The best education comes with a free lunch

I had cause to have lunch with an economist today, one of whom I am a huge admirer. In our chat over lunch we talked about banking, deficits, employment, inflation and business models, if there is one thing I would emplore anybody in business to do it is this: call or email the people you look up to and ask them out for lunch. I do it all the time, and fortunately I thus get to spend a small amount of time with some of the best minds in the game, even if they don’t like me, at worst its a free lunch, if they do, then all the better.

I won’t make a list of the people I have gone to lunch with, but suffice to say, if you contact a person as a genuine fan of theirs (assuming its not Britney Spears) and ask for some of their time, the overwhelming majority will agree to meet you and in the time you have you’d be surprised what you might learn.

There are some guys who run a software house here in Dublin called Contrast, recently they went to the States and met Seth Godin, that even made me jealous! However, they reached out, that is the main thing, identify the people or organisations you admire, or whom you seek to model yourself/your company upon and contact them.

My old chiropractor put me onto this idea, sometimes you get inspiring ideas from the damnedest of places, if I was told ‘pull a muscle in your back in return for some advice that will help’ I’d likely say ‘pass!’, anybody who has had some quality back pain can identify with that choice instantly!

However, it is without doubt one of the single most valuable things I do, so at least once a week I seek to have lunch with a person who fits my criteria of:

1. Knowing their topic inside out, sometimes this is a bond trader, an ex banker, a builder, an economist, or an analyst. You cannot underestimate the knowledge a focused person amasses over their lifetime on a particular subject. I find them to be endlessly fascinating personalities.

2. Being of the temperament to talk, but also to listen. I ask a lot of questions, as a child at least half of my trouble was the endless questions, I was the one who kept asking ‘why’ even after the teacher gave me detention, today my curiosity remains boundless. I don’t get in trouble as much as I used to, but I still like to ask questions, lots of them! The people I tend to invite out are not well known grumps, they are generally fairly affable types, this helps because I undoubtedly test the patience of even those with the best of intentions.

3. They have to be at least (for the most part) about 20 years older than me. I can’t impress upon anybody the importance of spending time around older people, I knew a guy who met Hitler in person, he sang for him at an event in 1937, you can watch the history channel or you can sit down for a sandwich with a person who was there, take your pick. Ideally the older the better, if you want current views you can get that from your peers, but lifetime wisdom unfortunately takes a lifetime to obtain, I won’t have that until I myself am further along life’s path so I borrow what little I can from the experience of others.

Which brings me to the relevance of talking, not only to potential mentors, but to older people in general. They might not know how to blog, or even know what a blog is, they may be unfamiliar with what you do for a living, but they do have a pragmatic edge that is sometimes sorely lacking in other generations. They also tend to know a lot about people, if you talk to a guy who is 85 then he didn’t spend his free time as a youth watching t.v. or browsing the web, he spent it (most likely) around people and that gives him a certain granular understanding of people that the likes of me lack in comparison.

That is why I seek the opinion of people more senior than me when I have non business specific issues, such as a personal problem with a co-worker or something. And y’know what? I have never been let down by the advice I get. Absolutely everybody should have a few mentors, there are no Chiefs in the global village so you’ll have to find your own.

On that note, I’d like to make a special mention to the memory of Andy Orr, he was a great friend.

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