I’m driving up the 101 freeway, it’s a Sunday, and on Sundays, I’m either at my desk prepping an interview or on my couch reading a book or in the living room hanging out with my wife and baby, which are basically my three favorite things in the world.
That’s where I’d like to be.
But instead, I’m driving into the city to attend a film festival because a new acquaintance of mine, this brilliant ex-military colonel, he made a documentary, and the documentary got into the festival, and two months ago he wrote me asking if I’d like to come check it out. At the time it seemed like a fun idea, and I know how hard it is to make a movie and get into a festival, and I like supporting my friends, and so I said yep, for sure, I’ll be there.
But now that it’s the day and I’m driving 45 minutes into San Francisco (90 minutes round-trip, I think to myself as I grip the steering wheel harder, and that’s without traffic), I’m starting to regret this whole thing.
I’m daydreaming about what it would be like to be back at home, working on the show, learning something new, chilling with Jennie and Jayden, living my own damn life, and not giving up half a day driving to a city I don’t live in for a person I just met to go watch a documentary about PTSD which is, I suddenly realize as I pull up to the movie theater, a pretty terrible way to spend a Sunday.
I walk in. I buy my ticket. I find my seat. The first thing I notice is how few people are in the theater. Par for the course with an obscure documentary at a small film festival, I guess. The lights go down, and the movie begins.
I won’t do a whole recap. But suffice it to say that about halfway through the doc, my eyes started welling up. I saw military veterans in a way I never had before and learned some remarkable stuff about PTSD, which it turns out my new friend struggled with in a big way, and which is an incredibly difficult experience to capture.
By the time the lights go up, my mind is racing. I’m trying to connect what I just learned to the military books I’ve read, the generals I’ve interviewed, and all the subjects I could explore on the show based on this documentary, including my friend. I’m totally moved, riveted, inspired.
Outside the theater, a small cluster of people, many of them veterans, are standing around talking about the doc with my friend, the director. When he sees me, his face brightens in a way I’ve never quite seen before.
“You made it!” he says, clearly surprised that I showed.
“I did,” I say as we hug, trying to figure out how to tell him how glad I am that I came.
“We haven’t talked in a few weeks, so I just figured…”
“I know, I know,” I say, thrilled to be here, suddenly realizing that this was actually an excellent use of my time.
I tell him I loved the doc. I ask him why he made it, and how, and he tells me about the long road to getting it produced. He introduces me to his wife. I say hello to his war buddies. We embrace again, exchanging thank yous that are so genuine I almost tear up again.
And then I run back to my car and head home, because I’m a dad and a husband and a host and, you know, traffic.
When I get inside, I write my friend a quick email congratulating him again and telling him in more detail just how much I was moved by the documentary. I follow up on a few of the moments that really landed, and share some thoughts I had as a civilian viewer. I do this not because I want to do him any favors, but because I sincerely mean it — because I care. I hit send, then disappear back into my life.
The next day, he sends me a reply. His email stops me in my tracks.
Brother, your words hit home. Thank you for being a part of our experience yesterday … It was a powerful day all around, and I am still feeling it.
Thank you once again my friend. I appreciate your sincerity, and more than that, I appreciate the fact that you were there. For me, presence is 90 percent of impact.
I can’t help but smile as I read his email a couple times. Over the next few days, we discover some really cool ways to help each other. He advises me on military research for the show. I share some promotional strategies for his movie. We talk about life and work and family. Suddenly, we’re actual friends. I feel warm and connected and grateful and all that good stuff that comes from developing a meaningful relationship.
All because I showed up at an event I would’ve given anything that morning to not have to attend.
An Epidemic of Flakiness
Let me get one thing out there right now: I’m no stranger to flaking.
I’ve flaked on dates, I’ve flaked on trips, I’ve flaked on jobs, I’ve flaked on hikes. (So many hikes.) In my 20s, when the plans you make are about as reliable as an HP printer circa 2002, I flaked more than a perfect Gordon Ramsay pie crust. Which, if you don’t know, are pretty damn flaky (and also quite tasty, but let’s focus here, people).
I flaked for all the reasons you’d expect. I liked being in control of my time. I preferred to not be tethered to anyone or anything too strongly. I enjoyed bailing on plans that didn’t suit my whims at the last minute. I also flaked because back then, I hung out with people who were highly flaky and therefore highly flakable, in a city where flaking wasn’t just accepted, it was actually part of the social contract. (Here’s looking at you, L.A.) And, to be fair, I made a lot of plans back then that made me want to bail, because I hadn’t learned yet that it was perfectly fine to say no to stuff that I just didn’t want to do.
I tell you all this because I’m about to argue for the virtues of not flaking, and I don’t want you to think I’m some boy scout who’s never bailed in his life. I came around to the idea of Always Showing Up after years of shrugging off plans, and now that I’ve seen the impact its had on my life and relationships, I’m 100 percent convinced that showing up is one of the most powerful things we can do.
And part of the reason it’s so powerful is that so few people do it.
In any given week, we receive so many “Gah, sorry, stuck at work” texts and “Sorry, not feeling great, gotta raincheck” emails that we don’t even get mad anymore. Facebook events are a graveyard of “I’m Interested” replies, messages go read but unresponded to, and if you’ve ever created an Evite, then you know that the “Going” column doesn’t mean anything until the day of the event, when who knows who will actually show up. An RSVP just doesn’t mean what it used to (oftentimes, it doesn’t mean anything at all!), and we’ve slowly come to accept that.
Technology isn’t helping things. The fact that so much planning happens through a screen only makes it easier to bail, since we’re even more removed from one another than we used to be. It’s also increased the number of events we get invited to, which jacks up our FOMO and encourages us to keep our options open. And if you do bail on someone at the last minute, then at least you know they’ll have their phone with them, in which case they won’t really be alone, so bailing won’t be as big of a deal.
(If you were born after Zoolander came out, imagine this: There was a time when if someone bailed on you, you had to sit at a Baskin Robbins staring out the window like a total idiot until you realized you were being stood up, and then you and that person would have a crazy argument about it later, and then you’d be sitting here, 20 years later, still hating Baskin Robbins even though it wasn’t even their fault, suddenly realizing that you’ve been missing out on that peanut butter crunch for like two decades because someone stood you up there, and they might not even have that flavor anymore, and now you’re just doubly pissed at friggin’ Angela for bailing because now you’ll never taste that sweet sweet fake-ass peanut butter ever again. Shocking, I know. But with that in mind, can you imagine how much harder it was to bail pre-iPhone?)
There’s a generational component to this, too.
A recent study carried about by OnePoll and commissioned by Evite (which presumably knows a thing or two about bailing on plans) found that 45 percent of millennials — almost half the generation — don’t see anything wrong with flaking. The study also showed that the average person bails on nearly half the events they’re invited to, which explains why about one third of young Americans admit that they’ve gained a reputation as a “flake.”
I suspect the results are even more alarming for Gen Z. Talk to any hiring manager, teacher or single person, and they’ll tell you just how much of their life involves putting up with people who ghost, bail, flake or otherwise fail to do what they say they will. The net impact of our flakiness as a culture must be in the thousands of hours and millions of dollars, if you multiply it across every interaction.
So here we are.
We live in the Age of Maybe, desensitized to other people’s flakiness, either too proud or too numb to let ourselves be bothered by how noncommittal our relationships have become.
In return, we play by the same rules, and treat other people just as casually. The result is a society that doesn’t take its promises very seriously at all. And why should it? We give as we get, and if we can’t have the kind of friends who show up when they say they will, then at least we don’t have to be the kind of friends who show up. And in a certain way, that’s kind of nice, even if we all know it’s total bullshit.
The flipside to all this, of course, is that when you do show up, it means a great deal. We’re so starved for integrity, so deprived of reliable connection, that any act of showing up feels like a major act of service. It shouldn’t be this way — it should be that when you show up, people go “oh, cool, you said you’d be here and now you’re here, that was totally expected” — but it is. And because we live in Peak Flake, showing up when you say you will has an even greater impact than it used to, which makes it one of the most important things you can do in your relationships.
In fact, it might just be the key to everything we teach on the show. Because generosity, commitment, vulnerability, authenticity — all of that is only possible if you don’t bail. Our value can only kick in when a relationship exists, and a relationship can only exist when people actually, you know, show up.
Which brings us back to that email.
The Joy of Showing Up
For me, presence is 90 percent of impact.
I kept thinking about that phrase in the days following my friend’s note. In that simple phrase, he captured something crucial about presence. The act itself — just being there, whatever “being there” means in a given situation — is the biggest part of helping people, building relationships, and influencing the world.
To make a difference, we have to Show Up. And when we Show Up, sometimes the simple act of Showing Up is precisely what makes the difference.
But Showing Up isn’t just, you know, “showing up.” I’m not talking about showing your face, engaging in small talk or checking the box on an RSVP. We all know that being somewhere isn’t the same thing as being there. We can spend hours at a party and bring little to the experience. We can spend years hanging out with someone and never really scratch the surface. We can clock in and clock out of a job and never make a mark on the company.
For many of us, this kind of perfunctory showing up is at least 80 percent of daily life. Which might also explain why we find it so tempting to bail. After all, what are we really bailing on, if there’s not much for us to show up for?
So when I talk about the joy of showing up, I’m talking about a more meaningful kind of showing up, which really comes down to three key qualities.
The first and necessary condition of showing up is, well, actually showing up.
That means agreeing to be somewhere when you say you will. That could be a live event, a scheduled phone call, a role on a project, a timely response, a moment of need or a sudden crisis. It could be planned or spontaneous, required or elective. But when you say (or imply) that you’ll be somewhere, then the first step toward Showing Up as a way of life is to agree with yourself that you will not bail. You must make this promise to yourself before you expect it of other people. (In fact, as we’re about to see, sometimes this promise to yourself is all you really need to build a non-flaky life.) Showing up is a one-man job, to start.
When I drove to the film festival that morning, I had committed to showing up, even though I didn’t want to in the moment. Without that promise to myself, the relationship with my friend wouldn’t have been possible. It’s a simple agreement, but it’s absolutely essential.
Showing up in a meaningful way requires you to truly be somewhere, as opposed to just being there in body.
It’s a squishy term, I know, but “presence” really comes down to this: cultivating an awareness that you can only really be in one place at a time, and that the place you’re in now is the only place that really matters. It means being disciplined about mental chatter, distraction and the nagging desire to be somewhere else. It means being fully in the place and in the company to which you’ve agreed to show up. It means agreeing to make the most of the thing you’ve shown up for, knowing that you showed up in order to make the most of it.
When I surrendered to being at the festival — and agreed to take in everything I saw as much as I could — I let go of the (impossible) desire to be somewhere else and allowed myself to be completely in the theater while I was there. That presence allowed me to appreciate the doc and have a true experience to share with my friend. This one is a tougher mindset to cultivate, but it’s just as essential, because it allows for another crucial quality to kick in.
When you’re truly present, you’re also in a position to bring all of yourself to the moment you’re in: to be somewhere in full. Bringing all of yourself to a moment means offering as much value, perspective, attention, joy, and involvement as is appropriate and desired.
Like presence, fullness is a choice. Instead of holding back — say, by refusing to socialize, retreating into your thoughts, shutting yourself off from the experience, deciding not to contribute to the moment, and so on — you agree to bring as many relevant qualities to the moment as you can. If it’s a meeting, you chime in, reflect, contribute. If it’s a movie, you stay open, take it in, engage with it. If it’s a first date, you ask questions, invest in the conversation, commit to authenticity. If it’s a crisis, you look for ways to help, offer support, and help people find solutions. You bring your full self to whatever the moment is.
When I watched the doc, connected it with other ideas and discussed it with my friend, I was showing up with fullness (or as much fullness as I could offer on a day full of other obligations). I wasn’t just another body in the theater. I was a viewer, a participant, and a friend cheering him on. That’s the stuff of a meaningful relationship, and it’s only possible when you bring as much of yourself as you can to every moment.
These three qualities — the act of commitment, the mindset of presence, and the quality of fullness — are the raw material of Showing Up. They’re the difference between “being there” and “being there.” (Or, to put it another way, the difference between being there and being here.) They’re how you honor and capitalize on the decision to show up when you say you will. They’re how you elevate the check-the-box act of showing your face to the meaningful act of becoming part of the thing you’re showing up for.
When you do show up in that way, you open up an entire world of potential value. That value, at the end of the day, is the source of the most important experiences in life — starting with great relationships.
Showing up multiplies social capital.
Simply put, showing up makes relationship possible. Whether it’s actually showing up in person, jumping on the phone, or responding to an email, the act of being there allows an exchange of value to take place. Social capital — the raw energy of great relationships — can’t kick in until somebody shows up. When somebody flakes, it breaks down completely.
That makes showing up a cornerstone of great relationship-building.
Want to cultivate a new connection? Show up when you say you’ll meet them, and keep showing up as your relationship develops.
Want to deepen an existing relationship? Show up in new and unexpected ways, and keep showing up as your relationship creates new opportunities to do so.
A lot of people want to expand their network without expanding their commitment to being there. But you have to be there — whatever being there means to you and the relationship in question — in order to be the kind of person who has a great network. (Also, to find the kind of people who also have great networks themselves. People show up for people who show up.)
Which also makes showing up a powerful element in reputation-building.
Expertise, education, skills, experience — these are all important aspects of a personal brand. But by far the most powerful element is commitment. People who show up become known as people who show up. They don’t bail, flake, waver or ghost. They build a reputation as a person you can trust. They follow through on their word, and that’s what makes the other parts of their brand so meaningful. If they didn’t, their other assets — no matter how great — wouldn’t mean much at all. After all, what good is a brilliant coder who doesn’t deliver? What good is a knowledgeable advisor who doesn’t keep appointments?
If you want to grow your social capital, then you have to invest in yourself, in your relationships, in your expertise, in your personality. But the best thing you can do is invest in a simple promise: I will show up when I say I will.
Showing up creates meaning, connection and fulfillment.
We find purpose not in ideas or words, but in doing. And to do something — to actually do it, out in the world, where it counts — requires us to show up.
My documentarian friend and I could have struck up a cordial friendship by email for years, but it wasn’t until one of us showed up for real, in person, that we became true friends. It’s only by showing up that that connection becomes possible. And through that connection, we generate a ton of meaning — which is the stuff of purpose.
The more our world becomes abstracted, the more powerful showing up will become. The highest form of showing up is usually in person, but again, the intention behind showing up matters more than the mode. We can show up for a friend halfway across the world by jumping on Skype to talk out a problem late at night. We can show up for an employee by spending an extra 15 minutes typing up meaningful feedback on a project. We can show up for a colleague by making an introduction to a customer by email. So while showing up in person is always powerful, it’s not always necessary, and it’s not always possible. Technology has its downsides, but it also creates so many more ways of showing up — if we use it correctly.
Showing up also creates the bonds that our species requires. After the festival, I felt a rush of connection, gratitude, and significance. I felt like I was part of something — my friend, his project, his community — and that he was now part of mine. As much as we try, we will never find a substitute for that feeling. If we really want meaning and fulfillment in our lives, we have to agree to show up. We have to consciously decide not to flake, so we can put ourselves in the position to build the connections we crave and need.
Showing up makes you take yourself more seriously.
When you show up, you signal to other people that they matter. But showing up is just as important for yourself: to know that when you make a commitment, you follow through. That simple promise instantly makes your word mean a great deal more, which signals to yourself that you matter.
When you take your Yes’s more seriously, each individual Yes becomes more meaningful. You don’t casually commit to plans you don’t intend to honor; you don’t make promises you know you’ll break. As a result, you also allow yourself to say No to opportunities — and therefore to avoid situations that make you want to flake. When you say you’ll do something, you do it. When you say you won’t, you know it’s because you can’t. Another word for that agreement is “integrity.”
The more you practice this agreement, the more your desire to show up (or flake) will become a barometer for whether something is worth your time and energy. You’ll commit to the things that matter, and you won’t commit to things that don’t. That is incredibly liberating. It also frees you from the burden of creating and then canceling (and then recreating and then re-canceling) plans over and over — which usually ends up becoming more of a burden than just following through on the plans in the first place.
So refusing to flake isn’t just a courtesy to other people. It’s also a promise to yourself. A promise to mean what you say, do what you say you will, and only fill your life with commitments that are meaningful to you. A promise to be that kind of person.
The End of Flakiness
Is there absolutely no room for flakiness in our lives? Is showing up a non-negotiable?
Not quite. Sometimes we will have to bail on plans for legitimate reasons. Sometimes showing up will become impossible. Sometimes something more important will come up. Life happens.
But that isn’t flaking. A medical emergency, a more urgent obligation, an actual (not fake) illness — these are all acceptable reasons to cancel plans. But even here, respect and courtesy apply. There’s a rude way to legitimately bail and a respectful way to legitimately bail. The respectful way usually includes an honest explanation, a sincere apology, and concrete steps to reset the plans. Anything less tends to give way to good old fashioned flaking.
Outside of those cases, though, bailing on commitments is usually a form of flakiness, and that’s what we have to eliminate.
So what does it take to end flakiness in your life?
How do you stop being the kind of person who regularly bails, and start being the person who shows up no matter what?
The answer comes down to three simple agreements.
Do what you say you will. Don’t say what you won’t do.
From now on, make a promise to yourself to follow through on the commitments you’ve made.
This might mean driving across town when you don’t feel like it, attending an event when you’d rather stay home, or doing some extra work when you’d rather relax. Showing up despite that resistance is how you create value that other people can’t. In the short term, it might feel quite onerous, especially if you’ve lived by flakiness up till now. Over time, though, it will bring you deeper into your own life, and avoid the dysfunction that flakiness causes.
At the same time, make a promise to not make commitments you don’t intend on keeping. This is the other side of the integrity coin. When you refuse to commit to things you can’t show up to, you eliminate the need to flake at all. You also free up room to only commit to those things that matter to you, so you can experience the joy of showing up more often.
Don’t put up with flakiness in your close relationships.
Once you commit to showing up in your own life, you’ll find yourself taking other people’s commitments more seriously. You’ll find it harder to put up with behavior you no longer allow in yourself, and you’ll begin to expect your close relationships to match your level of commitment.
So as you eliminate flakiness, make an agreement not to tolerate flakiness in your most important relationships. That doesn’t mean cutting ties with someone the second they bail, or calling out people for rescheduling plans. It means noticing when other people’s flakiness pops up, and communicating your desire to mutually show up.
That might mean talking to a friend who bails repeatedly on plans. “I know it’s tough to line up schedules these days,” you might say, “but you matter to me, and I have a very full life, so I’d like to know that when we make plans, we mean them.” If the person continues to flake, then you might redefine the relationship and give it the priority it deserves. In some situations — such as managing flaky employees at work, where follow-through has higher stakes — you might explicitly call out the behavior and set an expectation that it changes. Every relationship and context is different, and different types of commitments require different standards.
Refusing to put up with flakiness in other people can be a little scary in the short term, but it ultimately leads to more meaningful and honest relationships. It allows you to invest in people who show up, and not waste social capital on people who don’t. It makes your life richer, more connected, and more authentic. It attracts people who share your commitment to commitment, who also want to show up to your decision to show up. When this agreement meets the previous agreement, your inner and outer commitment to show up really begins to pay off.
Celebrate showing up.
The more you show up, and the more you hang with people who show up, the more you’ll discover how important showing up really is. Celebrating un-flakiness reinforces the promise, and spreads the showing up mentality across your life.
What does this mean in practice?
For one thing, it means taking stock of the impact of showing up. Every so often, check in with yourself and ask how honoring your commitments is working out. Are you feeling more connected and more productive? Are there opportunities to show up in ways that you haven’t yet? What impact would showing up for those people and places have?
Another way to celebrate showing up is to institutionalize it in every area of your life.
At work, you might make it a company policy (e.g., responding to all emails from colleagues by the end of the day, incentivizing follow-through on goals and KPIs, creating a newsletter to highlight employees’ accomplishments). In your family, you might make it a ritual (e.g., showing up to each family member’s events equally, agreeing not to check phones at dinner, having dinner all together once a week). In your personal life, you might make it an informal policy (e.g., not dating people who regularly flake, celebrating your friends’ accomplishments on social media, looking for ways to commit to the other person’s growth).
The beauty of showing up is that it’s infectious.
The more you do it, the more you’ll want to do it, the more you’ll expect other people to do it, and — with you as an example — the more they’ll want to do it, too. It’s a virtuous cycle that begins with one person saying: I’m going to do what I said I would. That one agreement can literally change your life.
So this is our task: to show up when we say we will, to not say we’ll show up when we won’t, and to share that commitment to showing up across our lives.
The epidemic of flakiness is part of our culture now, but we can reverse it in ourselves. Ultimately, that’s all we really have to do to live a non-flaky life.
When we show up, we always end up finding other people who show up, too. We either attract them with our commitment or we inspire them with our example. That’s how great relationships are born. They deepen with value, gratitude, generosity, and kindness. But they begin in one place — ourselves — when we resist the urge to bail, and choose to be there instead.
[Featured photo by Jesse Bowser]