LA Unconfidential #12
September 19, 2000
I like to travel, especially if I get to fly at night. Daytime travel can feel like an adventure, but nighttime journeys make me feel meditative. There’s something about the loss of time and the suspension of any arrogant delusion of control, and the absence of non-self-imposed distractions that can make it seem like precious time out of time.
Travel was about the last thing I expected to miss when I left McKinsey—and I certainly don’t look back fondly on weekly commutes to Seoul or Auckland—but I discounted the positive impact of reflective daydreams in the dark, high over random oceans. Those, I miss.
Day to day, working at a start-up, there’s not much time for reflection. I expected that as part of the deal. And I expected that necessity, demanded by speed and limited resources, would make me a less effective thinker and even a compromised manager. What I didn’t expect was that it would make me a weaker man. Having no time to reflect means having no time to take stock, appreciate the small victories or re-set after the stupid defeats. The screaming daily adrenalin rush of a start-up only seems worth it when balanced by moments of stillness. It’s an easy analogy that you need a bit of silence no matter how much you love music.
With no moments of silence, the music either becomes intolerable noise—no longer beautiful—or just an ignorable blur—no longer important. That’s just how it is with the excitement and the rush of running a fledgling business. Some people find the light-speed thrust self-fuelling. For me, however, it is more cyclical: reflection necessary after each exhilarating sprint simply to process the lessons and the trade-offs and to keep myself sane. Without it, I’ve seen myself become a flat bastard with bad skin. With time like I have now, on an airplane, suspended briefly from all immediate care, I’m no better looking, but I’ll be better help to my team tomorrow.
But I’m not fooling anyone. Keeping myself a little more peaceful and level isn’t altruism toward my team. At best, it’s enlightened self-interest. At it’s most honest, it’s just me trying to keep perspective.
It’s not just the pace of work that makes that tough. Three of my closest friends have gotten married since the last Unconfidential. In the same time, I’ve had to fire two people. Such is the contrast of relationship events in my life, just now. I don’t mean that to sound melodramatic and bleak. It’s just an illustration of why doses of reflection and injections of perspective are necessary treatments in my healthcare-startup-driven world.
I’ve attended two of the three weddings. Both were magical, the kinds of events that would cure you of any cynicism about the rite, and any jaded boredom from having been to one too many ceremonies. Neither is a problem for me, anyway; I love weddings, especially those of couples whose relationships I’d like someday to emulate. Both of these couples definitely qualified. And their weddings were two of the best I’ve attended.
The first was Suzanne Parker and Zdenek Skyvara. I felt pretty lucky to be invited at all. I mean, Suzanne has been one of my best friends for a long, long time. Even before I met Zdenek, however, Suzanne laughingly related a story in which I had threatened to cut her tits off. The contextual humour of the situation didn’t quite make the cultural leap to Czech. I’ve been trying to gain Zdenek’s affection ever since. The wedding was in Prague and was an absolute fairytale: a nuptial mass in a 16th century cathedral, a reception in a palace on an island, and a walk home in the moonlight across the magical Charles Bridge.
The week of friends and festivities also had a little chemical help. The whole cast of characters was stewed in a Czech spirit called Slivovitz, which gave me new respect for what plums are capable of if you let them loose and give them some encouragement. They apparently aspire to grow up and wrestle grudge matches with tequila. Slivovitz is also a darn fine conversation lubricant for wedding guests who don’t speak a word of each other’s language. One of the best nights I’ve had in a long, long time.
The second wedding was only yesterday. I’m on my way home right now. Another international pairing: Paul Robertson and Kati Wilhelm. This one was in Ithaca, in upstate New York. In the splendour of a New England autumn, the groom said his vows while wearing printed socks that read, “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oy! Oy! Oy!” He also danced with his three groomsmen to ABBA songs in the best Priscilla recreation they could manage, and led guests in a backyard cricket match at the recovery picnic the next day. The Americans were amused, if slightly befuddled. But we didn’t care; back home, the Aussies were doing well in the pool, and we were playing cricket in New York.
At both weddings, I was privileged with the honor of a speaking part. Attention-seeking behaviour is, of course, against my nature, but I was glad to make these exceptions. There’s nothing I said that I couldn’t have shared with the couples in private, but reception speeches do afford the opportunity to go for some cheap laughs at their expense. Even better, I liked having the opportunity to make a public declaration of my love and hope for my friends. It’s kind of fractal: making a declaration of love and hope within the context of their great declaration of love and hope. I like that.
And for the one wedding at which I didn’t make a wordy appearance… Christa and James: Congratulations! Here’s to long and happy lives together.