Rippling

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A friend died recently.  It was really a fluke that we met at all, let alone became friends. I got her name because of a pick-up sticks-like jumble of intersecting acquaintances and business relationships.  We lived in different cities, so we rarely actually met with each other to talk, in person I mean.  Our friendship mainly developed by phone, a bit like pen pals of old, only with voices and the immediacy of real time conversation.

When I first got her name, I called for an appointment and went to Los Angeles to meet her (this was twenty five years ago).  At the time, she was CEO of a publishing company and I was an ex-CEO trying to write a book.  What a score I thought, I know someone who knows someone else who knows this woman who is the president of a publishing company!  I was thrilled to get the introduction.  We met at her office in Santa Monica, a beautiful layout; it was a clean modern sunlit space housing ninety or so people, every surface clad in blond wood: the floors, the desks, the walls were lined with blond wood shelving too, holding hundreds of books her firm had birthed and sent out into the world.   I thought to myself, maybe this company might someday publish my book – which at that time wasn’t a book at all: it was just the idea of a book, an imagined book.  She pretty quickly dissuaded me of that fantasy by gently, but firmly saying, “No, we don’t publish that type of book, but tell me something about it and perhaps I can help in some other way.”

I sat in the guest chair in her office and told her about my idea.  She was encouraging, nodded, asked questions and as I tried to answer her questions I began to feel uncomfortable.  I was babbling, hemming and hawing, talking in clichés, and the more I noticed it, the worse it got… my imagined project spoken out loud in the office of a real publisher fell flat, dead on arrival, disjointed.  God, I wasn’t writing a book, I was groping, I was clueless.  Finally I looked at her, my hands sweating, fingers aching and said, “Look, I’m embarrassed.  I have never written a book before and trying to answer your questions, or really not answering your questions, well, as you can see, I’m a hell of a long way from writing a book. I’m not sure what I’m doing other than making a fool of myself.  Can we call this thing off before I die of embarrassment?”

“Sure” she said.  “But don’t be too discouraged!  There’s a book in there: you just need to work a little harder to find it.  Do you have time for lunch?  I have something you might be able to help me with.”

We sat outside, in the soft shadow of a white linen umbrella eating bistro salads and drinking sparkling water.  It was an over the top Santa Monica scene on a Santa Monica sunny day.  It’s no wonder so many people live in this place.  She began with, “I’d like to tell you a brief story, then ask you some advice, if that’s okay?”

“Sure, anything I can do to help.”

“I fell into this job.  I am not a real CEO.  I am a writer, kind of a mix between technical writer, writer of non-fiction books, courses that we also publish, and well, editor at large too.  What I’m really trying to say is that I don’t know much about business.  I know a lot about publishing and writing and books, just not much about business.  My boss, our founder, is sixty-eight, and he is tired.  He and his family have lived well, very well, for thirty years and this business is the source of all of their wealth.  They are getting worried about him and what one of his daughters calls the golden goose, us, the business. Well one day, three years ago he called me into his office and told me he was stepping back and making me CEO.  At first I told him I wouldn’t take the job, I couldn’t do it, I told him I didn’t know enough about business to be a CEO.  He took a piece of note paper and wrote ‘$250,000/yr, 10% of the business, I’ll teach you about business,’ signed his name at the bottom and pushed the note across the table at me and said go home and think about it.”

“Well I did and he made good on the offer and here I am.”

“How is the learning about business part going?”

“Okay, only the business part is the easy part – he was right about that.  What is really hard are the people parts, the political parts, and the will we survive in the publishing world part… which leads me to my question.’

“Yes?”

“You were a CEO for a long time, and you are thinking of writing a book about it – do you have any ideas about how I can get his family off my back, get him some money from the business and live through the coming storm in the publishing business?”

“That’s three questions”, I said and we both laughed.

We talked for two hours, and agreed to stay in touch.

That’s how our friendship began.  Over the next three years she orchestrated an employee buy-out of the family, released the patriarch of his burden and acquired ten percent of the business for herself.  The ninety employees revered the founder, but they were invigorated by her fresh, direct, uncomplicated leadership style.  She was just what the company needed.  The business responded: it began to grow again, reversing a decade long decline.  The place felt electric, alive again. She said you could feel the excitement in the place, every day.

And yet the shockwaves of publishing consolidation were being felt all around them.  She saw clearly that their small specialty publishing niche was approaching its sell by date; in fact she was worried that it had already lived past its sell by date and was headed for a crash.  She saw the “bigs” as she called them, overrunning her company without even noticing.  As time passed, and publishers disappeared from the market place, she went from worried to alarmed.  She saw herself as being responsible for the wellbeing of a ninety person tribe, and my god what about their families!  But every time she looked at the future, she couldn’t see the firm surviving in its current state.  The earthquakes grew more frequent, volcanos were spewing molten rock all around them and their old publishing model felt like it was made of kindling.  They would not survive without protection.

Another year passed and we met again for lunch, this time with Champaign, a real surprise, as she was not much of a drinker, and never at lunch.

“What’s up,” I asked.

“We did it! We sold ourselves to someone who can tuck us under their wing and give us a future!  Ta Da!”

“That’s fantastic!”  And it was, I could hardly believe it.  A large mainstream agency publisher found a place for her tribe: they actually paid a small premium on the sale price, it was a strategic fit, they could add this specialty publishing group and enhance their offerings, tell a better story, and raise their mega-profile a notch.

“How are you going to feel working for a big company?”

“Ah, well that’s not going to be a problem.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, very sure, you see they bought the company but they don’t want me in the bargain.  They are putting their own president in to run it.  That was part of the deal.  I am, as the British would say, redundant.”

“Wow, how’s that for you?”

“It’s just fine!  Look, I get some money – that will keep the wolves away for quite a while for me and my son, and we’ll see won’t we?”

“I can’t believe they didn’t want you to run the group!”

“Let me put it this way.  It was a non-negotiable part of the deal, I knew it as soon as we began serious talks.  The Vice Chairman’s son needs something to do with his shiny new MBA is what I heard through back channels,  but look, all those people still have jobs, they have a future, and it is time for me to get off of the train.  So let’s toast to what… knowing when to get off the train!”

That was her, true to form. Whatever was needed, she’d make it happen if she could, and in so many ways for all of her ex-employees, she did provide, and off they went without her.

We didn’t talk for three years, we moved, I retired, our kids left home, and somehow she just slipped from my mind as somewhat distant friends sometimes do.  She did lead me to a publisher who ultimately did publish my first book.  I sent her a case of Champaign and a card in appreciation, but that was it, until I decided, out of the blue one day to just give her a call and see how she was doing.

“Well a lot has changed since we’ve talked, mostly good.  I guess the biggest news, which isn’t the best, but it seems to be behind me, is I had breast cancer.”

“Gosh, how are you now?”

“Well I’m fine, yes really fine.  I had surgery, a full mastectomy, radiation, chemo, took the full course but and as of today I am six months cancer free. I really feel grateful that I’m fine now.”

“Are you working at all?”

“Oh golly, that’s a big subject for me.  Look do you ever get back to LA?”

“Yes, every couple of months… want to have lunch?”

“Yes I would, lunch and some time to talk.  I’d appreciate that.  I know you retired for a while too and well I have some ideas I’d like to bounce off of you, some questions to ask, if you have the time.”

We met in Manhattan Beach at a New York Style Delicatessen alive with pastrami sandwiches, dill pickles, white fish platters and a full house making it hard for me to hear her.  She looked great, fit, strong, tan, alive and energized.  I was relieved.   She started by telling me how much she loved to work with authors and making books.  She knew that she wanted to work, perhaps three quarters time,  but she definitely did not want be tied to an organization.  She knew she had been a passable CEO (her words not mine) but what she loved was working with the writers, editors, artist, marketing people, printers, book sellers, she liked it all – only she didn’t like being responsible for their employment, there benefits, their next pay check.  Being the creative spirit she was; her idea was to be, what she called, a virtual book enabler, a one place to go for a person who wanted to get their ideas or stories out into the world in book form.

Her business plan was simple and elegant.  Here’s how she pitched it.  “A person hires me, I guide them through the process of going from idea to published book.  In some cases the person might write the book themselves, in some cases I would find them a ghost writer, I can help them find graphic people and lay out people and I can help them find an agent, or I could be their agent, I help them find a publisher, I would pitch books to “the bigs” and/or I would guide people through the self-publishing channel – it’s growing at double digit rates you know, as the consolidation drumbeat gets louder.”

“So where would you do this?”

“Anywhere, I would work out of my home.  I know many, many, specialists, back room people in the industry, spread all over the United States, Canada and the UK.  I can do this from anywhere.  I want to give people a way to get their ideas out into the world, and this is a way to do that and enjoy the journey.  What do you think?”

It was a rhetorical question.  I thought the idea was brilliant, and in her typical energetic state, she was already reaching out to finding her a handful of aspiring authors. She was well on her way by the time she talked to me.

For the next ten years we talked pretty regularly, every couple of months, for an hour or two, updates about children, her business, my practice. We were good friends who never seemed to see each other but we got high marks for staying in touch.  There developed a pattern to our talks, which included the roll call of books that she was shepherding, shaping, feeding, stimulating.  She talked about these projects like each of them was a child to be “grown up” and hopefully launched into adulthood.  She’d tell me about them, how they were doing, where they were stuck, when they left home and went out into the world, and every now and then she’d tell me about one of them being launched by the New York publishing establishment to fireworks and cheers.  Our calls weren’t carefully scheduled, or evenly spaced so we’d go for a while talking monthly except when we didn’t, and then there might be a miss or two, especially over the summer.  So it wasn’t all that unusual when two of my calls and subsequent emails went unanswered for three months.  When she finally answered my call she sounded tired.

“How are you?”

“Well, I am alive, so that’s a start.”

“What do you mean…  are you okay?”

“Well I am now, pretty okay.  The cancer is back, so I’ve been having treatments.  This time it came back in my brain, I’ve literally had my brain fried with radiation and more chemo.  As you can imagine I’m having some memory issues, slower than normal, but gaining a little most days, so it’s better.

“Are you able to work at all?”

“God yes, is that a blessing!  The treatments were at a time I didn’t need to be very active with any of my authors, things were just marching along swingingly without me, so no change there and what a relief to be able to get back to it.”

For a second time she had pushed back from the brink.  Over the next year, we talked regularly, every month.  She grew stronger in memory and voice as far as I could hear.  Her adult son was living with her and caring for her during the treatments.  Although she was feeling better, the cancer was not going away; it was just being held at bay, until this call:

“How are you?”

“Well I’m, still here!”  She laughed and we talked just like always, bantering for an hour about books in the making, about my work, some joke she’d heard.  Then she mentioned the serendipity of our first meeting in Santa Monica.   I told her I was lucky to have met her, how she helped me eventually make my dream of writing a book come true, and how important the realization of that dream was to me.  Typically she dismissed her contribution and then in a quieter voice said; “you know I’m not winning this bout with cancer.  I don’t mean to burden you with it, but I do think we are good enough friends that I should tell you.  My oncologist has suggested that we stop the chemo.  He says that he has run out of ideas, that it is time for me to consider hospice care.  So I’m considering that.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, I just wanted to tell you.”

“Thanks, you know I wish you the best.”

“Yes.”

“This must be a hard time for you.”

“Um, well not so hard. I’ve been in this fight for fifteen years now, and a lot of really good things have happened.  Did I tell you about my son, what he did?”

“No”

“Well, above my work desk is a book case.  It’s where I keep all of my reference materials, dictionaries, thesauruses, fact books, publishing industry lists, directories, oh gosh just dozens of handy reference things, right there at hand.  Well he drove me to a chemo session two weeks ago, left me there (they take three hours or so) and came back and cleared all of the reference books out and replaced them with the books I have helped people publish – he did that as a surprise.  So when I got home, as always, wiped out form the infusion, discouraged and a little grouchy, I glanced over at my desk, and then stared up at these books thinking what the hell….  Then he said ‘Mom, I want you to see how much you’ve helped people, how many wonderful ideas you’ve helped people make real.  Look, there are 83 books up here! You did that.  I want you to see how many people’s lives you helped change every time you go to your desk to cheer you up a little.’  Well, as you can imagine, I cried.  I’m looking up at them now.  Eighty-three, quite a number don’t you think?”

She died peacefully two weeks later, with her son and her sister at her side.

The psychiatrist and novelist Irvin Yalom writes about life passages using a metaphor he describes as “rippling”:

“Rippling refers to the fact that each of us creates-often without our conscious intent or knowledge-concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations. That is, the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on and on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at a nano level.”

He goes on to challenge the reader to ask: what types of ripples am I making?  Being a psychiatrist, he then ups the ante by then asking: if you were to look back at the ripples you are making, say three or four years from now, how would you feel about them?  Good or not so good?

My friend taught me that she, as a CEO, as a woman, and as a mother looking up at a bookshelf with eighty-two books, was quite pleased with her journey.  I’m convinced she reached that place by realizing that each of us really does have choices around what we do and how we carry ourselves. Out of that conviction, she advised, encouraged, and helped so many people to do important things that mattered to them, including shepherding her ninety tribe members into the publishing future so many years ago.

All of us on the shoreline need all the encouragement and good examples we can get, whether it be ripples to encourage us as a soccer coach, a teacher, a camp counselor, a parent a business executive, man, woman, husband, wife, son, daughter, human being.

So, in the dark days of February (at least up here in the northern hemisphere) how about you looking at your own life and then looking out for the light ahead.  Make ripples.  Do something that matters, do something that makes you feel fully, wholly alive.  And if it takes you a long time to get from where you are now to that better place, well, you making that change will make positive ripples too.  And for all of those people around you, they will feel them, and they may be emboldened to make ripples of their own.  And so it goes, from my friend, to hundreds, including me, to you, and beyond.

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One Response to Rippling

  1. Tony Woodruff says:

    Hi Walt,
    I really liked this story – well, I like all your writing. It makes me think.
    I have a very old friend, whom I need to keep in better contact with – you kicked me into that, so thanks!
    I am now retired from business almost 4 years. I joined a choir a few months ago (My sister- “You joined a choir! – you’ve never done anything musical your whole life”), and I really enjoy the challenge.
    I volunteer with a Canadian/Ugandan NGO called the Water School, which teaches rural Ugandans how to make their drinking water safe using plastic water bottles and the sun – http://www.waterschool.com . I am the link between raising the money in Canada (never enough) and spending it in Uganda – we do goal setting, planning, program tweaking etc. together . I introduced the Toyota principles of embracing problems and continuous improvement, and my Ugandan friends are now all over it! I just returned from my 6th trip to Uganda, a place I absolutely love. Wonderful clever, hard working, creative, gentle people. Africa is alive, well and on the move! Why doesn’t the media tell this story?
    Enough of me.
    Keep up the good work, Walt!
    Thanks,
    Tony.

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