Read an Excerpt
Listen . . . To Others Who Have Suffered and Survived
“A problem shared is a problem halved.”
The other day I was standing in line at the checkout counter of a grocery store when a man came up to me, clearly upset and shaking with anxiety.
“I read your book,” he said. “I recognize you from TV.”
I nodded. It was my local store and he was my neighbor, so I smiled—not just to indicate that I welcomed his presence but also to calm him down.
Not only was he literally shaking, but his hair was wild and uncombed, and he looked like he had not shaved for days. “I need to speak to you,” he said. “I am near the edge. You talked of thinking at one time you were near the end.”
“Yes,” I said as the line inched forward. “How can I help?”
“No one can really help,” he said, twisting his face almost into a snarl. It seemed full of anger—as much against the world as against me.
“What happened?” I stammered, hoping to keep him talking as he hugged the grocery bag he was carrying and looked toward the exit.
He was about to leave. He turned.
I sensed that he was embarrassed even to be there, in a public place, asking for anyone’s help. His instinct when he had recognized me, as a guy who had made it through some hard times, had been powerful, though.
He had reached out to me. I sensed he knew he’d involuntarily cried for help.
But now as he glanced around with red-rimmed eyes, I could tell he was hoping to escape and forget that this encounter had ever happened.
Yet he leaned a little closer to me, as though to confide a secret.
“I worked for years,” he said, “like you. But I had my own business. I built it up myself!”
Here I heard a clear ring of pride in his voice. Compared to me, he had really achieved something. I had only received a high-profile job through my connections. A Skull & Bones friend had offered me a job in the largest advertising agency in the world, and I’d ridden to my corporate life on the back of my birth and legacy and social position.
My neighbor’s tone seemed to imply—which was his right and was also probably accurate—that in my corporate life as a top advertising executive, I had merely been a comfortable passenger on a huge train. Starting a company yourself took pride and courage that merely working for a company did not.
“But recently,” he continued, his voice taking on a kind of complaining, rasping sound, “with these greedy bankers . . .”
He left the sentence incomplete.
The line was moving. I stepped forward. He now followed me.
“I’ve been screwed,” he said. “The business I built over a lifetime is . . .”
He couldn’t bring out the words.
“I’m broke. The business is done.”
Tears actually started into his eyes.
I could sympathize. When I was fired, I stepped out into the street and wept. I knew how frightening it was to feel threatened in your professional life—especially if you defined yourself by that life, as I once had. Having experienced the shocking loss of a job myself, I was able to sympathize with his situation. In the past I might have thought: “It’s your own fault.”
But now I have come to a more humble and true view of the world: Oftentimes life can be like a car accident when you are hit by a drunk driver. It is not your fault; you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think it is wise for all of us to remember that injunction: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
So I listened to my new friend with real sympathy—I had, in my own life, been in some measure where he was that day.
“I have a big house up the hill,” he said, gesturing so forcibly that he almost hit a lady trying to get by. He jumped back.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, truly concerned that he had almost hit her. I could sense that underneath the stress he was a kind man, but at this moment he had reached a point where he was out of control. His life was a mess, his hair was wild, and he couldn’t even seem to control his limbs.
“I am going to lose my house,” he continued.
I stepped out of the line. I guided him to a quiet corner by the produce section.
“What am I going to do?” he did not so much ask me as himself in a kind of anguished mutter under his breath.
“My kids love it here. It’s the only home they’ve known. If I lose my house and we leave here . . .” He saw the future, and it was terrible to him.
“It’s all over for me,” he said too loudly. “And for them,” he stated more sadly and softly. I listened intently, trying to recall the same sensation that I know I had felt many years back; it had been more than ten years since I had lost my job.
He continued. “My son George is eleven and my daughter Alice is just five. They will never forgive me for this.”
“I dedicated my book to my kids,” I said, “for their understanding hearts.”
He stared off into space. He clearly wasn’t listening.
In this moment he didn’t care what I had or had not done. “I’m thinking of ending it all,” he said and seemed to get ready to leave. He was turning away.
“Look,” I said urgently, “I don’t think your kids care if you are broke. They’d like to have their dad around.”
But he was leaving now. I called out in a loud voice at his retreating back, “Don’t you think your kids would miss you?”
I wasn’t going to let him get away.
I remembered at that instant a terrible time in the past when I had done nothing to stop a man who was also shaking with anxiety and clearly on a downward path.
I was working late to prepare for a major Ford presentation. I was in my early thirties and had just been promoted to a position as a creative director. I knew that I was going to be tested and I wanted to be prepared, since Ford liked to do what they called “beating up on the agency.”
I was working hard to make sure I had all the ads done just right when Bob North came into my office.
I knew Bob was in trouble.
He was an account guy. Bob was very intelligent but very shy. He had a hard time expressing his opinions. Ford likes them big and tough and I had seen the Ford client demolish him in meetings. Bob was also—in my eyes—too old for his job. He was forty. His blond hair was turning gray. I thought Bob should be the boss of his own account by now—with a title as vice president and account manager at least—not simply another lowly suit, one of many scrambling to survive on the high-pressure Ford business.
I was surprised to see him late that night in my office. Creative people didn’t spend much time talking to “suits.” It was not a welcome intrusion. I was so busy and so anxious to prepare a good presentation, I didn’t want any interruptions—especially from a suit.
“Mike,” Bob said, “do you have a minute?”
I looked up, tired and stressed. Before me I saw a man who seemed full of anxiety. It felt like a disease I didn’t want to catch. His fear and weakness could be contagious—or at the very least a major distraction—and I still had a lot of work to do.
“Actually, no, I don’t have time,” I said, a comment I today regard as terrible cruelty. “But what’s on your mind?”
Bob took a tentative step or two into my office. He seemed so bowed down by the world. He was six feet two—Ford liked account guys to be tall. But Bob was way too thin. And now he was hunched over, his shoulders collapsing into his skinny chest.
“I just want to bounce a few ideas off you,” he said in a voice that was soft and shaky.
“I’ve got a new strategy idea for Mustang.”
“Bob,” I said with force, now angry and defensive, getting ready to punch back at any such suit intrusion, “I don’t have time for this!”
I had just created a whole campaign based on a strategy Bob and the account team had given me weeks ago. My team and I had created many ads for that strategy. I didn’t want to change just days away from a major presentation.
“Well,” Bob said, his hands shaking as he tried to hold a bunch of strategy papers together, “I just thought maybe we could brainstorm together and come up with something different.”
Looking back now on that sad night, I understand that Bob was just trying to find another human being to talk with. He had needed a break from his own anxieties. I realize now that he was just using the new strategy as an excuse to try to spend some time with me because he thought I might be sympathetic to him—not just because he was a suit but because he was a fellow human being who was suffering.
Bob was wrong about me that night.
That night I had no place in my heart for sympathy.
I knew that Bob was not having much luck at Ford. I was sure the rest of his account team had dismissed his ideas. Now he was so desperate he had come to me—a relatively young and open creative guy.
But his request to “brainstorm” that night was the very last thing I wanted to do.
“Something different?” I said, and I didn’t disguise my exasperation. “We’ve got the presentation on Monday. This is Thursday night. You’re nuts!” I turned back to my desk, hoping Bob would leave.
“I know,” he said, still desperate to connect. “It’s just that I was thinking maybe we could position Mustang more as a value car rather than just a sporty car.”
“Bob, you’re crazy,” I literally shouted at him, shocked that he would even think of such a huge departure from what we had planned. “Mustang is fun. Value is boring.”
Bob gave up on me and retreated down the hall.
Stressed out myself, I had taken offense at his intrusion rather than seeing him as a human being who was—for whatever reasons—really in pain.
That Saturday I was working in the office with the creative team (in those days I worked most weekends). My boss came down to the creative floor. This was unusual. He usually preferred to stay in his office and have us come to him.
“Mike,” he said, “get your team together. We’ll meet in the creative conference room.”
I thought for a moment that there was going to be some change in the date of the Ford presentation.
“What’s up?” I said, still anxious to get back to work. The rest of my team was standing—no one wanted to sit down with so many layouts to design and ads to write before Monday.
“I just want you all to know because you worked with him: Bob North committed suicide last night.”
“What?” I stammered stupidly.
I had to sit down.
“Why?” someone asked.
“His wife says he hasn’t been feeling well for months.”
“Feeling well?” I said.
“Bob’s wife used the word ‘stress,’” my boss said quietly. “It’s a real tragedy.
“But I just don’t know what she means by ‘stress,’” my boss continued with more strength in his voice.
He looked around the room.
“We’re all stressed out,” he said, almost angry now. “But we don’t commit suicide. Days before one of the most important presentations. We’ll find out more,” he concluded. “In the meantime, let’s get back to work!”
And that’s exactly what we did. And I never bothered to find out more about what happened to Bob.
Now, looking back, I can see I was probably just one more person who didn’t give Bob what he needed to stop him from taking his life. I was just as stressed as Bob was and unable to see beyond my own self-concern to reach out to a man who needed help.
I remembered at that moment someone who had listened to me when I needed help.
Kevin Buckley had been a friend from my wild Yale days. I remember once knocking a bottle of champagne off the bar in my eagerness for another glass of bubbly. The heavy champagne bottle happened to land on Kevin’s foot.
Kevin lived in my dormitory, and as I passed his door late the next day—I always got up late at Yale—I saw his foot bandaged and raised above his bed.
“Yes. Broke my toe.”
I stepped into his room. “I am so sorry.”
“It is nothing. Being stuck here will help force me to get my work done.”
Kevin did get his work done. Unlike me, he had worked hard to get into Yale. Unlike me, he was not rich. Unlike me, he didn’t treat Yale as a chance to party.
In addition to his academic work, Kevin also worked hard and became a reporter and later managing editor of the Yale Daily News—which was one of the most challenging jobs on campus.
After college Kevin went almost immediately to the top of his profession: He became Newsweek’s bureau chief in Vietnam during the era of star reporters like David Halberstam.
Afterward, he also worked in London and New York as a reporter and editor. He had been awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, the greatest honor in journalism.
Kevin and I remained friends after Yale, and when I was having my hard times, Kevin happened to call me up just to see what I was doing. We agreed to have lunch.
Kevin told me he was writing and teaching at Columbia.
At first I was embarrassed to tell Kevin how far I had fallen from the golden youth he had known. Yet in his sympathetic presence, I decided to trust him and tell him the truth: that I was virtually broke, struggling to find work, had fathered a child outside my marriage and was divorced, and had recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Kevin had known me when I had been a rich and profligate undergraduate, blessed with a fortunate life that seemed like it would continue forever.
His face filled with sympathy as he heard of my struggles.
He listened for hours as I told him the truth of all I had been through.
After lunch Kevin gave me a hug, and he promised to stay in touch and try to help, and I knew that he was being sincere.
Sometimes you can sense that someone really cares just by their listening. I knew Kevin really cared about me—that he was still devoted to our friendship born in such wild circumstances so many years ago.
I realized an important truth: Despite all that had happened to change my life, Kevin was still my friend. And just having a chance to tell him—to tell someone—the truth about what I was going through was a huge relief.
I had tried before to share my desperate condition and feelings of failure with another old friend from Yale. We had drinks at his club. He left me on the pavement afterward with a quick wave of his hand, and I had the distinct sense that he never wanted to hear from me again.
For that old “friend” it was almost as though my financial and personal failures could be catchy—like some kind of social disease.
In fact, that’s the way I felt myself, so I didn’t blame him. I kept the secret of my failures to myself and told myself that it was best to present a brave face to the world—even to the world of old friends.
Kevin was different. He didn’t disappear after I opened up and shared my struggles with him.
Kevin tried to help by finding me some advertising work. He called on his contacts from the publishing world to try to get me some introductions. He was not successful. Once again, I think I was just too old to be the person someone wanted to hire to create the next bubble gum campaign.
But Kevin tried, and just his effort made me grateful. He would also call me up at least once a week just to check in. He wrote me e-mails, which he signed “With love.”
Kevin showed by word and deed that he was not about to abandon me although my circumstances had changed so dramatically. He listened to me, and just by listening so patiently and sympathetically, he helped me get through a time when I had lost my confidence.
I vowed at that moment in the grocery store that I would be more like Kevin. I would not let another human being—also shaking with anxiety, also so clearly in need of someone to hear his problems—get away.
I was not going to be too busy or too polite to help this man. I shouted at him again to remember his children: “Wouldn’t your kids miss you?” I called out loudly at his retreating back.
I could see him giving that idea some thought—probably for the first time. He turned to face me.
“Yes,” he said, “I guess my kids would miss me. They don’t even like it when I am away for a couple of days on a business trip.”
“One mistake I made,” I said, “was I didn’t talk to my kids when I messed up my life.”
“Talk? What can I tell them? Your dad screwed up and we have to leave the place where you grew up?”
“What I found,” I explained, “was that my kids were a lot wiser about life than I was. They also appreciated it when I leveled with them about what I had done. How’s your relationship with your wife?”
“My wife is fine. She says everything will be okay and that she loves me blah blah blah.”
“Blah blah blah?”
“Doris doesn’t get it. I told her we were broke and had to move and that I’d have to start over at the bottom”—here he glanced at me—“just like you. But she just said she loved me and we’d make it. She has no sense of reality.”
“Look,” I said, realizing I had said more than enough already. “Before you do anything too drastic, just go home and talk with your kids.”
“But they are just kids,” he said.
“That’s the point,” I said.
“Okay.” The last word he more or less threw at me over his shoulder. He was not a happy man as he headed out of the grocery store that day.
Several days after our run-in at the grocery store, he entered the Starbucks store where I have worked as a barista for the last five years. He didn’t even order a drink. He was coming to find me.
I was busy taking out the garbage. He stopped me as I got outside. I almost didn’t recognize him. He had shaved. His hair was combed.
“Thanks,” he said, giving me a little hug even though I was carrying a bag full of soggy coffee grinds. I staggered a bit as he put his arm around me.
“Sorry,” he said. “I just wanted to stop by and to see you before I go. I’ve got to leave Bronxville. I can’t afford the mortgage on my house anymore. But I’m not going to leave my life—or my family!”
“Good,” I said.
“And my kids reacted great,” he said. “Just like you predicted. My kids regard the whole thing—the move and everything—as a great adventure.”
He shook his head, smiling.
Readers of my book often come in to see me, enjoy a latte, and tell me their stories. I’ve also heard from many more through mail, e-mail, and phone.
I’ve been overwhelmed by how much my personal story has struck a chord with people throughout the world.
Many people have told me of how they’ve been inspired by my story and how I reversed the American Dream—“tragically” going from riches to rags only to discover, much to my surprise, that I was happier than I had ever been.
My story has helped them find a life they love.
The other day a twenty-eight-year-old woman came into my store and told me: “Your book so inspired me that I quit a job that was boring me to death, and I am now doing something I really love.”
She explained to me that she had taken a job in an investment bank straight out of college. It was profitable, but it dead-ended her. Now she found herself much happier and more fulfilled working at a nonprofit helping teach inner-city kids.
I am so grateful and honored that the story of my life—full of my own painful struggles—has inspired others like her to save their own lives.
You can learn a lot about yourself by listening to someone else’s struggles. Often, someone else’s mistakes, and the lessons they learned as a result, allow you to avoid making the same mistakes yourself—and allow you to absorb the critical life lessons learned and use them to guide you to a better life.
When I was a young, arrogant executive—thinking I was immune to problems—I was never able to listen to others’ problems seriously. Until I found myself one day with bigger problems than I could ever imagine. Until then, I didn’t know how important it was to listen to others. Take the time to hear their troubles and to understand what they have gone through.
Just as I listened to my neighbor in the grocery store, my neighbor had listened to my problems through reading my book and had been able to reach out to me.
And this woman, much younger than I was, had read my book and had drawn the lessons from the story of my mistakes. She had been open to understanding someone else’s experiences, and she had allowed them to inform her own opinions. Without realizing it, I had helped her change her own life.
In such a way she had learned a life lesson in her twenties that I had only discovered when I was in my sixth decade.
How this lesson can help you
Too often in America we automatically answer the question: “How are you?” with an automatic: “Fine!”
But this is often not truthful—especially in these challenging times.
You can learn to be more open and willing to tell someone when you are in pain. Often someone else will share an experience that can help you make it through even the worst kind of tragedy.
A tragedy shared becomes less of a trauma and more of a way to experience a new and deeper emotion that can lead to a better way to live.
By sharing your problems with others who have encountered true suffering and survived, you will be able to move forward in a more positive way. And simply by taking the time to listen to the problems of others, you will help ease someone else’s burdens.