Wednesday, October 21, 2009

One million two hundred thousand... portions of Belgian fries?

The other day I had the absolute pleasure and honor to walk to Place Flagey in Brussels Belgium, and have a portion of true Belgian fries.

[The oddity of these being usually called French fries, or even "Liberty" fries, while the proper process of making them has been "invented"--or at least perfected--in Belgium, and of course all that on grounds of the potato being imported from the Americas after Columbus's 1492 discovery, is not the issue here. We shall address these oddities at some later time]

To get the "famous" Place Flagey fries, one has to stay in line about 1 1/2 hours.

[I say famous because they are truly famous. Any Brussels sawy person knows them. I was very fortunate to be first introduced to the Place Flagey fries in 1992, by a friend who at the time was Yugoslav Canadian (while being Macedonian--FYROM--born truly, yet in 1992 that was hard/useless to tell to any border crossing official anywhere). Fifteen years later when I was sharing Brussels stories with a friend, and she mentioned Place Flagey, the fries from 1992 came to mind, and thus I knew where the place was based on my memories of the fries I had there a decade and a half before...]

As we stood in line, a passer by said something to the effect of "you must really like/want your fries to stay in this line..." Indeed, you must. But suffice it to say, they are well worth the wait. However, this is when one looks in perspective. While you wait though, a line is a line.

[Being born where I was and having lived "there" a quarter of a century, lines make me anxious. How else would you feel if for years you had to stay in a 48-72 hours (or more) line to be able to buy three pieces of 350 grams of steak meat?]

Trying to assess the speed of the line, I asked the obvious question: "How long does it take to make and serve a portion of fries?", or of course, the implicit corollary question "How many portions of fries does the gentleman make per hour?".

Experimentally we determined it is three minutes per portion. It is, and it has been the same probably, for twenty years. When we asked the question of the gentleman himself, we learned he didn't know, and nor did he care to know the answer. He said that he cares about other numbers, from the price of potatoes to how many annoying customers he has in an hour. But he has been making his fries, one portion at a time, for twenty years. Never asking himself how many portions of fries he has served, or he is serving his customers...

We did the calculation while we were enjoying our fries, looking at the swans on the pond next to Place Flagey (whether the gentleman owning the small business selling fries there liked it or not--respecting his choice, we did not tell him the result).

[Of course I had to entertain the ubiquitous joke about my "Romanian style" swan eating habits that could have been useful to complement our meal. As I often get the mention, by now not only I am used to smile at it, but I often chose to even introduce myself as the "bastard swan eating Romanian"--just to avoid any confusion right from the start...;)]

One million two hundred thousand portions of fries served over the past twenty years in the business...

This is by far not McDonalds. This is a one man show. One person with his business... alone with his fries, paper cone and sauces, and the sausages or sodas or beer that are sometimes side ordered with the fries. With a great lake view of the swans and the other many birds on the Flagey pond from his "office".

One million tho hundred thousand... one portion at a time... day in and day out...

[And we have just passed the mark of twenty days of "busy-ing" out from our writing our daily story here...--a whole "long" vacation, by US standards of holiday]

You stay in line, you order, you pay the price, you get your fries... but is this truly the whole story?

You like your fries, and you like them so much that you go there again, and stay in line anew...

What is the gentleman really trading in? Processed potato fries? We suggest this may not be it... by far it isn't it...

One has to see the face of the gentleman making and serving his fries, caring for the image of the filled cone, eliminating the small or over-fried fries, almost caressing the cone and almost saying good bye to it while he places it in the cone holder for the customer to pick up.

Whether he (likes to) know(s) it or not, maybe the gentleman rather trades in something else... very very different...

We offer here that he may actually trade in customer smiles...

One million two hundred thousand smiles offered in a person's professional life...

When is the last time we gave away a smile? When is the last time we counted to one million two hundred thousand of a good thing we did? And what is the value of that giving? Not to the receiver, but to the giver herself?

...Hold those thoughts a little while...

In a loosely related story:

A friend whom I first met over a smile or two, once asked me to write in words about the connection between Ayn Rand’s Howard Rourke’s speech at his trial (here: ), and the principles of KindExcellence (here: ). I have been busy and it’s been a long while since. I fulfilled then my promise by sending her something else I wrote before which was slightly connected and in the same spirit. But I tried the task anew a few days ago.

First of all, I need to say that it is hard if not impossible altogether to comment on Howard Rourke’s speech. Period.

This means that any effort on my part to write anything would most probably be futile. And listening (again and again if need be) to Gary Cooper delivering his fabulous performance of the speech can not be replaced by any comments I (or anybody else) could ever write.

Having said that, I can try a few words. I believe the power of the message is in the listener. Just as the power of KindExcellence principles is in the adopter. This is a strange power, rarely seen. The adopter does not have to know he is using KindExcellence. He doesn’t have to know the principles even exist, or what they are and how they are spelled out and applied in day to day life, from one’s personal life to their professional life and business. She just has to use them. Doing it unknowingly and subconsciously works just as well. If not even better.

Thomas Payne once (“long time” ago) wrote

“my country is the world and my religion is to do good”

The absolute classic book he wrote it in was called “Common Sense”.

Indeed, some things are simply common sense.

“Such is the nature of creation.” says Ayn Rand through the words of Howard Rourke…

There is no satisfying others in elementary creation. James Watt did not improve on the ancient Heron steam engine to have his name written on every electricity bill any one of us receives today. Or to have (or rather not have and thus be forgotten) recognition in a class of twenty first century learners in education in/for science somewhere in Texas as one of the greatest five people having influenced the world at all times. He did what he did simply to satisfy his own inner curiosity. He had a problem and he trusted himself he could solve it in better ways than those used right in front of his eyes. He created the steam engine to pump water faster and easier. That’s it! Did he do it to save more lives of the miners who would otherwise die in the flooded mines? Did he get more satisfaction for himself knowing he was improving a public good—the lives of others—both in the immediate and in the near, medium or far ahead future? We do not know that. Andrew Carnegie who has studied James Watt extensively may have some sense about it. The answer may transpire from the biographical book Carnegie wrote on Watt (here: ).

Yet, in the words of Democritus of Abdera spoken more than two millenniums ago

“There are only atoms and empty spaces between them. Everything else is opinion.”

If Carnegie says Watt had a sense of doing good for humanity, it would be Carnegie’s opinion. We missed the chance to ask Watt himself. And we can never be certain, other than by most probably committing the fallacy of “presentism”, so common all too often among our science and technology history efforts. But does it truly matter?

There is only one way one can tell, suggests Ayn Rand. To try it ourselves, and see why we are doing it.

Indeed, Picasso does not paint to please anybody. If he wanted to please, the roses would be red, not blue!, so to speak.

In fact, like in all the examples Rourke gives, pleasing others is the last thing Picasso accomplishes. At least in his lifetime. Pleasing himself is what he cares for. Like with Watt, the inner satisfaction to know that he achieved his own potential, no matter what others say, is fulfilling in itself.

At first sight then, KindExcellence is 180 degrees opposite to Rand and/or Rourke’s precepts about creation as driven by egoistic individualism and satisfaction deriving from them. Hence, how can one ever attempt to wrap her mind around the two—Rand’s objectivism and KindExcellence—together at the same time? How can one then fit this square peg of objectivism in the round hole of KindExcellence (or vice-versa) other than by force?

We beg to differ however. Looking at things at first sight would most probably leave us tricked. Or simply ignoring the facts.

One smiles to his colleagues in the elevator in the morning exactly why? To expect a smile back? To please them? To show friendliness, which in turn could someday translate in a promotion (or even a few consecutive ones ahead of the pack), or even much needed social recognition? An interested economic agent, driven by self-gain as an ultimate motivator in every single small action?

Or, to ask another way, is Payne the ultimate altruist? What would Rand think of Payne? Or, what did Rand think of Payne? Today, we can ask Leonard Peikoff that question and hope to get an objective enough assessment that keeps Peikoff’s own subjective opinions at bay. Yet, the even more interesting question could be what would Payne think of Ayn Rand’s precepts… This however, we cannot even try to find out, since there is no living connection with Payne as Peikoff is in the case of Rand. Or can’t we?

We do not really have any answers, or not even any comments on the relationship between Ayn Rand and her work on one hand, and KindExcellence on the other. All we can modestly suggest is an approach from Socrates, over 2400 years old, and still yet to be fully comprehended and applied. Something that a Benjamin Franklin would suggest, as he rightly does so in his autobiography, available here:

We can only learn to ask the right questions ourselves. We are certain Payne, Rand, Franklin and so many others, as well as all of their careful followers of today, why not including KindExcellence promoters and practitioners--including the Place Flagey smiles maker selling his carefully made Belgian fries--, could all agree… The answer(s) seem(s) to be in ourselves. So, I guess, let us go find it/them… We can only wish all of us best of success…

...And the questions for today:

Is making someone else smile "innovative"? Or simply doing something, anything, with self-pride and self-satisfaction is the "innovation" here? Do we need some new measure/mode of valuation that we haven't considered yet either necessary, or possible? One which would teach us how to truly count to...

one million two hundred thousand... smiles

all given away along with the actual "traded" exchanged product or service?

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