021: Uncommon Sense at Work

In This Episode: Uncommon Sense isn’t just for your day-to-day life. The story of a guy who not only runs his life with Uncommon Sense (even if he doesn’t call it that), he does it on the job, too. “Tiny little things” that bring huge financial results.

021: Uncommon Sense at Work

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021: Uncommon Sense at Work
The results of Shankman’s little stunt in 1998: a properly placed paragraph can be worth six figures — and the start of a successful career. (Click to see larger.)


I have a friend who is an extraordinary networker. We met years ago when both of us were speaking at some conference somewhere, and we’ve kept in touch since. He runs his business with Uncommon Sense in mind, even though he probably doesn’t call it that, and I’m going to give you some examples of how he does it, because it’s a fascinating lesson in how to get more Uncommon Sense into your own life — and truly benefit from it in relationships …or even a boosted income.

I’m Randy Cassingham, welcome to Uncommon Sense.

I love telling you about people who operate their lives, personally and professionally, with Uncommon Sense, because their stories can open our minds a little — many of the things they do are easily emulated, and the more you practice Uncommon Sense in your own life, well, the more of it you’re going to have in general. As I said in episode 17 you can learn this stuff, and there’s no better way to learn than by doing.

If you’re in business, especially a very online-centric business, you probably know the name Peter Shankman. Like me, he cut his teeth in the very early days of the Internet. He worked at an early online start-up that wanted its own newsroom, and he was hired as a journalist: the Senior Editor. The company: America Online, or AOL. He bit off a big bite: it was his job to coordinate the newsroom’s coverage of the 1996 Democratic and Republican conventions — the first time any online news service covered any major political event.

Well, AOL couldn’t keep up the pace, and after a few years Peter was laid off. He got other jobs, of course, but what he really wanted to do was start a Public Relations firm. During one job hiatus, there he was, out of work and out of money: by then, the dream of starting a new business seemed totally out of reach.

Well, it was 1998, and he lived in New York City. On September 1st, the video version of an extremely popular film was coming out. You may have heard of it: Titanic. There was plenty of buzz about it in the mainstream news, not just the entertainment outlets. It was all over the media, and amid all the hype Peter rolled the dice: he had enough money to pay his rent, but instead he used it to print up 500 T-shirts with a Titanic theme, and on September 2nd, he hawked them on Times Square.

The T-shirts were smart, funny, and a little bit of a plot spoiler: they said, “It sank. Get over it.” He thought if he could sell 180 of them at his marked-up price after buying them from a wholesale printer, he’d have his rent money back. If he sold more, he’d have some breathing room stored up to start thinking about launching his PR firm.

That day, he sold all 500 T-shirts. Maybe that was a fluke: anyone can get lucky, right? That would make him a successful hustler, not necessarily anyone with Uncommon Sense. It’s what he did next that leveraged him to fame: he called a reporter at USA Today and told her about it, turning a successful little business idea into, maybe, a successful PR stunt. She asked him, are you selling these shirts online? “Of course!” he said, even though he hadn’t even thought of that yet.

While he was still talking to her on the phone, he started building a web site to sell the shirts — shirts he didn’t actually have because he was sold out. It was audacious. Yeah, it was 1998, but he had a few years under his belt at a big online company, so even though the tools for building web sites were crude at best in 1998, that was something he knew how to do: he already had his own web site. He gave the reporter the URL and finished building it out before he went to bed.

The next morning, his web host called to ask him what the hell he did, because he was getting so much traffic their servers were crashing under the load. It turned out, since his story about hawking the funny Titanic T-shirts tied in with what was already in the news, USA Today ran their blurb about his little stunt on the front page of its “Life” section, and just like the tourists on Times Square, amused newspaper readers wanted a T-shirt! Over the next several months he sold thousands of shirts, clearing (after printing, shipping, and all) around $100,000 — which was plenty to start his New York City PR agency and, of course, the agency was able to start life with a great story of an extremely successful PR stunt. You can see the newspaper clip on the Show Page.

But that’s not actually the story that made me think about telling you about Peter Shankman. It’s not what struck me about him as a great example of someone who has Uncommon Sense, even though by now, you probably agree he does. And it’s not that he gets the Premium version of the This is True newsletter and says, “I’ve read every single one from beginning to end. It’s phenomenally well done.”

OK, so, why? His primary business isn’t really PR anymore: today, he’s better known as an author and speaker. He does a lot of keynote talks, and therefore he flies an awful lot: around 200 to 300 airline flights every year.

On his way to the airport, Peter always stops and grabs something specific. If he doesn’t have time to stop, he’ll run through the airport shops until he finds that specific item, even though it probably costs double that way, and then, when he boards the plane, he’s pretty good at scoping out which flight attendant is the lead — the senior, in-charge flight attendant. He steps up to him or her, looks them in the eye, and asks, “Are you the lead on this flight?” Usually they take a deep breath and steel themselves, because they’re expecting a complaint. When they say yes through their sometimes gritted teeth, he hands them the thing he bought: a giant family-size bag of M&Ms. While they’re trying to recover from their surprise, he tells them, “These are for you, but you have to share with your co-workers, OK?” Usually before they can stammer out a reply, he smiles at them, and heads for his seat.

021: Uncommon Sense at Work
Shankman publicity shot.

Now, why in heck would he do that? Is he trying to get a free upgrade? No: as a customer who flies that much, he’s probably in Business or First Class most of the time anyway. He’s not doing it to get free drinks, either: those are free in First Class already — and he doesn’t even drink. No, he does it because, he says, “M&Ms make the flight better for everyone, from the pilot to the entire crew, to every single passenger, and I like making the flight better for everyone.”

Wait, what?

“When we think about air travel,” he explains, “we probably don’t equate it to ‘great experience.’ Rather, the whole industry has been so messed up in the past twenty years, that getting on an airplane has become an ordeal to just ‘get done,’ as opposed to an experience to be enjoyed. So you’ve got 200 people boarding a plane, all of whom are in a bad mood to begin with. Who do you think gets the brunt of the bad mood of 200 people? Yup: the flight attendants. They know they’re going to be dealing with difficult people, so they mentally prepare themselves before the passengers board.”

I do the same thing, by the way, with my Get Out of Hell Free cards. Actually, I’ve just been handing them one — to the flight attendant who greets me. In the future, I’ll be handing them a small stack to share with the rest of the crew!

Anyway, in the rush of the passengers trying to get their bags in the overhead compartment before anyone else, and hoping they’ll make their next connection that’s getting tighter and tighter as the flight is delayed, as they so often are, the flight attendants are not mentally preparing themselves for fun, they’re preparing themselves for dealing with people who, frankly, aren’t really treated very well by the entire industry. So what happens when Peter starts his flights this way? He makes their day. He brightens the mood. And as they share the M&Ms — and the brief story of where they came from — with the pilots and the other crew, well, their days get better too. And then what happens? That shift in mood makes things better for all of the passengers, too.

“It cost, what, eight or ten bucks?” Peter says. “But the payoff is huge. The flight attendants are happily munching on candy for the entire flight, they’re smiling, and their good mood is infectious! They’re joking with the passengers, they’re cheerful, and possibly for the first time in a while, they don’t feel like every passenger is out to get them.”

Something else that Peter doesn’t mention: the flight crews have the manifest, the paperwork which includes the name of every passenger. You think maybe they check to see what seat he’s in, and then look to see who the heck he is? And I’m willing to bet the manifest notes that he’s a super-premier frequent flier — the kind of customer that flies 200-300 times a year, which lets them know he really does understand what they go through every day.

“Unfortunately,” Peter says, “the industry as a whole has conspired against them (and passengers by default), in an effort to increase profits. So it’s totally understandable that flight attendants are constantly on guard, and passengers can tell. If I can afford to help make the flight attendants’ lives better, which, in turn, will make the passengers a little bit happier, even for just one flight, why wouldn’t I?”

And just as I was saying episode 12, “Dreaming Big,” Peter concludes: “I’ve said it before: Any modicum of success comes with the responsibility to make the world a better place. I’ve had a small bit of success in my life, and I choose to make the world better by, among other things, buying a flight crew some candy. The payoff for everyone on the plane is worth it.”

Now do you see why I think Peter Shankman is a great model of Uncommon Sense?

But… what about networking — I said in the intro he’s an extraordinary networker. Surely flight attendants are unlikely to be looking to hire authors and keynote speakers. First, ya never know: another of their favorite passengers that they see a lot might be a CEO looking for someone just like him, and the flight attendants probably remember him pretty darned well. And second, he covers that in other ways. Here’s just one example.

When he’s in his seat and the doors are still open, or on a train, or maybe a conference venue, Peter leaves his mobile hotspot on. You know, the WiFi access point on his phone that allows people nearby to connect to the Internet. Usually, its default name is “Samsung G965F” or something, and by default requires a password. He sets his to not require a password so others can use it, and renames it “@PeterShankman” — not just his name, but the @ sign denotes social media names, and guess what? Peter is “@PeterShankman” on Facebook, Twitter, and pretty much everywhere else. If you don’t know him, once you get online you might think to look him up to see who he is. And if you do know him? Well, you might go up and down the aisles looking for him to say hi!

And in fact, that’s happened. Earlier this year he was on Amtrak, heading home from Boston, sitting in his seat working when someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was a CEO who follows him on social media and, when trying to find Amtrak’s WiFi access, he saw Peter’s phone in the list of networks, and they ended up chatting and networking on the ride, rather than doing busywork.

“This has happened before,” Peter said on his blog, “Countless times. And yes, I’ve gotten several speaking engagements that began with someone noticing my WiFi hotspot name.” In fact, he estimates he’s made about $50,000 in speaking fees just from setting up his phone that way. $50,000 is probably more than a lifetime’s worth of cell phone bills!

Here’s the key to how Peter runs his professional and personal life: “Everyone thinks that change has to be this massive thing, when in fact, almost all the success that anyone will ever have comes from tiny little things — just doing one thing slightly different than everyone else.”

And that, dear listeners, is definitely a great example of Uncommon Sense. What tiny little things could you start doing that could have a massive positive impact on your life, or maybe the lives around you, rather than what many obliviots do: they have a massive negative effect on other people’s lives, and sometimes yours.

“Remember,” Peter says, “The bar is set so ridiculously low. Show up, do the bare minimum, go home. Doing the slightest bit more than the bare minimum can have a massively beneficial difference in your life. I like to think I’m living proof of this.”

And he is, and he provides living examples of how you can do it too.

As an aside, I was on Peter’s podcast, called Faster Than Normal, where he interviews CEOs and entrepreneurs who have ADD/ADHD, and how we use that fact to our advantage, rather than letting it be a “disability” that impairs our lives, as talked about in episode 13 of this podcast. I’ll link to the episodes of both of those shows on this episode’s Show Page, thisistrue.com/podcast21, which includes a transcript, links to Shankman’s web sites and several books, and a place to comment on this episode.

Please subscribe to Uncommon Sense — and the This is True email newsletter — if you haven’t already. You can do that on the web site at thisistrue.com.

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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3 Comments on “021: Uncommon Sense at Work

  1. So great to read (I like the transcripts) about someone who understands the stresses which airline attendants deal with & does something positive for them. I’d walk to the kitchen during down time to chat with them on an overseas flight. These folk endanger their bodies with that much high air time (not to mention the possibility of facing off a psychopath). Next time, Peter: Vitamins as well as M&Ms. 😉

  2. Loved the Uncommon Sense M&Ms story. I certainly don’t fly anywhere near as much as Peter, but I do fly quite a bit. I think I will get some M&Ms for my next flight!

  3. I am a contract engineer. If I am a 1099 consultant, for medium size clients, on my first day on the gig I find the person who (1) gets my invoice, and (2) the person who cuts the check. I bring each one a nice ceramic bowl and a big bag of M&M’s. I tell them I just started as a consultant, and I just want to introduce myself. I submit my invoice with two bags of M&M’s, one for each. Funny thing — my invoices are never lost && the checks are mailed on time.

    Also, in any manufacturing area there is the “mafia”. These are a small group of older ladies who have been there since God was in short pants. I do the bowl/M&M thing with them. When I need something in a hurry, I can ask them for help and get it.

    I also make a point to meet the admins. They are the NCO’s of the corporate world. They know where the bodies are buried. They also *love* to help people.

    BTW — NEVER piss of the mafia, techs, and admins. Doesn’t matter if you are an employee or contractor. If you do, you will *never* get stuff done.


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