My last hundred dollars

By Mike / On / In Knowledge

When I was younger, I bought into the idea that I deserved to be where I was, and that by extension, everyone else probably did too. I was one of those abused kids who practiced Kendo without armor. Mercy is for the weak.

Then one day I got into it with my parents and got kicked out—again—only this time, there was nowhere to go. Door after door was closed in my face. I ended up sleeping on my ex’s front porch in what is definitely one my top 5 lowest moments.

Laying there, shivering on the concrete, I reflected on how suddenly my world fell apart. The thing that eventually saved me was a friend who, when faced with my predicament, had the strength to overcome his own disdain for altruism, to give more than he had gotten.

True story: years later, I hired his company to do game design on what would become the #1 game on the App Store, giving him the ultimate bragging rights. With a history like that between us, I knew I could trust him with my baby.

Now I am self-made among the self-made, and the greatest friction between me and my peers is my commitment to beneficence in system design. Many people take my altruism as a sign of weakness or naïveté, and send me condescending email insisting I read books that I have long ago collected first editions of.

The advantage of dehumanizing philosophies is that they’re easy. The disadvantage is that they don’t actually work. The reason I am so nice to people all the time is that I’ve seen where “every man for himself” fails. In fact, it was abandoning that idea around the epoch of the lemurs that lead to our humanity.

On the other hand, my philosophy of “be kind, work hard” has been tested again and again, and has worked every time. In fact, it was just tested again, and I want to show you what a different world I live in now than when I was a selfish, narrow-minded child.

I ran out of money over the weekend. I was thousands of miles from home, attending the 360|MacDev conference in Denver. The out-of-pocket expense of international travel combined with giving the vast majority of my time to the community this past year finally sapped my reserves until I had overdrawn accounts on two continents and the Benjamin in my wallet was the last $100 to my name.

While quietly panicking over things like rent and bills, I spent 22 hours of each day working on my presentation and meeting the community. Finally I found the one I was looking for, the reason I go to these shows. I found my diamond in the rough, what we in the industry call a “Mike Matas.” Some undiscovered talent trapped in a life ripe for changing.

What does someone like that look like? They’re the one who had to take time off from their minimum-wage job to blow their savings on the chance to meet the people who they want to be. Someone who doesn’t flinch at attending a dinner that will take them a week to pay for, because that’s what it takes to hang.

That kind of thing impresses me, because it shows that they don’t just talk good game, but actually have the passion to do something about it. That’s what I and every hiring manager worth their salt is looking for. When you find someone like that you either hire them or you give them to a friend to hire, who will one day do the same for you.

But I went one further than simply giving him free advice and recommending him for a life-changing job. I also gave him my last $100. Before you start screaming at me, understand my reasoning.

  1. I only had that money because other people had picked up a couple of tabs
  2. It takes me an hour to make that much, compared to two day’s labor for him
  3. I genuinely believed it would work out better for me than selfishness

When it came time to check out and go home two days later, I realized that I had two problems. First, I had to get to the airport, which in Denver is an expensive cab ride. That $100 definitely would have come in handy there. Second, the organizers only covered two nights in the hotel, which meant I had an unexpected $400 bill to settle.

For those keeping score at home, I gave away my last $100 and was now $500 from home. The scientific word for this starts with an F and is not polite to say in mixed company.

I had one more thing, which I keep in my back pocket for things like this, and that’s karma. People often misinterpret karma as some cosmic bookkeeping system incompatible with atheism, but that’s typical misinterpretation. Really, it’s just phenomenology. If you take care of people when you can, they will inevitably take care of you when you need it, and vice versa.

I didn’t end up homeless this time. Instead, the conference organizers were more than happy to pick up the tab for the extra nights for a speaker who does so much for their attendees, and a kind soul on Twitter took the trouble to pick me up and deliver me to the airport.

We like to believe that there is something natural about the way things are, and that things will never change. The reality is, we’re all just playing the hands we’re dealt. Sometimes you get Aces and Eights. Other times you’re staring down the barrel of an inside strait. The only thing you can rely on is that things will change, and the next hand will be different.

Experience has taught me, and taught me well: be generous when you’re up, because one day, inevitably, you will rely on generosity. To believe otherwise is to believe a lie.

All that being said, today might be a good day to hire me.