Conversations At 40,000 Feet
July 5, 2011
What was that lyric line from America's classic song "Tin Man"? Sometimes late when things are real, and people share the gift of gab between themselves ... Friday night on a very late flight out of Chicago the guy next to me in 11-E started to talk. I've had a thousand of these conversations, flying as much as I do; a few of them riveting while most just pass the time.
Some are quick to take the bait and catch the perfect prize that waits among the shelves ... I don't know what it is about the atmospherics of an airliner late at night; maybe barriers come down, fatigue sets in and the relative anonymity of someone next to you seems harmless, safe.
In an unabashed free flowing biography, Chet told me he had been on top in his specialty as a geologist, heading his own Chicago-based firm, building it to its apogee then wildly investing its surpluses only to be double-crossed by a partner and unforgiving bankers. "Literally I've lost about everything but my skill, and I'm not entirely sure why it happened," he said. "It's been humbling. I've been reckless, spent too much money, and trusted too much."
I felt a lot of empathy for my flying companion relating an all-too-common account in our current epoch. My mind went reeling back to my early 30s, buying radio stations -- the what-ifs, the narrow margins and fortunate victories. Considering Chet's travails, I remember thinking ... it could have been me. There's not much you can offer someone dealt a professional body blow. I reminded Chet he had his family and his life. Perhaps he was confusing net-worth for self-worth and that with time his fiscal setback could be set right. Never be less, because others won't be more.
The mystery of why people do what they do -- from coaches and 5-star Admirals to CEOs such as my row 11 seatmate -- is fascinating and often left unanswered. The "battle decisions" we make aren't easily analyzed; even when alone in reminiscent tranquility years after. Not all are at ease with words and remembrances. Events evaporate and are gone, especially the evanescent moments of a crucial decision on which great outcomes turn. And the memoirs written or sealed in the recesses of our mind long afterward are often as misleading as they are illuminating.
Some truly proud men like the guy in 11-E say or write little of their leadership history.
I reminded him (though I doubt it brought much solace) we're all governed by the principle of calculated risk, which should be interpreted to mean avoidance of unnecessary risk exposure without the prospect of inflicting greater damage to a competitor for greater gain. Boiled down, it means, "try to win with an aggressive outlook tempered by a contingency plan." Eventually Chet will reinvent. It's his entrepreneurial destiny.
Today, we're bombarded with prognostications of how positive or negative we should feel about our future ... and we run onto rocks and shoals when we let that rushing torrent of what-ifs define our happiness. No, Oz never did give nothin' to the Tin Man ... that he didn't already have...