The Inevitability of Authenticity
Offering up a time capsule from my business blogging past that I think still resonates today: In 2005 I contributed to a business book unlike any I’d read, called More Space: Nine Antidotes to Complacency in Business, written by emerging business bloggers. Some of the chapters were about marketing in this new era of social; some were about productivity. My chapter? I guess you could call it “Business Memoir”. I was obsessed with how personal experiences affected our professional lives, and with how moving toward personal authenticity was a path to effectiveness in business.
So many things have changed since I wrote this: Blogging is no longer the bright, shiny object in media. I’ve long stopped being a “cost center” and have been existing on the revenue/business generation side for the last 12 years. And my dear friend, “Calvin” passed away in 2006. But the principles remain the same.
Many thanks to Todd Sattersten, the guy standing next to me in this picture from our book signing at SXSW in 2006, who had the vision behind More Space.
It was 2002 in San Francisco, meaning everyone who used to work south of Market Street was now unemployed. At the time I was in between jobs and would prattle on endlessly to my friend Calvin about how poor I was. Calvin is a soft, technologically oriented man in his ﬁfties; we’d met at a personal development workshop a year before and often got together for lunch in the City, or on the Peninsula where he worked, to talk about relationships and writing.
He saw me eyeing one of his cell phones.
“You want it?” he said. “I got it on eBay.” I suspected Calvin spent more time buying used electronics than he did working.
“No, no, of course not,” I said, embarrassed. “I was just looking.”
Calvin always listened attentively, providing me with inspiring books to read during my imposed sabbatical, and offered his own form of unemployment insurance — a subsidized lunch check. When the bill arrived at the end of every shared meal he’d say, “Put down your co-pay,” and I’d hand him ﬁve bucks.
Today he broke the monotony and told me about a job opening at his company. I was surprised by his candidness; he’d spent ﬁfteen years at the company but had not one whit of promotional rah rah to offer.
“I’m not promising you a new career,” he said. “The company is in trouble. I’m not even sure I like where it’s going. I can only promise you an income.” It was enough.
“Do you need my resume?” I asked, unsure of what Calvin could possibly tell the hiring manager about me other than I had a tortured past with men and was desperate for a job.
“Shoot me a resume for HR’s purposes,” he said. “But I’ve already told them about you. We could really use someone with your communication skills.”
Skills? What skills? As far as I was concerned, skills came from trying. Skills were about tangible things — closing sales, completing projects on time and on budget. I’d only gone into job interviews with facts and ﬁgures. I was nervous; what would I bring? Pay stubs from the unemployment ofﬁce to prove just how needy I was?
My ﬁrst interview went poorly. I was told the position required an element of selling, but mostly customer relationship skills. I ﬂew to LA to meet with the head of sales, which frightened me a bit — I was hoping to chat with someone on the cost center versus the revenue-generating side of the business, as I relate to those folks better. People in sales always struck me as a bit heartless, disembodied from the product. I’d worked in publishing for years but spent most of my career on the fulﬁllment end of the contract; getting the business was someone else’s problem. I reassured myself with what Calvin had told me over lunch; the company was rethinking its approach to ﬁt a more solution-oriented sales strategy, as opposed to its previous “take it or leave it” attitude. The company was notorious for producing the priciest events in the tech industry. During the dot-com boom they could get away with it — you’d be a fool not to hawk your product next to Apple’s booth in front of twenty-ﬁve thousand qualiﬁed leads, even if you had to sell your youngest child to do it.
“I’ve told them forever that our arrogance couldn’t last,” Calvin said to me. “We heard the grumblings when things were good, but no one listens when you’re making money hand over ﬁst.”
Now, however, the company was in bankruptcy proceedings. Its former shoo-in customers, the top tech companies, were ﬁnding that smaller, more intimate and customized events were yielding better results — for less money — than the Cirque du Soleil-like extravaganzas that Calvin’s company produced. The smaller clients had other things to think about, like making payroll. Calvin’s company had made so many acquisitions during the years of irrational exuberance that it simply couldn’t afford them any longer.
Still, bankruptcy was a step up from unemployment.
“They still have health insurance, right?” I asked Calvin. As long as my paycheck cleared, I couldn’t care less about the company’s history. I took Calvin’s warnings with a grain of salt.
Calvin explained that they wanted someone who could close deals, yes, but who would also stick with a handful of their largest clients and continually monitor and grow the relationships. I imagined myself kvetching with product managers and faxing them contracts.
“You’re right, Calvin,” I said. “I am perfect for this job.”
I received a call later that day from an HR person who wanted to schedule an interview.
“Can you make it to our Los Angeles ofﬁce?” she said.
“Sure. What day?”
“Tomorrow. At 8:30 A.M.”
I looked at my watch — it was 4:30 in the afternoon. Wow, I thought, they mean business.
That night I hardly slept, I was so anxious, but I ﬁnally succumbed to my insomnia and got out of bed at 3:30 A.M. to make the 6 A.M. ﬂight. Needless to say, by 8:30 A.M. I was a bit out of it, and the gallon of Starbucks I’d chugged at the airport was acting more like a diuretic than a stimulant.
I arrived at the interview decidedly underdressed. Calvin always wore Dockers and a button-down shirt to work, so I wore an uncontroversial plain cardigan sweater over black slacks. I had been told the head of sales “could ﬁt in twenty or thirty minutes.” I tried to bullet-point my skills in my head during the ﬂight so that I would be as concise as possible. While I waited in the glass-walled lobby I recited them in my head.
The VP’s assistant came out to greet me in a suit. He smelled of expensive cologne.
“He’s ready to see you now, Jory,” he said.
My ﬁrst thought was, “Shit.”
I met Jerry, the vice president of sales, with a ﬁrm but clammy handshake.
I don’t remember much of what happened, only that my bullet points were irrelevant. All that highfalutin name-dropping I had intended for the ﬁrst ﬁve minutes was pushed to the wayside by his immediate questions.
“So, Jory, the San Francisco ofﬁce speaks very highly of you; though I must admit some concern. I don’t see any sales experience on your resume.”
“Oh I’ve had plenty. At my last company we all had to pitch in and cold call. However, my experience has been much more in working with the client. I’ve developed programs for quite a few companies and grown those relationships.”
“But did you close sales?”
“Not per se, no. I grew them.”
“That’s not closing the sale.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Let me be blunt, Jory. We need a closer. Someone who has closed at least $3 million in annual sales and who has considerable cold calling experience — at least eighteen months. I don’t see that here. I’m still trying to make sense of what you have down here near the bottom of your resume.”
In an attempt to completely alter my past for this interview I shoved my previous seven years of magazine editing and writing experience into a few lines, even shrinking the font. I wanted to tell him that, having sold advertising in an all-hands sales effort during my last job, a dot-com in its ﬁnal tailspin, I had developed the skill of bullshitting my way through anything. And while $3 million worth of bullshit was certainly a lot of bullshit, it wasn’t insurmountable. In fact, I could probably make the company that much thinking of ways to save money. Let’s start with a ban on dragging people on airplanes for twenty-minute meetings. . . .
But I didn’t say anything. I just nodded empathetically, hoping he would take exception to my lacking background because of my ability to take it like a man, not a sniveling, soft-skilled woman.
I was back on a plane by 10 A.M. and back in San Francisco by noon. No sooner had I entered my apartment when I received a call on my cell phone from Calvin.
“How’d it go?” he said.
“Yeah, I thought I’d hear it from you ﬁrst. . . . I got the feedback from Jerry’s ofﬁce.”
“I have good news and bad news.”
“You know me — start with the bad.”
“Jerry didn’t like you.”
“Geeze. . . . What’s the good news?”
“We don’t like Jerry.”
I got the job.
It seemed so strange to me that I had “won” the majority of folks over without so much as telling a white lie to spiff up my qualiﬁcations. I was taken “as is,” like one of the many ﬂawed electronic gadgets Calvin bought on eBay.
It occurred to me that what I perceived to be my ﬂaws — in this case my vulnerability around Calvin — was my strength. Calvin didn’t help get me a job because I was “a closer” but because he knew me and could relate to me — so much so that he convinced others at the company that I was a worthy investment. All the struggles I’d shared with him further cemented in his mind my ability to connect with customers. He’d known all along that I would crash and burn in that interview; it was my utter incompatibility with Mr. $3 Million that sealed the deal.
Like I said earlier, I’d met Calvin at a personal development workshop. We’d gone for different reasons. He’d gone because he’d had a near-fatal heart attack just a few months before. Obviously, he’d survived, but things were different. He knew that his condition had, in part, been a result of the stress he’d placed on himself to perform. Not to do work as such but literally to perform, to be someone he wasn’t. He wanted more clarity on just who Calvin really was.
I went for business reasons; the company that produced the seminar was a potential client, and they invited me to attend, gratis, to better understand their “product.” My boss at the time had thought that attending would be good for growing the business relationship, so they sent me — on Memorial Day weekend, no less — to represent our ﬁrm. I sat through the ﬁrst few hours very pissed off. I read self-help books all the time and knew this routine cold. It would only be a matter of time before they’d ask me to start punching something.
I sat next to a red-haired woman who, I could smell, was dying for a smoke. The ﬁrst moment of freedom we both beelined to the front door and stood in the unappreciated sunshine.
“Is this a lot of crap or what?” she said, lighting up.
“I wonder if they’ll notice if I sneak out,” I said.
“Yeah. My husband made me go to this; I don’t know why. I suppose he thinks it will make me a better listener or something. Why’d you come?”
“Strictly business, I assure you.”
“What do you mean? You work for the company?”
“Me? No. They’re a client . . . potential client. We might do an advertising campaign for them. Supposedly this will help me better understand them.” Somehow, by introducing myself as someone who would never be so desperate as to actually pay for one of these seminars I was washing myself of that human funk I smelled on the others. After all, I had been told my whole life that I had my shit together. And now I had a well-paying, director-level job to prove it. I’d been a magazine writer, but after slogging it out for little pay and being rejected by clueless people for a while, it became very clear to me I needed to aspire elsewhere. The company I was working for, which would become a blip in the dot-com cosmos just a few short months later, had made for a great ego shelter the past few years.
Despite my threats to leave I stayed. What would I possibly say to my boss if I abandoned our mission of good will? That I was above this crap? She was accustomed to jumping on planes at the beck and call of clients. All I needed to do was keep my butt in a chair.
Throughout the day, I writhed and repositioned myself in my unforgiving stackable chair. A few of the workshop participants had brought cushions; I wondered if any of them would be willing to sell me theirs. Food was not allowed in the room, but I crammed bits of protein bar into my mouth whenever the course leader looked away. After a few hours, however, as more people shared themselves with the group, I forgot about my discomfort; I became interested in their stories, even a bit impressed. There were a few CEOs, entrepreneurs who’d just sold their companies and, now very wealthy and with their lives wide open to possibility, struggled to ﬁnd the next, meaningful step; a few very young people with woo-woo parents who wanted their kids to get a dose of this self-awareness stuff early, preferably before they were my age.
The next break I ate lunch with folks who were more up than my last break mate. One was an executive coach who said he was reviewing the course. He’d taken it before three years earlier.
“Which part did you forget?” I asked him, “the incessant repetition or sitting for ﬁfteen hours in uncomfortable chairs?” He just smiled, and maybe laughed at me.
I noticed the red-haired woman I had been sitting next to was nowhere to be seen. Shame, she seemed to actually need this shit. As annoyed as I was by being here, I was ﬁnding my social tendencies kicking in; I was actually enjoying my conversations with people. And some of the content was interesting, much the way it’s interesting to sit in on a focus group, to examine the state of others. I always thought of myself as somewhat of a pulse taker. Someone who could observe, synthesize, and then create something that “spoke” for the people I’d observed. I did that a lot as a magazine writer, often writing articles on stuff I’d read about that seemed to be compelling to somebody; unfortunately, the content bored me. Sometimes I wondered if it bored my readers as a result. And, well, I’d rather be dead than boring.
I sat with another woman, a nice girl for sure, but a bit weepy. She kept a box of Kleenex under her chair, which was nearly used up, and we were only on Day One. By the end of the ﬁrst grueling day the instructors told us that we’d be all over the map in terms of our emotional levels. Some of us would be racing at the top of the roller coaster; others would be low, or maybe even confused. I thought: Smart tactic to get people to come back — make them think that it’s all part of the “process.”
We were asked to call a family member that night and share an “inauthenticity.” I’m usually very good with homework assignments, but I was confused. I didn’t think I had any reason to call someone. I dialed my twin sister from my bed. She lives in Boston, three hours ahead, and seemed annoyed.
“Hello,” she said, barely awake.
“I know. I know. Just humor me . . . So I’m taking that workshop this weekend, and I’m supposed to call someone and share something inauthentic about myself. . . . Do you think I have anything to share?”
“I don’t know. You seem to tell people things whether they want to hear them or not.”
“I know! I’m a fairly straight shooter, right?”
“Maybe you can call someone who knew your ex?” My stomach dropped when I heard that.
“Why would I do that? What else is there to discuss about that? It’s over. Done.”
“All right. You just asked if there was something you could share. It seemed like that could be something.”
“This homework assignment is stupid.”
“Yeah, no shit. It’s two in the morning here.”
“OK. So, for the record I called you, we determined that there was nothing for me to share, no inauthenticities, and we’re cool.”
“Fine. Good night.”
The second day I wore something a bit more casual. I had an odd feeling that I’d need to wear clothes that weren’t so binding; something that I wouldn’t mind crying in. The executive coach had warned me that the second day can get very emotional for people. I ﬁgured, I cry at movies, and with all this raw, frightening emotion I was likely to witness today you just never know.
The course instructors seemed to be getting mighty personal with the morons who opted to get up and share with the rest of the crowd. As expected, some broke into tears. I could smell my sweat when this occurred. I just listened and applauded on cue, at the end of each gripping bit of testimony.
We had some sort of visualization exercise that I cannot share, not only to maintain the privacy of the people I met in the seminar, but because I truly don’t remember it. All I remember was the hit, directly in my stomach and rising. We had to keep our eyes closed, as I suppose the point was to have an experience untainted by worries of being watched. Still, I felt a pang of embarrassment, even shame. I became aware, beyond any way that my brain could comprehend, in my body, of the absurdity of my life.
A beautiful story rolled out in front of me — so good I’d wished I’d written it instead of lived it — of a girl so plastic you could knock on her, and very pretty. She made sure of it. She lived a plastic life and wondered why she couldn’t feel very much. People liked to be around her, but only for so long — shit, she was plastic! How long can it hold your interest, really?
Our eyes were still closed. My cheeks were wet; I must have started crying. And I felt a weight, literally, coming from my nose. I shook my head and felt a soft, wet pull. I broke ranks and opened my eyes. The room was full of people with closed eyes, some crying, and a pendulous, two-foot-long globule of snot was hanging from my right nostril. The others couldn’t see it, but the seminar leaders couldn’t have missed it. How unattractive! The Plastic Girl has snot coming out of her nose! The Plastic Girl is absurd. Boy that was funny. So funny I felt a chuckle coming on and then a full-out belly laugh. A few of the others started joining me.
We were asked if we wanted to share our experience. I didn’t, I thought, and yet I walked to the microphone at the front of the room. I felt I owed these people an explanation. I looked up; a room full of people were looking at me. Their eyes hurt, but I let them take me in, snot and all. I hadn’t rehearsed anything in my head. What the hell would I possibly say? Even I was surprised by what came out, the sound of my voice.
“I’m a good writer,” I said. “But I’ll never get it down on paper. Ever.” I decided to tell these people the story of the Plastic Girl. Several months before the seminar she had been dating a coworker who could best be described as different from her. He wasn’t your average professional. His hair was longer than hers. He was wicked smart and wicked rude. She liked the fact that he was rude. Some people at the company called him an asshole, which they felt perfectly comfortable calling him around her, as they assumed she had no connection to him whatsoever. They never spoke to each other in the ofﬁce, never saw each other in the vicinity of the ofﬁce. They kept the personal and the professional completely separate, walled off with Fort Knox–like security.
One day he gives the Plastic Girl some very bad news that he has just discovered; he is HIV positive. The information bounces off of her, as there is no place for it to be taken in. Surely, she being Plastic, she cannot contract such horriﬁc things as HIV. She reacts by pretending he doesn’t have a virus and hoping that he will learn to do the same, or accept his condition and stop being so emotional all the time. Weeks later his body was found in the park, hanging from a tree. The sound of plastic cracking was deafening.
The funeral, the HIV testing, and the therapy sessions that followed chipped away at her some more. Since his death she just hadn’t been feeling like her usual plasticky self. She felt soft and mushy. Her usual unquestioned get-up-and-go was more tenuous.
I told them my overriding concern at my boyfriend’s funeral was whether my mascara was waterproof. I told them that the greatest compliment you could give me in the last few months is, “Despite it all, she looks great.”
I sat down and the Weepy Woman hugged me. I didn’t feel I deserved to be hugged. I felt sick to my stomach, and ugly. I could feel my face had puffed up from the tears.
At the break people kept coming up to me. One man said he didn’t know why but he just wanted to hug me. The executive coach asked me out.
A tall, scruffy man approached me, “Wow, that was some story. It’s a shame you stopped writing. If you decide to start up again I’d love to help.” He extended his hand, “My name is Calvin.”
I returned to work that Tuesday.
“How was the seminar?” my boss asked me. “I hope it didn’t completely blow your weekend.”
“It was ﬁne. Real nice.”
“No one made you drink the purple Kool-Aid, did they?”
“Nope. It was cherry.”
“Hah. That’s the spirit. Brief us later in the staff meeting.”
I thought about what I would say. Frankly I had no new insights as to how we would win over the client. I suppose they’d won me over. I understood why they invited me to their seminar. How can you work for clients whose language you do not share? I’d thought I knew their language, but until this weekend I had been speaking in tongues. I wasn’t speaking Human.
A couple of months after I took the job at Calvin’s company, I noticed he’d maintained this cheapo Web site called a Web log that he posted copy to every day.
“What is it?” I asked him, “Are you selling products?”
“No. I just like to post my opinions.”
I thought he was naive. What if someone lifted his stuff and posted it to their site? Would he get royalties? I told him he should keep his best stuff for print.
“These aren’t articles I’m posting. These are conversations,” he said. “You can’t wait to get these in print. They happen in real time.”
Anything to avoid work, I thought. Calvin posted to his blog constantly, typically in the middle of meetings, from his laptop or BlackBerry, any way he could. He often sent me links to stories or commentary. I always sent him brief thank-you notes for sending them, but I never read the stuff. I used my spare time reading trade Web sites that focused on tech trends the company covered for the industry. From these sites I learned who mattered, and who I needed to pursue.
Everyone knew Calvin had checked out of the quotidian aspects of his job a long time ago. From a manager’s standpoint the only reason he woke up every morning was to surf on eBay for bargains or post to “his little Web site.” The ﬁrst time that I visited Calvin’s ofﬁce I was shocked at all of the bells and whistles he liked to use, or to just collect. There must have been three BlackBerrys on his desk, four cell phones, two servers (one for his personal use, he later explained), two desktops, and a laptop. Despite all of his gadgets, he never used them to record deadlines, to-do lists, and project plans. At times I was quite irritated with Calvin; when he failed to show up at meetings people would come to my desk looking for him.
Once he missed a meeting that I had scheduled with one of our most promising clients.
I don’t usually confront senior executives, but Calvin was so clueless (or approachable — I hadn’t yet made the distinction) that I confronted him about his ﬂakiness.
“I told them you would be in that meeting,” I said to him. “How are we going to get to their decision makers if we can’t even convince the gatekeepers?”
“Sorry,” Calvin said. “Who do you want to reach at that company?” I told him.
“Tell you what,” he said. “Let me call him. We’re friends.”
The bottom line was, despite his ﬂakiness, Calvin was a hot commodity, the guy you would go to when you wanted to score a meeting with some pooh-bah at Apple or Adobe. These muckety-mucks blew off us sales types, but when Calvin called they cut out of meetings, or if they couldn’t talk at that moment, they always called back.
I often had to broker sales through Calvin, even though he wasn’t in sales, because the contact refused to talk to anyone but him. I would often write notes to him during teleconferences with potential customers, listing instructions to help move along the conversations. He never followed my instructions, but he did close deals. It didn’t matter what Calvin was requesting of them; it seemed that as long as the words came from him, they were gold. Once, when I’d asked Calvin to accompany me to an off-site pitch meeting, our general manager quipped, half-joking, “Make sure he’s wearing a clean shirt.” Still, there was no question that Calvin should attend.
There was something powerful about this man who eschewed appearances. Calvin had a secret “in”, and no one thought to question where it came from. He seemed to know more than where a person worked or his position in a company. He knew them personally, and he knew the real stories behind their trade-publication announcements. He knew that some VP I wanted to get a meeting with had a long-standing grudge against our company for an article we produced touting a competitor’s new product release.
“How did you know this?” I asked Calvin, thinking he’d read this in some insider column available for an exorbitant subscription fee.
“He told me,” Calvin said.
Calvin also knew who was disappointed with the events we held for the industry, which speakers tanked, what the word on the street was about our new launching event in Amsterdam. Yet he never polled, surveyed, or hired a marketing team to ﬁnd out our customers’ perception of us, nor did he ask. They simply told him. And in return he told them things that he knew about hot products, open jobs, must-see demos. Despite all that he was told, it seemed the debt of information owed him was always greater. Not like he was keeping track; I was.
I wondered why Calvin hadn’t helped us to leverage these contacts sooner. I also questioned his sanity: What the hell are contacts for if not to drum up business?
I went to a follow-up to the seminar where I met Calvin, as I felt like something inside me had cracked open that Memorial Day Weekend, and this unintelligible crap was oozing out — old memories and strange, entrepreneurial desires. I was seeing something but couldn’t yet make it out.
The next seminar I attended was not quite as visceral as the ﬁrst. Most of the people there were ready to explore themselves and less resistant to being there. Many of the sessions were interesting discourses, almost like college lectures. One discussion that interested me, in particular, was about authenticity; more speciﬁcally about being authentic.
This discussion made me nervous. I had suspected I had authenticity issues, but what does it mean to be inauthentic? I’d always tried to beat people in quantiﬁable ways: get more money, get more promotions, or get better evaluations. But, on occasion, I found myself in situations where people were simply not impressed. And nothing I could say or do could change it. I usually referred to these people as weird, or naive. Something just wasn’t right about them.
I had been warned by another attendee about the course leader. “She’ll kick your ass,” he said. I wondered what he meant. She was tall and slim. Granted, I’m short, but I ﬁght nasty. Physically I could take her.
Over the course of the day I started to understand. The woman wasn’t so much an ass-kicker as a bullshit detector. People shared some mighty strong insights and stories about themselves. I’d come out as a crier and now had my box of tissues planted under my chair. Wads of wet Kleenex were starting to pile up underneath. But with some of the most convincing people she would stand and look at them with her arms crossed and her nose wrinkled, like she’d smelled something bad.
“Nope,” she’d say. “I don’t buy it.”
I spent that ﬁrst day with my mouth agape. Here people were opening themselves up to inquiry, sharing themselves, and getting shot down like plastic ducks in a carnival game. It seemed irresponsible to me, her behavior. Once again, I feared sharing myself. What if everything I’d believed about myself and shared in an effort to show my vulnerability was rejected, labeled inauthentic? Oh, the horror.
A new word was used at the seminar and regarded as the worst insult you could place on someone: “Sincere.” It held a new meaning in this seminar, not the dictionary meaning. In this room, sincere meant its very opposite, or a bland attempt at authenticity. If someone shared something and was told they were very sincere they immediately dropped their shoulders in defeat. While I was hardly an expert, I started to see a pattern in everyone who was dubbed sincere. Usually they had devised some story about themselves about why they were so alone, or fat, or unhappy, and it was usually very very sad. When they spoke I thought of Beaches and other movies that made me cry, of the music that often played in the background. It played behind these people while they spoke.
On the ﬂip side, some of the people I thought had not one whit of charisma got away scot-free. If they were asked a question, they might have said, “I don’t know,” or given a very plain vanilla answer. They had so little sense of story about them; they didn’t see themselves as ingenues or characters in a melodrama that were put upon by the world. The reaction the leader had with them was always the same, “Thanks very much for sharing.” My reaction was always, Boooooooorrrrring!
My goal for the day was twofold — to be able to come to this mind-blowing epiphany about myself and then to have the course leader smile at me and say, “Thanks very much for sharing.” The question was, how? I couldn’t quite make out what it took to be authentic, the secret sauce.
“Jory!” Her voice was so loud, I thought. I looked at her like a deer in headlights.
“You’ve been quiet today. Why don’t you come up here and share your thoughts on authenticity with the group?”
I walked up to the microphone, concerned about my underwear. I’d worn a pair that tended to creep up. My voice sounded shaky, scared.
“Yes?” I said into the microphone.
“Yes what? I have no questions for you. I just thought it would be nice to hear your thoughts on the discussion.”
“Well . . . I just realize that I have been living my life as a very sincere person. I haven’t been very real. I say what I think other people want to hear.”
“Thank you for sharing, Jory. Your comments were very sincere.”
“You heard me. . . . Tell me, did I catch you at a bad time?”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“It seems I didn’t allow you enough time to rehearse.”
Shit. This wasn’t happening.
“I’m not sure what to say,” I said.
“I can see that.”
“OK, so it’s like a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t thing, is that it? I’m being totally straight with you, but if I say anything, it’s not authentic, it’s sincere.”
“Not necessarily; just what you are saying now.”
“Fine then, I just won’t say anything.”
The leader said, “Now you are being sincerely indignant.”
“What the fuck do you want from me?! Not to speak? Not to be silent? I don’t know what you want, OK? I don’t know what you want!”
“Now you sound angry. Sincerely angry.”
I put my head down and pouted to myself. The silence wasn’t maddening, however. I didn’t feel like I was wasting people’s time. The moments felt necessary.
“I’m so frustrated,” I said, surprised by the weakness of my own voice. “I want to say the right thing, but I can’t. I’m not sure I know how to be authentic. I’m worried that I never will be real. I’ve been this way for so long. Practiced.”
The course leader smiled, “Thanks very much for sharing, Jory. You can have your seat now.”
They hired a new guy to be my direct supervisor at the company. I had been working at the ﬁrm now for two months with hardly any supervision. I’m a fairly independent worker and used the time well to bone up on the industry, but I was ready to delve into working with clients. I had been told not to make any calls yet, as the general manager was still working out signiﬁcant changes in the product. Revolutionary changes, actually.
I’d listened in on his meetings with our largest clients and was quite impressed: He seemed to be the epitome of what I had promised to be this job around, a good listener. We’d been arrogant, he said. We were ready to get real with our customers and give them what they wanted. We’d been receiving their feedback now for months, and soon we would unveil our new product, a conference that drew only the most qualiﬁed leads and that didn’t require a huge investment. At the end of every call, I thought to myself, “Shit, sounds great, but how?”
I was impressed with our humility and insistence on creating a “customer experience”; when potential clients called to ask about the upcoming show, I toed the company line. “We’ve been taking in all of your feedback and incorporating it into plans for the new show,” I said. “We’re still working out the details, so I can’t share much with you now. But the changes are going to be big. Real big.”
Our largest client was in my territory. I did all the groundwork to reestablish contact with the client, set up phone calls, and connect with the primary decision maker. It almost seemed too easy, when I got a simple, one-line e-mail from a marketing manager who wrote, “Can you talk at 1p today?”
I forwarded the note to my boss, who would hopefully have something to say, as I had no clue yet what our product was. We ﬁgured this woman was a gatekeeper — by the sound of her title she clearly was — and we just needed to keep her on the hook long enough to get to her boss. By then we’d have a better idea of the value proposition and would probably have pulled together some glossy materials.
The meeting was fairly brief. She asked very basic questions about the product. My boss was good — he practically crafted the package as he spoke, throwing in special features that would “increase their traction” at the event. She was a dutiful peon, asking if we had any ﬁgures that backed up what he was saying.
“How can I?” my boss said. “No one is doing this yet. However, I understand your concerns. Normally this would be a $500K package. But we’re realistic about things these days. We know we’re asking our clients to take a huge leap. We also know that gone are the days of the million-dollar trade show booths. I’ll have Jory put together a proposal, but it’s probably going to be a $250K package.”
Wow, I thought, what a value.
“That won’t be necessary,” she said. “I’ll just need a term sheet. You can fax me the contract.” Apparently, this “gatekeeper” had the keys to the safe deposit box as well. She made this whole sales thing look easy. She faxed the contract back, signed. Just a few more of these, I thought, and I’ve blown away my quota. This sale, I felt, was proof that our insistence on being real with customers, on letting them know that we’d heard them, was going to help us blow our numbers out of the water.
In reality, we’d just sold a bill of goods to our largest client, and now we had to bullshit from there. The products that sold from that point on were not actually built as a response to client feedback; they were hybrids of the product we’d just sold our largest client. Unfortunately, these products didn’t match what the other companies needed. Some companies that directly competed with this company were pissed that they hadn’t been given ﬁrst dibs, or any say in the matter. I told them all the same thing, the same thing I’d heard my boss say:
“We’ve incorporated your feedback over the past few months and the product reﬂects your concerns.”
“What concerns?” said one particularly argumentative customer. “I never asked for this! A turnkey solution? I never asked you to save me money at the expense of displaying my brand!”
It was a particularly painful meeting. My boss and I had actually ﬂown to see this client with the expectation of closing them, as the company had every year for the past ﬁve years. “They need us,” is how it was explained to me, when I ﬁrst brought up the concerns they had not-subtly relayed to me via e-mail, when I introduced our revolutionary turnkey product.
We left the gilded lobby of the company smiling — at least until we got to the parking lot.
“God,” my boss said. “They are so trade show. We need to get over their heads and start talking to folks who actually understand this shit.”
Unfortunately for us, those were the decision makers; the “grunts” that we spoke to every day, who stood on the trade show ﬂoors for hours on end. Their management gave purchasing authority for that very reason — they lived the product. Still, we were convinced that we just needed to rationalize with someone with a director or higher title, someone who understood what was happening in the market. Someone who wouldn’t react like a child to change.
Meanwhile, Calvin tapped away on his blog and, on occasion, provided insight into what some of our larger clients were thinking. We’d learned that another big client of ours highly distrusted our management and was blowing off our calls.
“I think they want us to prove this new concept of ours before taking it on like a guinea pig,” he told me. “Maybe we should let them pass this time around, or maybe we should just let them have it for next to nothing until we do right in their eyes again.”
“Oh, that would go over well, Calvin,” I said. “We’ve got $2.4 million to clear this year. How are we going to get there if we let one of our biggest clients get the product for free?”
“Those numbers are apparitions from a time we’re no longer living in,” Calvin said. Ultimately, he kept these opinions to himself. He wasn’t exactly the Norma Rae of the ofﬁce, more like the creeping wise man. You had to visit him in his cluttered lair and be willing to put up with rants against George Bush before getting an ounce of customer insight.
I can’t say I blamed him. People in the ofﬁce tended to shut down when they heard threatening information. If it came from a customer we sent them a bottle of wine before shutting down. If it came from an employee that person was treated like a leper. I’d seen a few people leave in ignominy, for what I’m not sure.
Tension was rising in the ofﬁce, and now my boss’s boss was wondering why we weren’t making our numbers. We had, after all, scored an early win and pulled in a big client. We’d listened to customers and had eaten humble pie. Why couldn’t we pull in the rest of the usual players? Clearly, the sales team wasn’t doing their job.
One morning there was a lined sheet of notebook paper taped to my boss’s ofﬁce door. It was a sign-up sheet. We had to sign out and back in any time we took a break, including bathroom breaks that took longer than ten minutes.
“Guess that rules out taking a decent shit,” said one of my colleagues.
I was starting to feel the pinch, or more accurately, the quick rush of air before the axe fell. When the “we’ve listened to your feedback” line failed to go over, we resorted to quick-and-dirty appeasement. Several of the big players I had brought in were now complaining about their deals. They’d heard that we’d offered a competitor ten feet more space to close a deal, and another company the ability to hang their sign when the rest weren’t allowed to brand their booths. Some threatened to pull out of the show.
“I could have told you all this would happen,” Calvin told me, over lunch. “They all speak to each other.”
“But they are all competitors! Why would they do that?”
Calvin laughed at me. I was starting to understand. On purely a commodity level, every company is the same, and they only have their personal legacies to differentiate themselves. By providing a turnkey solution that allowed none of the companies to compete, we’d made sure they had no other leverage but to turn to each other and cooperate.
And there was something else, something even stronger than business theory. We had banked on a few assumptions, namely that companies will do anything to compete. They’d pay more money to look better than their competitors, and they’d keep their mouths shut about it. What we hadn’t banked on was the human factor: the fact that these “Trade Show Folks” went to the same events — ten, twenty, thirty a year. They stayed at the same hotels and had beers with each other after long days on the ﬂoor. They talked about their kids and the goddamned drayage and union costs they were charged to set up their booths. They sniffed out the bullshitters. We’d never really asked them what they wanted; we just assumed we knew. And then we sold them something that showed we’d never really bothered to ask. We’d been very, very sincere.
The show was a week away.
“It’s going to be a long week,” I said.
The ﬁrst day of the conference conjures up for me visions of the American Revolution. I’d seen movies like Glory and The Patriot and was always bewildered by how the British practically walked to their deaths wearing garish red uniforms, knowingly marching into excruciating pain. I stood there with my colleagues, taking a deep breath, about to march — scuse me — walk the show ﬂoor and greet our clients. We wore stiff pantsuits and, as my boss required, hard-soled shoes. They were the Americans, wearing casual, logoed Polo shirts and comfortable shoes. I wanted to linger in the back and let the other sales folks take the ﬁrst shots.
One of the people in operations ran over like a loyal decoy.
“I just ﬁnished helping your client set up. Shit, Jory, she . . . is . . . pissed. I told her you’d be right over to chat with her.”
Another operations person, who had been working with another of my clients, took me aside with more diplomacy, “I think I quelled them for now, but they are deﬁnitely going to want to vent about a few things. I think they have a list,” she said.
I relayed this information to my boss, asking for his input on how we should handle this rare, direct contact with the client. They were no longer pains-in-the-ass whose phone calls we could ignore until we thought up some special amenity we could throw into their contract.
“No worries,” he said, though I knew him better now and could tell this was just a reaction. “Set up a meeting.”
It got worse. The grumblings miraculously trickled upward, to my boss’s boss. I was asked to “make room for a few more chairs” at our feedback meeting.
I saw Calvin, who had been busy with the content side of the conference, and told him about my date with death at approximately 1 P.M. He giggled like a schoolboy. I knew that he wished me no ill will; it was only that his suspicions had been validated. Although the show he’d spent years developing was quickly crumbling at his feet, he felt a strange satisfaction in having had the clairvoyance to see it happening months, maybe even years, before.
The meetings we held with these important clients were anything but fun, as having your maw stuffed with humble pie is often rather painful. I did what any smart person would do and kept my mouth shut and took notes. My boss offered an ounce of resistance by making some claim that he hadn’t said what had been attributed to him by the client; unfortunately the Lilliputians had taken plenty of notes during our initial pitch to them and had documented the conversations.
At the end my boss’s boss, a smart lady who had also kept her mouth shut during the proceedings, asked if I had written down all the customer complaints.
“Yes,” I said. “All seventy — I’m sorry, seventy-one — points.” The only thing I had said the whole meeting, and I don’t think it was appreciated.
One of the clients — one we’d determined was too low level to take seriously, had spoken the entire time. She had been in her position with the company for twenty-ﬁve years. Long enough, I suppose, to have seen it all. Longer than me, my boss, and his boss combined.
“Do you get that we have been on board with your company for years, through thick and through thin?” she said, looking more hurt than angry. “We want you to be successful; your events have done that for us in the past. Do you know what it feels like to be lied to all of the time?”
Needless to say our GM was humbled by all of this; he said, “We plan to make up for all of this. We are currently planning a summit for our best customers. We’ll ﬂy them to a resort, on our dime, of course, and try to ﬁgure out where we went wrong. And we intend to collect every ounce of feedback and incorporate it into our next event.”
I thought to myself: Wow, why wasn’t I told about this summit. But then I remembered how we got into this whole mess in the ﬁrst place: by pretending we’d listened. This was just the same old line, different day.
The war ended, as most do, with a lot of carnage — in this case amid the rubble of dismantled trade show booths. Numerous key personnel were asked to leave shortly afterward, including Calvin. I was not fortunate enough to get ﬁred, so I left of my own volition, surprised that I had managed to ﬁnd a job to replace this one. When I started to refashion my resume I didn’t know what to say, what was my title? Strategic Account Manager? Propagandist?
My last day at the company I snuck out early, had a drink with a friend, went home, and took a very, very, long shower.
The ﬁrst time I’d taken Calvin up on his offer to critique my writing, I’d dutifully followed his request to write about my most embarrassing moment, an exercise I suppose he thought would get me to come out of my shell and become a more authentic writer. I wrote about a date I had in high school that went horribly awry when my father came in the room, just as my date and I were, um, getting to know each other.
We met at our usual lunch spot. I was anxious to hear his thoughts.
“Your grammar’s good,” he said, “but anyone could have written this.”
“How can you say that, Calvin!” I was practically screeching. “This story was so painful to write!”
“I can’t even tell if you were actually screwing the guy,” Calvin said, taking a sip of iced tea. I didn’t speak to Calvin for a long time after that. Clearly here was someone who didn’t understand nuance, or, for that matter, maturity.
But alas, here I was, several years, several jobs, later, bringing Calvin up to speed on my life, my exploits, my failures, my embarrassments. Somehow, sharing them, while not necessarily vindicating me, lightened my load.
I hadn’t been working with Calvin for over a year. I enjoyed the people at my new job, but not the work. Funny, I was doing exactly what I had signed on to do, what I knew I could do, but I was starting to perceive that it wasn’t what I’d wanted to do. Every job in my career has been about ﬁlling someone else’s need. To me, getting jobs was tantamount to having a bag of tricks. I could pull any combination of delightful qualiﬁcations, based on the hiring manager’s mood and what I’d read about the company’s culture. But in the end I’d felt more like a well-qualiﬁed weather vane than anything else. I could point anywhere, but the swinging was making me dizzy.
In a previous life I wrote for magazines, and I wanted to freelance — or more accurately, to write — again, but the thought of starting up the old engine of eighty pitches a day seemed daunting to me. Plus, when I wrote professionally, editors often tweaked my original ideas so many times that creating an article seemed more like origami than like personal expression. I’d gotten into a rut of making my work marketable but not unique, and certainly not worth a second look.
I made sure that employment would be on the agenda for my next lunch with Calvin. Surely he knew someone in his vast and powerful network who could help me ﬁnd a new job, one that, this time, didn’t make me doubt my sanity. He didn’t give me quite what I was looking for, but, as I was to discover, he gave me more than I ever thought I needed: one of his portals to success.
“Why don’t you start a blog?” Calvin said. I thought back to all those links to his little Web site he used to send me by e-mail. A site for people with too much time on their hands.
“That’s so Valley,” was my retort. “I want to get back into publishing.”
“A blog will get you back into your writing, and you can test your content on people, see if they bite.”
I started my blog with the most commercial of intentions — to make it back to the dog-eat-Manolo Blahniks print publishing world. Reading my ﬁrst few posts feels like being on a ﬁrst date, enduring someone who’s strategically charming and excessively careful. I picked all-too-obvious subjects, namely reality TV shows. (Incidentally, I wrote a post about the pathetically sad show Surreal Reality the ﬁrst weekend my blog was in existence; it still generates trafﬁc on my site, as anyone Googling Bridgitte Nielsen can attest.) Mission seemingly accomplished.
And yet my mission wasn’t accomplished. I felt like my blog was a one-sided conversation. I received very little feedback, except from my Mom, who, as anyone who reads my blog knows, stamps nearly every post I write with some comment exclaiming how proud she is of me. Calvin told me that I needed to be patient. Hell, he had set up an aggregator blog that pulled the posts off blogs he read onto his site, requiring no work on his part. Over an incubation period of three years he now received daily trafﬁc in the thousands.
“Just think of how much more trafﬁc you’ll get just because you try,” he said.
I wanted thousands! I wanted adoration. I was, you could say, like every other freaking product marketer on the planet, trying too hard. I needed an edge of some sort; I needed to be different from the others. As with all the other lessons I’d learned about authenticity, I’d learn this one unwittingly, yet inevitably, through an inauthentic urge that could not be quelled through any other means than by being real. In the end, authenticity really isn’t a choice; it’s the only way.
Mind you: I didn’t suddenly decide one day to be authentic. I had simply given up my need to be “on,” to sell myself. If I went to my computer feeling gross, then goshdarnit, I’d let the scant few who happened to bump into my blog know it. Instead of trying to produce content, I simply translated the thoughts, the impulses that were already there. Initially this was a painful process; I would question myself, “Did I actually have that thought, or was that thought thunk in an attempt to be authentic?” But the more I wrote, the less I cared. The Web suddenly became a transparent medium through which the contents in my brain — the chatter, the anxieties, and, lo and behold, the opinions were transmitted, intact. It was around this time that I generated readers, not just trafﬁc.
A few months into my blogging experiment, Calvin and I met for lunch. I missed our daily chats from back when we worked together; I also missed the free technical support. Calvin, as I mentioned, left the tech media company a long while back, but he was hardly struggling. Once his “network” got news of his free agency he had a full roster of consulting projects; he even had to turn away work.
“You’re working hard, it seems,” I said to him.
“It doesn’t feel like work,” Calvin said. “It feels like I’ve ﬁnally answered a knock at the door.”
I understood how he felt. Blogging had opened a customized world for me, one that was full of possibilities, and one that didn’t require me to guess what it wanted. I couldn’t remember where I’d stashed my modular set of resumes, one for writing, one for project management, one for business development, and so on. The proof was in the disclosure. People saw where I was coming from and then asked if I would like to tag along on their projects. I imagined it worked that way for corporations as well — a Web site served as a reference, but the blog invited the inquiry.
I said to Calvin, “It occurs to me: It’s not how much you spin but how much you share that earns you points these days.”
Calvin shrugged; I tried to ignore the glob of ketchup in his beard. “Yeah, sure. . . . ” he said, looking off into space. “That sounds good.”