by Maisie Smith on April 23, 2015
“Our budget is a quarter,” they repeated firmly.
I was working for an ad agency and helping a client prepare for an upcoming trade show where they would drop logoed pens into the plastic bags of passersby. Their budget was minuscule, their expectations gargantuan.
“How about a pen that people will actually use?” I retorted, thinking about all of the crappy pens with dried up ink in the back of my junk drawer. They were adamant. “A quarter. No more.”
Here’s a short list of what a quarter will get you these days: a stale gumball from the machine in the grocery store lobby, 15 minutes of downtown parking, one-fourth of a Snickers bar, 10 minutes of drying time at the laundromat, enough gasoline to get you out of your subdivision, a package of ramen noodles from Wal-Mart.
Hell, it costs two quarters to use a pay toilet. (Don’t ask.)
One thing 25¢ won’t get you is a pen that isn’t destined for the local landfill.
I hung up the phone and chewed on the end of my favorite $1.10 pen for a few minutes. Then I opened up a browser window and began the online shakedown for something that would work for their budget. Hours passed. I skipped lunch. Kept chewing on my beloved pen. And then… bingo. I found something in their price point that didn’t look like it had been hiding in a toolbox in Grandpa’s garage for 20 years.
After emailing them a few pictures and pricing, they came back with, “Hmmm. We don’t really like the look of it. Please provide more options.”
I closed their brusque email with the mouse click heard around the world and fumed. Aggravated tears pricked my eyes. My nostrils doubled in size to accommodate my angry breathing.
“Goddamn motherfucking quarter!” I shouted and, in the perfect act of irony, threw the contents of my acrylic pen cup into the air. The daily bustle of the ad agency came to a screeching halt as the pens clattered to the floor. Silence banged between my ears like a game of pinball. And that’s when it hit me.
The 25¢ pen wasn’t the problem. It was that I was living a 25¢ life.
Reactive. A “yes” woman. Working for the weekend and measuring time in quarterly bonuses. Relegated to an ergonomic desk chair and a life of researching shitty pens.
I went home that night and cried. And then wrote like I’ve never written before. Ideas. Manifestos. Dreams. Letters to myself at 40. Letters to myself at 25. A short story about a couple trapped at the top of a Ferris wheel for seven hours. A plan to escape the 9-5 and do my own courageous thing.
Losing my shit over a quarter gave me perspective. And it led me to create a set of beliefs, my non-negotiables, for living a brilliant life and building an intentional business. When life gets hard and tough decisions need to be made… like choosing the perfect machete to hack down my own wild path… my values become my anchor.
They guide me every day, those five simple beliefs.
Don’t be an asshole. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. Build people up, rather than tearing them down. Don’t invest in people who treat the world like it’s their very own punching bag.
Be fearless in your weirdness. Weird is brave. Weird stands out. Weird gets noticed. Celebrate what makes you different.
Tell better stories. You must dig to find the gems buried in the mundane. Figure out the gleaming detail… like the 25¢ that changed the trajectory of a life… and tell those stories.
Rock the small corners. Flicking a pebble can have just as much impact as chucking a boulder. Small can be mighty.
Humanity is in the details. The little things matter. Thank you, barista, for drawing a Kung Fu squirrel on my paper coffee cup. Thank you, tiny flower, for having the audacity to grow out of a crack in the cement.
What does all of this have to do with business storytelling?
This is what I know:
The pivotal moments, the customer experiences, the vibe you put out into the world… it all hinges on the values you cling to. I tell stories about being weird. I tell stories about ditching the hustle and finding solace in being the quiet storm that ruffles papers and, sometimes, feathers. I tell stories about the seemingly insignificant happenings in our world that, when gathered up, collectively make life pretty damn awesome.
Those things are important to me. Hell, they ARE me. I can’t imagine life any other way.
So now I’ve gotta ask… what do you believe?
To 25¢ moments,