Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Syzygy. And other matters of Physics.

Because of the general weirdness of life, I had two phone calls yesterday and a conversation with my wife that brought to my mind the scientific state known as Syzygy. Syzygy is the nearly straight line configuration of three or more celestial bodies, like when the earth, moon and sun are all lined up as in an eclipse.

There’s Syzygy in life, as well, as when things line up and neurons fire and connections weird, oblique and uncanny seem to occur.

Yesterday was one of those days.

First, I heard from a friend—a high-flying friend who asked me if “I was bored.” Before I even had the chance to say, “Rick, I’ve never been bored a minute in my life,” an ex-client called me. Heidi wasn’t actually my client, but she was a client of an agency I was working at, and along the way we became friends. 

Heidi’s recently left her client-side job and is looking for what are often-called brighter horizons. She asked me if I felt, since my axing from Ogilvy, in emotional arrears because “I no longer have an important role on important accounts with smart people at a leading agency.”

I answered both Rick and Heidi essentially the same way. I told them what I would essentially tell my own daughters or other extraordinary young people as they make their way through their career and their life.

“Agencies are no different than any other social organization. A boy scout troop. A manufacturing company. Even the army.” Both Rick and Heidi know me well enough to get out of the way when I start on a gallop.

“Bad agencies hire on the upslope of the bell-curve. Good agencies hire on the downslope. But there are very few social organizations that know how to handle people who are unusual—who are at the far right side of the bell-curve.”

That could be arrogance on my part. But when you’re considered by many to be a cross between Bill Bernbach and Bill Shakespeare, with maybe a soupcon of Bill Loman mixed in, it comes with the territory.

“Usually what happens is called ‘regression to the mean.’ It’s easier for an organization to stifle the one extraordinary person than to upset the ten or fourteen people who aren’t quite as good as that extraordinary person. Rewarding the extraordinary pisses off a dozen people. Where as putting a lid on them irks only one person.”

I continued, as I do so well, and so often.

“That’s why most businesses that were formed by brilliant and charismatic leaders rarely maintain their original verve. Everyone is mown down like a field of wheat. In time, businesses become about productivity not creativity. Just think Steve Jobs vs. Tim Cook. Even if Cook were as inspired as Jobs, organizationally he wouldn’t have permission to be as bold, aggressive and take-no-prisoners.”

I went on to answer each of my friends.

No, I’m never bored. I’m happy reading a 600-page book about John Maynard Keynes followed by Marjorie Garber’s new book on the history of “character.” I laugh at an occasional episode of Nat Hiken’s old shows like “Car 54,” or “Bilko.” And walking Whiskey along the seaside is poetry itself. How could I possibly be bored? I have a hundred books I want to read and a thousand books I want to write.

And as for feeling displaced and untethered since my release from Ogilvy, well, fine. They didn’t really want me in my fullness—they wanted a part of me and shuddered and were afraid—or threatened by me—when the fullness of George stepped out of the Procrustean confinement they had sentenced me to. That’s the rule of thumb in most places. Don’t be too good or too bad or you’ll get killed. In fact, another ex-client once confided in me with these words—I was 30 at the time, he was 55—‘George, my policy is fly low, fly slow and try not to crash.’ That is Dante-esque in its damnation—and the way most organizations work.

Finally, Syzygy happened when my wife told me about a note she received from a friend of her—an eminent cancer doctor. Bill is one of the world’s leading doctors, and a true polymath. A classical musician. A jazz musician. A Olympic-caliber sharp-shooter. And god knows what else.

My wife read me an email from him yesterday, “I just got done restoring an 18th-century cello and electrifying it. I hooked it up to an amp and I couldn’t believe the sound quality, the timbre. I’m also putting the finishing touches on two Adirondack chairs I am making out of reclaimed wine-barrels.

For all the gloom, despair and medieval dark-agedness of the world today, for all the anti-smart, anti-science, anti-logic, trivialization of everything that rattles around the ether, how you live is up to you.

You can be bored and stifled and just get by.

Or you can fight it.

When you fight it, when you do, you’ll notice Syzygy when it happens. And it does.

you might like this, from the surpassing Neal Argawal.

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