself, Maybe there’s no answer. That can happen sometimes — right?
The very next day I had coffee with a third friend, an intellectually curious guy who loves to hear about business problems. He dove right into this one. “That’s juicy!” he said. We looked at the issue from different angles. Before long we got distracted and our conversation went off into a different direction. That’s okay – I was still of the mind that not all problems have solutions, excepting possibly the Tincture of Time my grandmother used to remind me about.
I was about ready to stop talking about this business problem altogether but a fourth friend called me and asked me what was new. So we went through it again. She was quick to say “Look, that sounds like something that someone could help you with, but the somone isn’t me!” That’s okay. She’s a dear friend. That night, as I went to sleep, I thought, “I’m sick of hashing over this problem. I’m just going to take care of it, tomorrow. If the solution isn’t perfect, I’ll live with it.”
And that was that. I was exhausted with trying to solve my problem and didn’t want to expend any more energy on it. But I got busy, and didn’t take the steps I had planned to take for a few days. And then I got a call, a few days later, from a friend I hadn’t seen in ages. We had lunch. It was grand to see her. Lunch turned into mid-afternoon tea, or just the longest lunch in history. I had no conflicting appointments and neither did she, so we just kept talking. Finally, at two-thirty in the afternoon, she said “So, what’s on your plate that I could help you with?” I hesitated. Then I said, “If you have any ideas about this thing I’m grappling with right now, that would be great. If you don’t, that’s fine too.” I laid out the situation.
She heard it – she thought for a moment – and then she spoke. “You need to do X – then Y – and finally Z,” she said. “If X creates this or that result, you’ll do A, B or C.” She nailed it. I sat at the table, mouth agape. She completely hit the bullseye. I was nearly speechless. Among other things, she’d made it clear how wretched a plan my “just take care of it” approach would have been. By waiting a few days to act and by consulting my fifth friend, I’d dodged a major bullet.
I poured out my gratitude and my friend said “Pish-tosh,” or whatever we say these days intead of “Pish-tosh.” This kind of thing is my bread and butter, she said. She’s a marketer. I hadn’t realized, before that, that my question was a marketing question.
Four wise friends tackled my question and couldn’t solve it. The four of them plus me makes five of us that were stumped. My fifth friend hit it dead-on in thirty seconds. What does the story mean?
I saw three lessons in the Fifth Friend experience. The first one is a lesson about humility.
We have experience, brains and pluck – we should be able to do everything we need to do, right? If we’re stuck, we can call our lawyer or our accountant or our IT guru. Business isn’t that complicated – we are veteran, we should have the answer, shouldn’t we?Trying my problem on four friends without success and hearing the bullseye wisdom of my fifth friend reminded me that each of us has incredible gifts. All of us can provide value in lots of ways to everyone else. But not everyone knows what each of us knows – including me, my five friends, you, and the people around you. We are all sharp and capable, but we’re not experts in everything. True expertise is still rare, and priceless.
The second lesson in my Fifth Friend story is a lesson about patience. I could have dropped everything when my business problem presented itself, rushing for the finish line. I could have taken the most obvious course of action and let the chips fall. There was no guarantee that in five or seven or any particular number of days out, I’d be dining with the very person who could lift my burden. Like many businesspeople, I have a strong bias toward action. But patience has never stopped being a virtue, even in a 24/7 world.
The third lesson is a lesson about gifts. Those first four friends didn’t give me the square peg I was looking for when I had a square hole to fill. They gave me other things I wasn’t looking for – different perspectives, and the wisdom of their experiences. In each of our meandering chats we touched on a half-dozen other meaningful topics and shared important things. Not getting to the finish line can be a blessing. It was, in those four conversations. If each or any of those four friends had hit the target right away, we’d have missed the rest of the stories and learnings that make our advice-sharing so potent.
I’m overwhelmed with gratitude toward my fifth friend, and no less toward the other four. Getting a sticky business problem off my plate and off my mind made my week, for sure. Reminding myself what friends are for – why I network and why I take relationships seriously – is the icing on the cake. I won’t forget to ask that question: “What is on your plate that I could help you with?” any time soon. Some little tip that I take for granted could remove a massive obstacle for someone I care about. What could be better than that?