It didn’t start out that way.
My first contact with David was when he had a lower-level executive role in a huge Fortune 500 company. We had a lunch at a local Marriott when he was in town. There was never a more accessible, kind, affable man.
Not long after that he hired me to do some seminars for his organization. They were extremely well-received, highly successful. That cemented our relationship.
Over the next few years we would periodically connect by phone. Saw each other several times a year at industry conferences. I wrote a couple of books, both of which were critically acclaimed. He kept saying we should write a book together. I was open to it. I’d become something of an expert in my own right in his area of expertise and I’m a big believer in collaboration.
That never happened.
As David rose in the company, I found myself quietly palmed off to assistants who didn’t know me, my skills or products. He became much harder to reach the higher he got. I’ve worked in large corporations as well, and I know the drill. Layering. Protection. The more important you are, the more you protect your time. Especially the more important you think you are.
I’ve been in and around F100-500 corporations much of my life. While I can only speak from my experience and observations (as well as my research), what I’ve noticed is that the most accessible managers also tend to be hugely influential. That’s because rather than stroking their own egos with the perks of promotions, they realize that their standing relies on those around them, whose input and opinions matter. Those are shoulders that support you.
After a long while, David just disappeared. No more conversations, calls or emails. He’d been promoted out of that area and into a much more senior, visible role with the company. Suddenly he was international. And wholly off-limits.
At least to the hoi polloi, of which I clearly was one.
His Facebook page was suddenly inundated with material from other writers. Nothing original. It was a fair amount of commonly-known pap. To my mind, not worthy of the smart, capable man I’d met at the Marriott. It felt like padding. It was padding. David didn’t need padding- he was exceptionally bright, creative and competent of his own accord. Yet now there were all these quotes rather than something from his own excellent brain. I was perplexed.
Not long after that there was a long period where his page was plastered with differing variations on his initials. He appeared to be fascinated by different graphic images of his initials. It became quite a thing, at least to David. He created a meme for himself, and displayed it prominently. All his world travels were well documented with himself always at the center of an adoring crowd Suddenly his Facebook page was slathered with selfies.
Then came the celebrities.
A good friend of mine in the National Speaker’s Association commented once about people who love to paint their pages with pictures of celebrities: Here’s a shot of ME with (someone who is leaning away as far away from me as possible). If you weren’t a very visible celebrity, political figure, someone with real pull, you weren’t part of David’s life.
I fell into that category. I posted once or twice on his Facebook page, and at one point was reminded that I was to “help him write that book.”
At this point I’d be doing the writing and David would be on the cover as the only author, with no mention of me whatsoever.
Sorry. Not my thing.
By now he had amassed a great many adoring “fans.” They wrote the kinds of comments that Trump wants his cabinet to say to him- suckup, demeaning, and ridiculously embarrassing. They clasped his coattails. WELOVEYOUWELOVEYOUWELOVEYOU DAVID.
While I don’t argue with his right to have a very successful career, I do miss the kind, thoughtful, intelligent and considerate guy for whom I’d completed contracts. I missed his character. Somehow that had been ditched along the way, sold out to feel important, to garner FB likes. To become a “brand.”
David had become a man of the times. That’s not a compliment. Social media can fool us into believing we’re something we aren’t. It’s supremely rickety scaffolding to hang our sense of personal worth upon.
The Cold Hard Truth
The unforgiving earth is littered with those who forgot who got them to the top: the secretaries, assistants, coworkers, buddies, everyone from the janitorial staff to the CEO. It’s a long list. Family. Friends. People who love us enough to tell us the truth about how we’re showing up. Surround yourself with sycophants? Works for a while. Adoring fans can make you feel pretty invincible.
Fans have a terrible habit of disappearing in the wind if we fall. If our star ever falls, it falls alone.
I miss David, the guy at the Marriott. I really do. So do others who knew him. We’ve all been left by the wayside as chaff. I wish him well, but I also wish him elsewhere. At least for now. The content of our character is often defined by those who may not have any way to get us further in life. They’re just…people. Folks. The way we treat people who can do no more than perhaps offer conversation rather than compensation says everything about our core values. Being willing to spend time with the janitor who is scrubbing the urinal can be as instructive- or even vastly more so- than rubbing shoulders with the glitterati. At best the glitterati tolerate our sucking up. The janitor is damned appreciative.
That janitor has little to lose by telling you the truth. If I am supremely fortunate I will be surrounded by people who tell me the truth. I have a few of those folks. By their good graces I am regularly humbled, as much as by their honesty as the gift of their loving me enough to keep me grounded. Thank God for real friends. The people closest to me, who love me the most, tell me when I’m full of shit. I love them for this. I’ve got a strong personality, and when you tend to overwhelm, not everyone is willing to slap you with your own self-important story. If you’re lucky enough to have friends who love you this much, count yourself fortunate indeed. Why? Because those are the friends who will drop everything and come flying when you need them the most. They know their worth to you, and how much you love them for being authentic. You’d do the same for them.
The older I get, the less patience I have with pretension. While having people like my stories, or be complimentary here on Medium.com, it is those who point out my mistakes whom I value the most. The trolls who force me to bite my tongue and rise to a higher road. To look at my own shit and consider why I react so strongly to a given article or response. The kind folks who take the time to check my links and fire me corrections when I’m wrong, and care enough to be kind about it. Those folks are priceless. Those are the people who help me sculpt and send better products our for consumption. The people who take the time to say “here’s how you can be even better.” They make me grow.
Discomfort is the Fertilizer of Growth
As much as I have always loved the long line of folks who want to talk to me after a speech, the negative feedback on the post-program happy sheets has taught me a great deal more about my issues, my imperfections, my hubris or anything else that hangs out in public that I need to observe. YES it makes me uncomfortable.
But discomfort is the fertilizer of growth.
I genuinely wish David well on his journey. More so, I hope he experiences a real fall- and this I mean with the utmost of respect. For without a calamity that forces us to face who we are, are becoming, and those whom we truly need, we never find out our true selves. An Army of yes-people and sycophants tells us nothing. Loss, pain, recovery and introspection force authenticity. That’s how Life delivers lessons- in the wee small hours of the night, faced with our own limitations, the should-haves and would-haves and if-only-I-had-knowns. In the dark folds of our inner worlds we can find character.
The real David, the true, heart-driven man still exists under the layers of self-importance. I miss him. I don’t share his need for validation by stars, celebrities, politicos and adoring crowds. However I also know the world needs the real David back- the gifted, good man I lunched with years ago.
He’s still there. I hope he finds his way back.