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Happy, Helpful, Curious, and Accountable

Today our good friend Iris from NextSpace asked us about our corporate culture mantra. Shane and I delighted in recounting it:

Happy, Helpful, Curious, and Accountable.

As we recited our beloved chant, it dawned on me that it deserves a long overdue blog post.

What, you ask, is this 12-syllable slogan? It’s our cultural measuring stick. These are the words that we iterate whenever we meet someone new or review someone we’ve been working with. It applies both to our colleagues and to our clients.  In fact, we apply this gauge to everyone in our lives, from presidential candidates to car mechanics. I asked Shane, who recently became a father, how he envisions his daughter as an adult. He thought about it for a while and after a couple days of deliberation replied,

I would be delighted to see Serenity grow to be happy, helpful, curious, and accountable.

(I am thrilled to report after the first six months, Serenity has a great head start on the “happy” part of the equation and is currently working on “curious.”)

This mantra came about a few years ago when Shane and I were deliberating over how to choose our team. After a great deal of debate and reflection, we concluded that there are three common characteristics among the people with whom we’ve had consistent successful relationships. These people are uplifting, they are always looking for ways to add value, and that they are always learning more about their trades. We summarized these attributes as “Happy, Helpful, and Curious.”

After a few months of applying that standard, we came to realize that a person can make us smile, have a supportive attitude, and be learning new things, but still not deliver on time or set our expectations so we added “Accountable.” I’m pleased to report that after a few years of testing this mantra, we’ve got a pretty solid song.


I love what I do. I do it because I enjoy it.

My theory is that Robin Hood’s merry band was merry because they all enjoyed robbing the rich and giving to the poor. I want to be surrounded by people who love what they do. I look for people who are cheerful enough to match the enthusiasm of our team so that we can inspire each other. (Cheerful = full of cheer)

I’ve worked in offices filled with miserable people. It sucks. Some years back when I was bouncing between freelancing and cubicalling I had a boss, Mark, who turned out to be a downright vicious character.

When I first joined the team, he was very supportive and complimented me often. Being new and not having a sense of self-worth, his financial offer seemed generous. After a week or two, I noticed that although he was quite nice to me, he was frequently YELLING at other people on the team. Though I often wondered why he didn’t yell at me, in my youthful naiveté, I assumed there must be some valid justification. (In retrospect, it rather reeks of Milgram’s controversial “Obedience to Authority” experiment in which Milgram convinced people that it was OK to torture.) After a few months, a team member quit, prompting Mark to reveal himself as he yelled,

Damn! Now I have to pretend to be nice to some other gullible new hire for three months.

It wasn’t long until he was unleashing his wrath upon me as well. By the time I left, I had been swindled out of more than $5,000 and was starting to have regular nervous breakdowns. It was at this point that I decided No matter what I do next, I refuse to tolerate tyrants. From now on, I’m looking for happy people.

What is a happy person?

A happy person is someone who actually really wants to be smiling. I realize that sounds weird—doesn’t everyone want to be happy? Personally, I do not subscribe to the philosophy that we all seek joy. In fact, a couple years ago John Lanchester published a great article in The New Yorker, “Pursuing Happiness,” in which he argues that happiness is a relatively recent invention and that people are inherently built to be cautious and anxious.

In my own experience, I find that someone with an overabundance of resources can just as easily choose to be happy as they can also choose to be bored, stressed, jealous, angry, dramatic, or inhabit just about any other state of consciousness. Happiness seems like the obvious choice, though in practice it can be very challenging and is generally reserved for the brave and the ignorant. (We’re moreso looking for the brave ones.)

A happy person is uplifting by nature. This person has problems like everyone else, but they are balanced enough to be able to manage their problems with aplomb. Happy is trustworthy. Winnie the Pooh is happy. Rabbit is not. Ernie is happy. Bert… eh… not so much. (Though Shane is quite a happy person—the picture in this post is just for fun.) Happy people have down times, but, in general, they bring cheer. Happy is contagious.

How to tell if someone is Happy

How do you like freelancing?

We do a lot of phone interviews. If after a few minutes, I want to get off the phone, it’s usually because the person I’m talking to is making me feel bad. However, if I find that they have a lot of uplifting stories, are quick to give compliments (that don’t sound like ass-kissing), and generally are making me smile, they’re probably happy. Simply put, I tend to feel better after talking to a happy person.

In the freelance industry, we often come across freelancers by design as well as those who are between jobs. It’s usually pretty easy to tell if someone is a genuine freelancer. If a person is choosing to be a freelancer, it’s because they enjoy it.  However, if someone is a freelancer because they can’t hold a job or just got laid off, it’s more likely that they lack direction and aren’t freelancing by choice. The difference between the two is tangible on a daily basis. We look for people who are doing what they want to do.


When I was a kid, I’d often join my father in the garage as he worked on one of his many projects. I can only imagine how annoying it was to hear me say “What can I do,” “How can I help,” and “Is there something for me to do?” Or “I’m bored.” Though my heart was in the right place, I didn’t realize that all my nagging, ceaseless questions were centered around MY own entertainment. I’m quite sure that my father must have imparted this wisdom to me countless times before the revelation imprinted in my memory.

Petey-boy, the best way you can help me is to quietly stand by until I’m ready for your assistance.

Aha! An epiphany! Helpfulness is about YOU, not me. Some people learn this lesson well while others miss it entirely. Helpful is an art of living. Consideration is a way of being.

When Nick Ohrn pinged me the other night about a WordPress embed plugin he found on his own time that might be a significant time-saver for an upcoming development project of ours, Nick was being helpful.

Reid Peifer is another fantastic example of a helpful person! Not only does he often anticipate points where Shane and I will need assistance and volunteers himself, but he’ll also ping me on AIM once in a while just to check in and see how I’m doing.  To borrow from Obama’s phrase, Reid embodies the Audacity of Helpfulness.

Honestly though, without getting too mushy or anything, the truth is our whole team is helpful. I’m deeply grateful to be surrounded by such supportive people.  It’s one of the great pleasures of being in business for myself but not by myself.

How to tell if someone is Helpful

What’s the biggest mess you’ve had to clean up?

Think about it. What was the last wrecked client relationship, code snafu, or general unexpected business debacle that you had to deal with? How did you handle it? How did it turn out? Were you able to resolve it?

I’ve asked this question and been amazed at the responses. The beauty is that it’s not directly implying any aspect of helpfulness. But a helpful person is often going to have threads of consideration woven into their tale.

Often, the question also reveals accountability. If someone is particularly unhelpful, they will take this opportunity to blame other people for the mess. The worst answers I’ve heard are ones where the mess isn’t even cleaned up in the end.

A helpful person cannot walk away from a mess. A helpful person wants to make sure that everything is going to come together in a project and that everyone is being cared for. Helpful is taking responsibility beyond your own domain. Helpful people get joy out of offering solutions.


When I was being interviewed for the job of Interactive Designer at 2Wire, my final interview was with then VP of Marketing Brian Sugar. He asked me some pretty direct questions, like “How do you like this place?” and “You excited about this job?” But there was one statement that just floored me. It was brilliant!

Teach me something about Flash.

I was extremely excited that he asked me this. At the time, I was basically living and breathing Flash. Where do I begin?! I decided to just pick the most recent thing I had been learning about. I believe it was something about XML sockets or maybe it was something to do with a new Tweening algorithm. Who knows, who cares? He had opened a can of my passion and could see that I was clearly devoted to the technology and that I was constantly learning more about it.

I now realize that the secret brilliance of this request is that specific interest in a field is independent of the general quality of curiosity. For example, just because I’m personally not excited about being a Quality Assurance tester doesn’t mean that it’s not exciting for someone else. If I want to find a good QA person, I need to find one who is curious about quality and about the evolution of technologies.

When I find the right person for testing our WordPress sites, I ask them to teach me something about testing WordPress, and they will brim with excitement and unravel a ball of passion about bugs they’ve found and how they’ve helped to get them resolved.

How to tell if someone is Curious

We ask people a lot of questions to help identify this quality. Some statements that best address curious are:

  • What books have you read lately?
  • How do you keep informed about the technologies and philosophies in your trade?
  • Teach me something (a la Brian Sugar).


One of my favorite aspects of working with independent contractors is that they are running businesses. In order to run an enduring business, you have to deliver on budget and on time. As Shane often says,

I get my projects done on budget, on time, or else I can’t pay my mortgage.

Some years ago, I had a client, Jonathan, who taught me a very valuable lesson. At the time, I had this philosophy that any financial or accountability issue can be overcome by working harder. Oddly enough, that philosophy led me to work increasingly harder for less money with ever-decreasing client satisfaction. The fact is, no amount of work will make up for silently failing to meet essential deadlines.

My perception was that Jonathan was getting to be very hard to please and the more challenging the project became the less I wanted to confront him. My solution was to silently work harder. At some point, I had to confront him just to walk him through my work. After a hair-raising shouting match, we reconvened with a truce and he explained to me the concept of Setting Expectations. It’s OK to miss a deadline. It’s OK to not accomplish the entire scope. So long as you set expectations.

If I’m not going to be able to make a deadline, I need to inform my client as early as possible and work out an alternative strategy. If the scope of a project is panning out to be much larger than initially expected, then it’s entirely reasonable to renegotiate with the client as long as the renegotiation happens early. What’s NOT OK is letting a due date pass silently. Or to deliver part of the project but miss a bunch of essential components without any prior warning.

For the most part, people are reasonable. When reasonable people work with reasonable people, things get done and everyone has a good time. People with accountability deficiencies involuntarily cause everyone else to work harder. If someone can’t set expectations, then you can’t rely on your own expectations of them.

It means you have to micro-manage or suffer the fate of frequent fire drills where everyone is forced to stay up late for a week to make up for the fact that a timeline or scope has become untenable. This is also a point where money can start to rapidly bleed out of the project. When you are so focused on working that you can’t do your dishes, how are you going to remember to clock your time and review your budget?

How to tell if someone is Accountable

One super-easy way to tell that someone is NOT accountable is if they are late for or miss entirely the phone interview. Seriously. We now always make interviewees call us so that we can immediately see they are NOT accountable. Every single time we’ve interviewed someone who missed the call or was late, that person ended up performing really poorly where accountability is concerned and ended up not working out for our team.

On the other hand, if someone emails or calls well in advance to politely request that we reschedule, that person is likely to be solid in the accountability department because they know how to manage expectations.

Mantras Make Me Happy.

I have a horrible memory. I’m always looking for easy-to-remember tricks. That’s how Shane and I came to develop the happy, helpful, curious, and accountable mantra. My dear reader, I invite you to add your favorite life mantras below in our comments. I’m always looking to find other phrases that can bring clarity to the myriad murky decisions of life.