Monthly Archives: May 2006

Dropping the Armor

My friend Will plays in a bare-bones tennis league called T2 where pairings and arrangements are handled by email, and matches take place on weekday evenings at venues of the participants’ choosing. This is in contrast to ALTA, a venerable Atlanta institution where competition is complemented by a social component that involves food, drink and post-match bonhomie.

Last week, Will and his partner had a match that was so important to them that they went out the night before and practiced. But they still lost, 6-3, 6-4, and two days later he was still stewing about it.

“They were in their 30s,” he said, disgusted. “They were all over the court, and the ball came back with heat on it.”

W is a powerful guy with a flat belly. He lifts weights, hikes and plays golf as well as tennis. He used to think he was pretty agile, but at 60 he admits that he can’t quite do the things he used to do. And despite his grin, you knew it bugged him.

I’ve talked to other men and listened to their grievances at the changes time has imposed on them.

Peter, a former high school and collegiate runner, gave up competitive running 20 years ago.  As he approached his 59th birthday, he still resented the loss. While his knees and back may keep him from competitive running – or any running at all, for that matter – anyone who has played golf with him can tell you that his competitive urge has not entirely deserted him.

Barry was also a competitive runner. He thinks he could still go out and run two miles if he had to, but at 53 he knows that the day will come when he will have to admit that he cannot.

But Barry, who is stock, genial and the soul of reason, has happily turned his attention to the things he can do. He plays the guitar, works in the yard, camps and, as I write this, is hiking a stretch of the Appalachian Trail.

Mike, a wiry builder in his mid-40s, is one of the most fearless people I’ve ever met. But not long ago he got rid of his 40-foot ladder and the scaffolding that went with it. “I couldn’t go up there any more,” he said. “My knees couldn’t handle it.”

And like Barry, Mike didn’t mind the change. “I’ve got so many other things going on in my life, and a lot of them are new things that I’m excited about.”

I was an athlete as a kid, and I played with an intensity that was unlike anything else in my life. Growing up in a strict, even repressive, family, playing sports was the only form of self-expression I had.

By the time I reached high school, the joy of competing was tinged with frustration and rage, and I channeled that into games. During one football game, I drew a bead on the opposing quarterback as he ran down the sideline, and as I slammed into his ribcage, my intention was to hurt him.

And I did. He had to leave the game, and didn’t return.

It’s nothing to be proud of, just a statement of fact. That’s where I was emotionally at 17.

In the years that followed, I attempted to overcome my inadequacies, real or perceived, by taking up everything from aikido and fire-walking to speed-reading and Zen. But nothing worked.

Finally, in the mid-’80s, I began doing anger-release work. It still comes up periodically, and when it does I do more work, and I find now that my competitive instinct is pretty low.

Personal work and spiritual study have taught me begin to lower my armor. I know now that my self-worth no longer depends on the outcome of a game, or the story I write, or in getting a part. I do the best I can, of course, but I’m much more interested now in connecting with others than with beating them.

As a member of a men’s group concerned with change and personal growth, I began to learn how to open up and connect with others. It’s early yet, and my conditioning made me a deeply distrustful person. So there’s a long way to go.

But the idea of dropping my armor has brought richness into my life and an affection for others I didn’t know was possible. There are probably a half-dozen men in the group with whom I would never have connected when I was younger. The warmth I feel for them – and for people in general – far outweighs the misery and selfishness I’ve had to give up.

And the best part is this is just the beginning.

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Passion in a dark room

My men’s group gathered at a house on Lake Hartwell for golf, boating, eating and levity last weekend, while I was two hours south in Atlanta with a commitment to keep. 

I had an appointment Saturday morning as co-producer and on-camera host of a taping session with Dr. Jagdish Sheth, professor marketing and strategy at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. It was the ninth in a series of archival tapes to record the thoughts, ideas, insights and observations of one of the most fertile minds in the world of business.

Dr. Sheth has written or co-written dozens of books, been on the boards of Fortune 500 companies and advises the governments of China and India as they re-tool their industries and become powerful players in the global economy.

He is on the road so much it’s a wonder he has time to teach, not to mention maintain a business called In-Core and a newly minted India, China and America Institute. He also endows a speaker series at Emory which recently brought director Mira Nair to the campus.

But what I was reminded of when the taping began in a dark room strewn with wires, lights and packing cases is that these sessions are, first and foremost, an expression of one man’s’ lifelong passion, a passion that after 68 years shows no signs of abating.

After a taping last September he said, "I can’t see an end to this…."

The title of the series is "Trends in Marketing," which might have you reaching for the No Doz if you haven’t heard the man speak. In our very first session two years ago, we taped 5 1/2 hours of material as Dr. Sheth explained how marketing was changing to reflect shifts in demographics, technology, competition, globalization and public policy.

What promised to be a day of unmitigated tedium proved, in fact, to be a fascinating adventure in commercial anthropology. It was, in essence, a review of the past 40 years as told through a succession of commercial products, from Campbell’s Soup and Hai Karate after-shave to the Hula Hoop and Ford Mustang.

Dr. Sheth discussed the decline of the middle class, the influence of climate on commerce, the Europeanization of America and threw in, as well, such random factoids as: Americans now consume more salsa than ketchup.

There were four of us in the room that day – the cameraman/co-producer, the sound man, a teleprompter operator and myself – and we were shaking our heads in amazement. It was a tour de force.

Dr. Sheth has given thousands of speeches – I was revising a bio for him once and he said, "I’ve given more than 5,000 speeches, but nobody would believe it, so let’s say ‘hundreds’" – and is a flawless speaker. We rarely stop because he’s made a mistake; more often a truck starts up outside or door slams or a helicopter lands at Emory’s hospital.

Saturday, shooting the first half of "The Seven Bad Habits of Good Companies" — a book of the same title is forthcoming in September –he deconstructed the Digital Corporation, General Motors, Air India, Xerox and IBM. The bad habits:  denial, arrogance, complacency, dependence, myopia, obsession and turf wars.

His ability to stand in front of a camera and extemporize, using only Power Point slides and his prodigious memory to draw from business, psychology, popular culture, history and politics is reminiscent of another powerful Indian-American speaker, Deepak Chopra.

Unlike Chopra, however, he exudes a warmth and guilelessnes that evokes protectiveness in those around him. (In fairness, it’s quite likely that celebrity has forced Chopra — with whom I’ve spoken on the phone and in person — into a shell.)

Jag, as friends call him, stands a few inches over five feet tall, and has large dark eyes and black hair flecked with gray. He is a lifelong vegetarian and follower of Jainism, a form of Hinduism that rejects the idea of God but espouses a deep respect for all living things.

If he has a flaw, it is that he keeps a schedule that would fatigue two men half his age. And if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then he must be a good father, too: his daughter, Reshma Shah, is also a business professor at Emory.

It is intriguing to imagine Dr. Sheth among the titans of commerce, dwarfed by them physically and perhaps by their egos, and yet his self-assurance and professional mastery bespeak a man who meets everyone at eye level.

Saturday was no day at the lake, but I couldn’t have picked a better place to be.  

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