The Little Shop of Wisdom

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.

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  • Dick Richards wrote:

    “one-on-one with someone struggling to find answers”

    I’ve been fortunate to have been in rooms with 200+ people struggling to find answers instead of waiting to be entertained or to be given answers, and that is also rewarding (in my “best work” category).

    I think though that you are spot on with the “struggling to find answers” thing. That is where/when we do our best work–whether one-on-one or with a group. And I have friends doing work similar to what you do and I once did that will absolutely not work with anyone who isn’t fully engaged in that struggle even before they seek help. One person in particular looks for clients who have, in his words, “Received the gift of desperation.”

  • Dick, thank you. The “gift” of desperation is quite a phrase. It reflects the inner struggle, the sense of pressure and pain that brings the challenge to the surface. Learning to resolve such things, I would suggest, creates a generous spirit.

  • I’m glad you found Wallace’s talk as moving as I did, Dan. Your post reminds me that in any coaching or consulting role it can be tempting to “sell wisdom”–to focus on providing answers rather than on asking questions. That’s not to say that I don’t have some wisdom to share–but I find that I almost always make a greater contribution by asking than by telling.

    I also appreciate your emphasis on the importance of the work done “after hours.” Ricki Frankel, a coach who’s had a big influence on me, tells her clients that they’ll do their most meaningful work on their own, between sessions, and I see a relationship between these two points. The best coaches and consultants empower their clients, helping them to discover and tap into their own wisdom, rather than fostering a sense of dependence on someone else’s. I look forward to reading more.

  • Agreed on all points, Ed, especially that notion of giving answers rather than helping someone trust their own insight. Asking good questions and sharing neutral observations can be an extremely helpful type of coaching. When it’s “non-directive” in this way, it can be extremely powerful and liberating for a client. In other cases, the client may ask for a more “directive” approach from the coach, and that can be effective, too, if done with great care not to answer questions that the client must answer alone, create the dependency you speak of, or really be a method for the coach to live the client’s life vicariously.

    In my post I aimed to highlight that it is sometimes after a formal process is over, such as training classes, facilitated team sessions, individual meetings, that an exchange happens that is very meaningful. This “off the clock,” informal exchange is what I mean by “The Little Shop of Wisdom.” There’s a certain similarity — visible in the photograph — between the Shop with its vials and rare substances and a bar with its shelves of liquor, but this is only a kind of visual joke — it’s just that in bars, certainly in airport bars between strangers, The Little Shop of Wisdom is often fully open for business, if you know what I mean.

    This leads to one last clarification. In my work I draw a firm distinction between formal coaching and informal conversations. I avoid, for example, having a formal one-on-one conversation for which I am paid, then dropping into an informal “off the clock” mode to continue the same process. There’s no benefit to the client and there is some potential harm where that boundary is missing.

  • Mary Allison wrote:

    Dan I love this post.

  • Thank you, Mary; thanks for taking a moment to tell me.

  • As a frequent beneficiary of your gifts of wisdom, I think that sometimes it takes a while for the insights you offer to sink in … sometimes it’s a matter of minutes or hours, but sometimes it takes days, weeks or longer. So I’m not surprised that some of the most teachable moments in your work with clients occur after the main session.

    It sounds as though you are in a process of reflection and reconsideration. I admire your gumption in being willing to dedicate your professional life to helping others gain insights – through your formal and informal contacts with clients – and hope you will continue to press on.

    I’m concerned by one of your observations: “But those days, when I still felt I could afford to be cocky, this, too, was evidence about where the real work got done” … and I hope it does not mean that you are – or will be – less willing to challenge your clients with the fierce love it often requires to break through the barriers we all erect to protect our most vulnerable wounds … the places from which, I believe, we are most apt to discover the true gifts we have to share with others.

  • Hey Joe

    Thank you for that question. I think there’s a significant difference between “cocky” and “willing to challenge your clients with fierce love.” I think of T.S. Eliot who is reported to have said that everything he wrote before the age of 70 was immature. If anything I am probably more ready than ever for “fierce love.” I don’t rely on self-possession to get me through. What I try to say now is something that is also an affirmation of the other person, not a put down, so that what is disrupted is the whole competitive system, particularly the system between men.

  • Great points, Dan–no argument here. I agree that direction from a coach or consultant can be very useful but must be offered carefully (and, I’d add, with a transparent emphasis on the importance of avoiding dependency.)

    And I definitely support the idea that “off the clock” doesn’t simply mean “between sessions” but also “after hours,” when there’s an opportunity to connect as people, informally. But your final clarification strikes me as really important here. Boundaries are essential, and we need to understand when we’re stepping out of our coach/consultant role and into another kind of interaction. Great stuff.

  • Nice, Dan…and I do like the image of ordering up a spot of wisdom.

  • Thanks, Therese!

  • Thanks, Ed! And kudos to you for your last post on inclination, motivation, and action. It’s very inspiring.

  • You don’t have to sell wisdom, Dan. It seeps from your pores without any effort on your part as an offering for someone to mull over, not as an answer, but as an invitation to plunge deeper into one’s own heart.

  • Ah, such kind words from a generous heart! Thank you, Deb.

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