Sunday, July 30, 2017
"I Am Not Really Needed"
Like many of you, I do not get a hard copy of a daily newspaper anymore. On line subscriptions to both the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times cover my needs very well. One exception is the Sunday New York Times. It is delivered to my sidewalk each weekend and I devour it with my morning coffee. Given my age, I often linger for a few moments over the obituaries to see if anyone whom I knew or knew of in advertising, broadcasting, or publishing has passed on. Yes, in ten years time, it may become my sports page!
A few months ago, I saw a name that seemed to register a bit in the cobwebs of my memory. I read the obit carefully and think that I may have remembered this fellow. We met very briefly for a few hours but what he said has stuck with me.
For many years, I traveled a great deal on business. A great deal. While not in real miles, more than one airline gave me over 200,000 air miles to my frequent flyer accounts in the same year. When one travels that much you have your fair share of cancellations and long delays. One such delay occurred in the dead of winter. I was coming back from a client meeting in the upper midwest. The first class cabin was not full and three of us were talking when the first delay was announced. The flight attendant served a round of drinks and we all took things in stride. The captain announced a half hour later that there would an equipment change and we all had to vacate the plane. We would likely not leave for 90 minutes. An unusually well dressed man about 10 years older than I offered to buy us a drink in the airport lounge. We all exchanged what we did for a living. He had a high powered job for a prominent company in the financial arena. The third member of our party exclaimed, “Wow, you must be rich!” Our new drinking buddy shook his head no. “I consider myself successful but I will never be rich.” He went on to describe his life with a brutal candor that almost made me feel a bit sorry for him. As a youngster, like his father before him, he had gone to the right prep school and then college and was now a member of the right clubs in New York. He then went on a tirade about the federal, state and city income taxes that he paid. His real estate taxes in Westchester county were astronomical and his commute was horrendous. Were he to make any real money the Feds would hit him with a gift tax if he wanted to help his children who were now at very expensive prep schools and perhaps a large inheritance tax as well when he died.
I was getting fed up with his pity party for himself and other members of the 1% when he dropped something of a bombshell to both of us. “I am different from my partners. I know that I am not needed. Someone else can help defer taxes or evaluate a security or a new business every bit as well as I can. I am a well paid corporate functionary who leads a boring, upper middle class, unimportant existence. Yes, I am a professional but I am not and never will be a tycoon.”
He then went on to say how if he had his life to live over again he would trash his Northeastern respectable point of view. “I should have taken some risks and been willing to put up with uncomfortable situations. Moved to Africa or Asia and really made a difference with something. Then, maybe I could have been rich, and more importantly, fulfilled.”
A lot of things hit me. First, he had no idea how lucky he was relative to almost everyone in the world. His problems were ones struggling people and most of us would love to have. At the same time, he had a self awareness of how unimportant he was in the scheme of things and had genuine admiration for gutsy entrepreneurs who had a dream and went across the world to make it reality.
Last week, I asked some of my panel members if they were needed. Surprisingly, the broadcasters in senior positions generally said no. The older ones said they had a good run in the golden era of broadcasting and advertising but all felt they could be replaced quickly and easily. Ad agency owners (small to mid-sized shops) were a mixed bag. A few said they were grooming someone to take their places but a small group said almost directly that they were the glue that holds the place together and if they went, the shop would not be far behind. Perhaps broadcasters see themselves as managers while agency heads, even of small firms, perceive themselves to be builders.
We need functionaries everywhere--the state department, law firms, brokerage houses, the Vatican, and at media properties and ad agencies. Can their lives compare to the brave few who help make the desert bloom or pass through the eye of the needle in Silicon Valley and get funding and change our world? I suppose not but, in my life, I have been touched by and learned from any number of functionaries who were kind, helpful and did a good job. They were not “needed” but they were and are important.
If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org