Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Passion at Work 

While hosting the Oscars many years ago, Steve Martin did a fantastic routine about what to say backstage after a show to a friend whose performance was no good. With tremendous sincerity, he offered “Only you could have done that!” With great seriousness, he intoned, “Fascinating choices you made.” My favorite, which he delivered with joyous enthusiasm, was, “I saw you up there!”

So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to read my dear friend Lawler Kang’s new book, Passion at Work over the holiday break. I have to confess, I’m not a big fan of business books, nor the category most commonly referred to as “self help”. Being a failed actor myself and having attended (and caused friends and family to attend) many less-than-thrilling evenings of “showcase” theatre, I’m guiltily gun-shy about reviewing friends’ creative output. What if I have to steal a line from Steve Martin? Eeek.

What a relief it was to be only a chapter into the book when I found myself stopping and saying to K. “Hey! I think I’m really going to like Lawler’s new book!” I immediately read her a few sentences that had resonated for me with some much-needed and timely insights.

I’ve always found Lawler to be a very inspiring person, so on an elemental level it was no surprise to me that he could deliver on the premise. But in addition to being a good and useful read, for me there was another deeply personal element that came into my experience of the book.

Lawler and I met at Vassar in 19*cough cough* when we were freshmen. Lawler was a strapping young dude with a penchant for skateboarding across campus with no shirt on. Given his totally ripped physique, one could hardly blame him for forgoing appropriate sun coverage. I was not built like a god and in addition was what now might be called a Goth, so I was clad pretty much in black denim, leather and silver metal.

Seeing him cruise about one could also not fail to notice the significant scar moving up the front of his body. It seemed evident that a disciple of Dr. Frankenstein had unceremoniously cut Lawler from his guggle to his zatch and stapled him shut in haste. It is not an elegant scar. Being a studied dark little soul at the time, I was of course jealous.

We got to know each other over time and I learned that the scar was only the tip of the iceberg. He’d already survived a neural aneurism long before the stomach adventure. I won’t go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that Lawler arrived in college with a carpe diem attitude born of two seriously close encounters with his mortality. He had been paralyzed, blind and comatose. He had rehabbed himself with surfing and skateboarding. On top of all this, Lawler was an able academic, relentlessly sunny and an extremely proficient party animal. What couldn’t he do?

Cut to ten years later. We’d lost touch. A colleague swiveled in her chair and handed me a piece of paper. “You know this guy?” I looked down at a resume.

“KNOW HIM?” I yelped. He was one of my best friends in college!”

“We want him. Can you help close him?”

“Set me up!” I crowed.

And so it came to be that ten years after college we reconnected. A wonderful thing. But in reading the book, I realized I had blanked out some of the serious drama of our college experience. I found myself tearing up as I read Lawler’s description of how his insides had come undone partway through college and they’d had to open him up two more times to repair the damage. I had forgotten about sitting around with our friends shell-shocked wondering whether he’d come through it.

Strangely, while I’d blanked all of that, I had always remembered one emotional encounter between us where I berated him because I thought I was noticing his recovery lagging. I believed he was not keeping up with some of his exercises.

All these years later, I remember feeling so upset, but not what set me off. I’d often wondered when I'd pondered that moment as an adult, why I was being so emotional about it. Was it really any of my business? (No.) Going through the chapter on his brushes with death, I realized that my memory must fall somewhere around the time of these sudden surgeries that'd I'd forgotten; with their concomitant weight loss and our group’s communal concern for his recovery. I’m sure my own predisposition to see the glass half empty enhanced the concern I felt. Somehow, the strength of the emotion burned that moment in, but something else erased the context. Odd how memory works, isn’t it?

Now, I have seriously digressed here on my own memories and foibles and I don't want that to be distract from the overall wonderfulness of the book. So let me return to its real content and tell you who I think will find value in it. Passion at Work is a book for people who love business but feel that they have not properly aligned their work efforts with their passions. Lawler has created a simple framework for doing the work to figure out how to accomplish this. Interestingly, he has chosen to use business language and consulting frameworks to help readers design an action plan to achieve the goal of finding and doing work they are truly passionate about.

While he has made a serious attempt to avoid tribal jargon in writing the book, if your not comfortable using the concepts of startup funding and venture captalism as metaphors for career conceptualization, this is not the book for you. If, however, you are a dedicated business person who feels a lack of passion for your job, your industry, and find yourself dreading the alarm clock, then this is DEFINITELY the book for you.

In fact, a colleague wandered by my desk today. I have displayed the book proudly and prominently. He looked it over and we talked about it for a while. “It’s quite timely, isn’t it?” he said. “So many people our age have gone out there and jumped into business and everyone’s working 24/7. Now I think people are starting to ask, ‘What for?’”

I agree. I think Lawler may catch the zeitgeist on this one. And the neat thing is, this is a book that only Lawler could have written. It's truly born of his own experiences as a human and as a business person. So I find myself using a Steve Martin line with no regrets and zero sarcasm: "Lawler, only you could have done that!"
Hey Tony,

This was a lot of fun to read! I also enjoyed your musings on memory...the invisible filters we see things through and how, looking back, those filters can be so obvious! Wishing you a most Happy New Year. May your friends book prosper and may you write the next!
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