Perhaps because I’ve been working on money management and taxes lately, I have been forced to consider what I do for a living. The conversation with myself seemed to go in circles today until this strange oxymoronic phrase came to mind: selling wisdom. As in, “You can’t be serious, you do what?” The phrase had a strange ring to it, however, and like some odd yet familiar musical chord, it spoke to me, asked questions of me, if only from its own bemused perspective. The word “oxymoron,” by the way, comes from two Greek words that mean first, “sharp” and then “foolish.”
I mentioned the phrase “selling wisdom” to my fiancé, Carmen, and she laughed. “Well,” she said,” I envision a little old man with a long gray beard behind a counter, and behind him the wall of an apothecary, except the medicines would have different names. The old man would ask his visitors what they wanted, and they would tell him their troubles whereupon he might suggest a dose of reality or sensitivity or bravery or such, pulling out the powders and the vials”. A Harry-Potterish kind of vision.
And yet I do think — when I’m at my best, anyway — this is exactly the business I am in, egocentric as it may sound. And I’m in it because there’s a hunger in the world for exactly that. People thrive on it. Businesses thrive on it, acknowledged or not. And I like it; I’m good at it. There’s a sort of destiny feel to it.
Before saying more, I want to acknowledge that despite the bemused stance, the self-inquiry is serious. There are sure liabilities to the work. Last week I noticed Ed Batista’s moving post on author David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide last year. Wallace’s perspective on life, as expressed in a graduation speech he gave, one Ed points to in his post, contains a lot of wisdom — just not enough to help him save his own life. But the content was exactly the kind of stuff we need and that people hunger for: penetrating, human, challenging, and deeply vulnerable.
The point is that anyone who thinks he/she is selling wisdom is exactly a presumptious fool. Wisdom can’t be sold, won’t be sold. It’s living, not a living. Oh, I know there are all those examples of gurus that promise enlightenment through books and CD’s, expensive retreats, and so on. But I actually am thinking of something very different. I’m thinking of when I discovered that the moments I was genuinely doing my best work were not while I was standing in front of a group or coaching the CEO in some private office on the top floor. It wasn’t the time on the clock; it was the time after, the time off the clock. And I was doing it with whomever I happened to run into in the lobby or the restaurant or the bar who was feeling something, who wanted to try to understand more of this whole mysterious, mixed up matrix of relationships and tasks. After a couple drinks, people sometimes would let down their guard, talk more honestly about their impressions of the work I had been called in to do in their organizations. They would tell their stories, share an honest attitude toward their organization, their team, the head honchos. These were the real clients, not so much in search of knowledge or even an opportunity to vent. They were in search of wisdom, including whatever mine might happen to be.
Of course, that can lead to an ego trip. I remember the President of a smallish manufacturing concern who wanted to buy me a glass of wine after our retreat with top staff. Earlier in the day I had called him out for evidently manipulating the meeting toward his own agenda rather than sticking with the group’s agreed upon and well planned agenda. I had the feeling, from that moment of tension I’d caused that I wouldn’t necessarily be working for him again and so I had little to lose. As we sipped our wine, I replied to his not so subtle criticisms of me this way: “You know, Bruce, this isn’t about my clients picking me to be their consultant so much as me picking my clients….You know, I don’t work for everybody.”
And, man, did he love that. I think it absolutely made his day for somebody to challenge him that directly. Wow, another alpha to compete with. Okay, after a couple of glasses of wine, I guess I must have been the one ready to tell the truth. But those days, when I still felt I could afford to be cocky, this, too, was evidence about where the real work got done.
He might have been a bit atypical. But from him and others I figured out that some of the very best interventions I could do would happen after the formal presentation, training, coaching, facilitation, etc…it would be later, one-on-one with someone struggling to find answers. Maybe the problem didn’t have anything to do with work, but it was something that caused him or her to wrestle with themselves. In fact, if this “meeting” didn’t happen, it seemed to me generally a sign that my work was going to be more superficial in the end.
Sometimes the issue someone talked about in the off hours was self-esteem — I think of the manager, sweet guy, who couldn’t confront people in his team and defeated himself out a post that would have taken him to the top of his organization. Sometimes the issue was a secret. I think of the woman, good Catholic soul and experienced, respected leader who’d had a lover on the side for twenty years that no one knew about. When he died unexpectedly, there was no one for her to turn to to share her grief. Sometimes the issues had a lot to do with the past. I think of the VP struggling whether to fire a manager who was loud, abrasive, a little cruel with his reports — the VP reflecting on his father hitting his mother and the VP stepping in as 17 year old young man to prevent his dad from ever hitting her again. And I think of the CEO of the big firm in the little town telling me how important his house was to him, and why it mattered, based on his experience as a teenager of his parents as they divorced, forcing him to pick which one of them he wanted to live with.
I think of the many dear colleagues and our laughter after a hard day with a client, us laughing so hard to celebrate our good work and sometimes also to get rid of the darkness of an experience that wasn’t successful at all; us pretending, searching for an always escaping sense of reassurance. Dear people, all of us, all so incorrigibly human.
The Little Shop of Wisdom, how we all have sought it out in the after hours, just around the corner, searching for that wise old man or that crone who can wrap us up a small package of reality, or vision, or courage, or a restored moral view. A drop or two of sanity, you know. No one, really, can buy or sell it; and you can’t really charge for any of those priceless hours, even if it is your true vocation. You can never charge for it and you would be a fool to try.
Technorati Tag: Listening. Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.