David Bodanis is author of the books The Secret House and E=mc
I’ll start with my mother and basketball. I’m just tall enough to be really bad at basketball. One friend said, David, for one guy, you’re pretty good, for a Jew, you’re incredible. My mom got ill a year ago and left the home she’d lived in since 1949. She moved into a nursing home, and we found a bunch of letters. We read my father’s love letters to mom in 1946. My mother was a farm girl. There were about 10 Jewish farmers in the United States in the ’30s. My dad was a cool Chicago guy. He didn’t have much of a religious background. He wrote a love letter to her that began by quoting the Talmud. He was trying to convince my mom that he was sincere. It worked. I’m the last of six kids. We were fruitful and multiplied. What was nice was that my father wasn’t pretending with that. It produced a really happy marriage and a good life. There’s something about the power of sincerity.
Sincerity can carry a terrific loyalty. In Chicago, there were the Bulls. Scottie Pippen wanted security because he knew you could be undercut by an injury. The manager of the Bulls made him sign a really bad long-term contract. Phil Jackson, the coach, wasn’t like that at all. When Pippen’s father died, Jackson made the team hold hands and say the Lord’s Prayer. In World War II, Richard Feynman worked for Oppenheimer loyally for four years on the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer didn’t get Feynman to work for him because it was good for his resume, he knew that Feynman wanted a train pass to get his very ill wife across the country. He got Feynman that train pass. He didn’t say anything, he just got him the pass.
There are two lines in which you can really rise in business. You can be very competitive and have everyone hate you, waiting to undercut you. Or you can be sincere and attract other people. Vince Lombardi was a football coach. Bart Starr, when he joined the Green Bay Packers, said that he wanted to see what it was like to work for someone who went to church everyday. Lombardi had extreme loyalty to whomever was an outsider or had been hurt. He could understand what people’s motivations were. By being concerned about yourself, you can see into other people.
People don’t just talk about doing things or doing services but doing “service plus.” You used to be able to have long relationships with customers but be really slow. Then things got so you had low trust but everything was really, really fast. Think Hollywood without the studio structure. What people want is high trust and high speed.
There’s many things we can take on trust. Pfizer is one example. They have a business model in which people are paid on the basis of future success. You can offload to them and know that they’ll do that. Sincerity can get great loyalty and gain great insight. How can it be a motivation? A friend of mine met the love of her life, and he was shot in a park. The week before, she had called him while he was on the beach. What are you doing? I’m writing a poem in the sand. Can you read it? No, but the water will wash it away, and wherever you go, the water will wash over you, and you’ll remember me. She was really out of it for several months. But words, if they’re meant honestly, can last forever.