February 11, 2011
“Good afternoon, ma’am!” he cheerfully exclaims.
I look up from my menu at the outdoor cafe, and I’m greeted by the eager, smiling face of a young boy. One of his front teeth is noticeably chipped in half, but that doesn’t stop him from beaming with uninhibited enthusiasm as he carefully lays down 5 sheets of Hello Kitty stickers to the side of my placemat without permission.
Before I can say anything, he takes the lead:
“My, your hair color is very becoming on you, if I do say so myself,” he says. “Do you get your hair done here, or are you visiting from another country?”
“Why, I’m visiting from another country,” I say, as I sit up in my chair to better face him. “Can you guess which one?”
“Well, you don’t have a Chilean accent, and most of the visitors that come here are Chileans. You don’t have very dark skin, either. But I’m not a very good guesser.”
He looks momentarily ashamed.
I tell him where I’m from, and then turn the conversation around on him.
“How old are you?”
“I’m 11,” he says. “But I’ll be 12 on February 15th. That’s soon, right?”
“Yes, that’s very soon. So what’s an 11 year old boy out doing on a Saturday afternoon selling Hello Kitty stickers?”
“Oh, I always do this. I’ve been doing it for two whole years,” he proudly states. “I’m paying for my school.”
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Nice to meet you, Daniel,” I say. “I’m Ashley.”
Suffice to say, Daniel and I chat for a bit longer, and I buy far too many Hello Kitty stickers than any grown woman should ever admit.
He walks away, and I turn and watch him approach others, to be immediately dismissed with the flick of a wrist, a shoo-shoo motion, time and time again. And time, and time again, he swallows the rejection, takes a deep breath, and moves onto the next table, putting on his best face and summoning once again his greatest enthusiasm.
Then, he disappears out of sight.
I’m at a cafe in Mendoza, Argentina, and I’ve suddenly lost my appetite.
Not because I am disgusted, or bothered, but because I can’t help but think about what I was doing on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the summer before I turned 12.
My eyes tear up.
I order a glass of wine.
And there, I contemplate.
It certainly isn’t uncommon to be approached by children at outdoor cafes, both in Argentina and Chile, and probably many other parts of the world. Some say that their parents put them up to it, because they assume that people like me will feel bad, and be inclined to give them money–far more money than if the parents, themselves, had approached.
This is likely the case. And I’m a sucker for it every time.
And though some days, there are so many children doing it, it becomes a bit bothersome, I still can’t help but feel badly, because whether their parents are putting them up to it or not, they still have to do it.
I think of the shame I would feel. The disgrace. The mortification.
And then I remind myself that they’re children, and they probably haven’t been socialized enough to feel those things entirely–especially if they’ve grown up doing it. This has become their norm.
But as I contemplate, there’s something that suddenly, I discover, that I admire.
I don’t just mean the children of the cafes.
It’s the determined teen on the street selling 3 pairs of Nikes on a blanket, in one size only.
It’s the quiet woman who sets up shop outside of the metro station, day in and day out, and attempts to sell her colorful hand-sewn coin purses.
It’s the elderly man with the bad back who humbly spends his mornings ignoring his pain, bending over anyway to buff the shoes of the young, arrogant man half his age.
It’s the homeless woman who, despite any hope left in her eyes, stands tall, quietly places her cupped hands out in front of her, closes her eyes, and sings opera for hours on end.
It’s the man without legs who, using his arms alone, painstakingly drags his body down the aisle of the public bus, wonders if anyone is going to offer to help (they don't), props himself up on the floor, takes a deep breath, and begins to tell jokes with a megaphone.
It’s the man who, on that same bus later that night, softly pulls an accordion from its case, and begins to play for the passengers, most of which have just come from the bar. They talk loudly over his music, as if he were invisible. The man appears to be in his sixties, and every time the bus comes to a harsh stop, which is nearly every time, he bangs backward into the window and nearly topples over, but somehow, doesn’t.
You know what all of this is?
It’s called TENACITY.
And it is that which I find myself admiring.
I have never witnessed a population of people so scrappy, willing to take any skill they have and turn it into a business.
But along with their tenacity, there’s something else I deeply admire.
It’s their humility.
It’s extremely useful, this humility. It’s unpretentious, unassuming, and innocent, in a way. More than anything, it’s their humility that’s their greatest business asset; without it, they’d have nothing. With it, they’ve got something.
What would become of the teen?
What would become of the quiet woman?
What would become of the elderly man with the bad back?
What would become of the homeless woman?
What would become of the man without legs?
What would become of the man too proud to play his accordion?
I begin wondering about me. About you. About us.
What would become of us?
And the greater question: Are we humble enough?
Have we prevented ourselves from starting amazing businesses simply because we weren’t humble enough?
…because we were too proud to risk failure?
What will become of the writer, the artist, the story-teller, the designer, the dreamer and the entrepreneur desperately longing to build a business from their craft, but too proud to risk rejection?
Somehow, it seems that whether you’re a shoe shiner on the streets of Chile, or an artist from the suburbs of California, without humility, your fate becomes one in the same: A quiet loss of dignity.
For the shoe shiner, his dignity lies in being able to provide for his family.
For the rest of us, our dignity lies in being able to provide for our soul.
And without humility, neither can be accomplished.
Because humility is a pre-requisite for success—no matter what business you’re in.–
Humility is what gets you through the nervewracking process of putting yourself out there for the very first time.
Humility is what helps you through your very first criticisms.
Humility is what forces you to put yourself out there again, despite those criticisms.
And humility is the tool that allows you to change things, when sometimes, those criticisms were right.
But most importantly, humility is what makes it okay not to have all of the answers, all of the time.
Because you won’t.
Ultimately, humility is what will carry your business–and your soul–forward.
I think of Hello Kitty and Daniel once again. I think of the 11-year old boy who, upon business failure, swallows each rejection, takes a deep breath, and begins again.
And I am grateful.
Because even though it's his birthday on the 15th, he's given me a gift.
The gift of the pure genius hiding behind his smile.
Chipped tooth and all.