I want to assure my long-suffering classmates and instructors that I do not intend to make a career of writing about my broken ankle. But a few things that happened to me in New York last week led me to reflect on something Alex Taub and others said repeatedly during our whirlwind tour of start-ups a few weeks ago.
Be nice. Help people.
New York is a city renowned for its Darwinism and brusque mien. If Chicago is the City of Broad Shoulders, New York is the City of Hard Shoves. Outta my way, Mack.
Unless you are on crutches. Fold your arms over a pair of these universal injury signifiers and watch what happens: The surly doorman sprints from behind his desk to open the door for you. Strangers actually look up from their iPhones to give a balky brass door the shove you have been unable to deliver effectively with your hip. Your fellow elevator passengers, usually jockeying to escape the car first, insist that you precede them, even though your pathetic crutching will only slow them down.
In short, New York is a different sort of town when people are nice, when they are helpful.
It’s simple to understand why New Yorkers behave this way: Empathy. It’s easy to look at someone on crutches, imagine what it would be like to be so encumbered oneself and move to help out if you can.
I think the same sort of mechanism is at work in the be-nice mantra we heard during our visits. At first I wondered if it was some karmic or Aquarian sea change in the business world, until Jeremy brought me up short: “I doubt people of the same age on Wall Street are very worried about being nice to each other.” Indeed, much as I tried to foster it during my last assignment, American business in general doesn’t place much of a premium on being nice or helping others, unless you are CEO of, say, the Boy Scouts, and even then…
No. What it is, I think, is that all of these young entrepreneurs work in the same small pond, rub elbows with the same people, congregate in the same places, go to the same events. It is said manners evolved as a kind of social lubricant to prevent clashes in the crowded interior spaces of an evolving society. Being nice is one way to keep the peace in an intensely competitive environment.
But there’s more to it than that. Every one of these entrepreneurs knows what it’s like to need a hand, to be treated kindly, or to get a crucial introduction or sit down through another’s intercession. Or not. And so they’re empathetic when someone else needs something they can provide. Like those who’ve been helping me.
There is one more dimension to the entrepreneurial be-nice admonition that does not line up with the motivations of my helpers. These business people all know that theirs is a small community, and that some of them will make it, a few of them in a very big way. They hope the favor will be returned if they need it, and they realize what a huge potential chit that could be.
I doubt any of my helpers are hoping that they will break their ankle sometime in the future and that I will return the favors they have done me over the last five weeks. At least I hope not.